8 Psychology Basics You Need to Know

Start your study with these key psychology facts and concepts

Two women sitting in a circle

Hero Images/Getty Images

Human psychology is defined as the science of the mind and behavior. It encompasses the scientific study of the mind and behavior and the application of these principles to help prevent, treat, and diagnose mental health conditions. Psychologists explore both typical and atypical behavior to understand the human experience fully.

Psychology plays an important role in helping people live better lives. By learning about the basics of behavior and the human mind, people can gain a greater understanding of themselves and others.

Psychologists also play a vital role in health care by caring for individuals experiencing mental health issues, performing psychotherapy, investigating treatment options, and teaching patients how to manage their symptoms effectively.

For some people, an interest in psychology is fueled by a desire to pursue a career in the field. Others may simply want to learn more out of curiosity or because they are thinking about consulting a psychologist for help with a health concern.

No matter the reason, building a better understanding of topics such as emotion, motivation, cognition, love, communication, and research methods will serve you well.

Psychology may seem like a vast and daunting topic at first, but understanding a few basic facts can make it easier to get started. Once you have a strong understanding of the basics, you will be better prepared to explore different ways that psychology may help improve your everyday life, health, and well-being.

Psychology Is the Study of the Mind and Behavior

Psychology can be defined as the study of mental processes and behavior. The term comes from the Greek words psyche, meaning "breath, spirit, soul," and logia, meaning "study of."

Psychology has not always existed as it has today. In fact, it is considered a relatively young discipline, although as the eminent psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus explained, it has a short past but a long history.

Psychology emerged from biology and philosophy and is closely linked to other disciplines including sociology, medicine, linguistics, and anthropology.

Psychology has quickly grown to play a tremendous role in the world today. Psychologists are employed in hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, colleges and universities, government agencies, private businesses, and private practices.

They perform a wide variety of tasks and roles ranging from treating mental illness to performing research to influencing public health policy.

Psychology Relies on Scientific Methods

One of the most common myths about psychology is that it is just "common sense." The problem with this is that psychological research has helped demonstrate that many of the things that we believe are just common sense are actually not true at all.

For instance, it's become "common sense" that smoking cigarettes is dangerous. However, people continue to smoke anyway. Psychology helps us go deeper than common sense and understand why human behavior occurs, as well as how to change it.

By challenging some of our misconceptions about how and why people behave as they do, psychologists are able to provide answers that help solve real-world problems.

Psychology relies on scientific methods to investigate questions and arrive at conclusions. Using empirical methods, researchers are able to discover relationships between different variables.

Psychologists use a range of techniques to study the human mind and behavior, including naturalistic observation, experiments, case studies, and questionnaires.

Psychologists Take Multiple Perspectives

Topics and questions in psychology can be looked at in a number of different ways. Each perspective helps contribute a new level of understanding to a topic. Some of the major perspectives in psychology include:

  • Biological perspective
  • Cognitive perspective
  • Behavioral perspective
  • Evolutionary perspective
  • Humanistic perspective

Imagine, for example, that psychologists are trying to understand the different factors that contribute to bullying.

One researcher might take a biological perspective and look at the role of genetics and the brain. Another might take a behavioral perspective and look at how bullying behaviors are reinforced by the environment. Another might take a social perspective and analyze the impact of group pressure.

No single perspective is right. Each contributes to how we understand a topic and allows researchers to analyze the myriad influences that contribute to certain actions.

Then, they can come up with multi-faceted solutions to combat problematic actions and encourage better outcomes and healthier behaviors.

Psychology Has Subfields

In addition to many different perspectives, there are many branches of psychology. Psychologists often opt to specialize in a particular area. Some of the biggest subfields within psychology are:

  • Clinical psychology: Clinical psychologists provide mental and behavioral health care and often provide consultation to communities, as well as training and education. If you are experiencing emotional or psychological symptoms, you might need a clinical or counseling psychologist.
  • Cognitive psychology: This subfield focuses on mental processes such as attention, thinking, language, and memory.
  • Developmental psychology: Developmental psychologists study human behavior over a lifespan. If you have a question about whether your child is developing normally, then you might want to ask a developmental psychologist.
  • Forensic psychology: Sometimes referred to as "legal psychology," forensic psychology is a branch that focuses on psychological assessment of people who are involved in the legal system. Forensic psychologists must have strong clinical skills.
  • Industrial-organizational psychology: This branch of psychology addresses the workplace as well as human performance and motivation.
  • Personality psychology: This subfield of psychology addresses personality and its development, traits, variations, and maladaptive forms (such as personality disorders).
  • Social psychology: Social psychologists focus on human behavior in a group setting. They study group behaviors such as prejudice, bias, bullying, criminal behavior, and substance use.

Psychology Is More Than Mental Health

When you think of psychology, do you envision a therapist jotting down notes as a client recounts childhood experiences?

While therapy is certainly a big part of psychology, it is not the only thing that psychologists do.

In fact, many psychologists don't work in the field of mental health at all. Psychology encompasses other areas including teaching, research, and consulting.

Mental health is certainly a major area of interest in psychology, but psychologists also do things such as help athletes hone their motivation and mental focus, help design products that are safe and useful, and help businesses understand how to influence consumers.

Psychology Is All Around You

Psychology is not just an academic subject that exists only in classrooms, research labs, and mental health offices. The principles of psychology can be seen all around you in everyday situations.

The television commercials and print ads you see every day rely on psychology to develop marketing messages that influence and persuade people to purchase the advertised products. The websites you visit on a regular basis utilize psychology to understand how people read, use, and interpret online information.

Psychology can also play a role in improving your health and well-being. For example, understanding some of the basic principles of behavioral psychology might come in handy if you are trying to break a bad habit and establish new routines.

Knowing more about some of the things that motivate behavior can be useful if you are trying to stick to a weight loss plan or exercise regimen. Overcoming phobias, managing stress, improving communication skills, and making better decisions are just a few of the things with which psychology can help.

Psychology Has Many Career Paths

If your child is experiencing problems at school, you might seek advice from a school psychologist who specializes in helping kids deal with academic, social, emotional, and other issues.

If you are concerned about an elderly parent or grandparent, you might want to consult with a developmental psychologist who is specially trained and knowledgeable in issues related to the aging process.

In order to determine which professional is right for your needs, it helps to understand some of the different training and licensing requirements for different specialty areas. If you are trying to select a psychotherapist, it may also be helpful to learn more about which professionals are able to provide therapy services.

If you are thinking about majoring in psychology, there are many career paths to choose from. These depend largely on your educational level and work experience, so it is important to research the training and licensing requirements of your chosen specialty area.

Just a few of the possible career options include clinical psychology, forensic psychology, health psychology, and industrial-organizational psychology.

Psychologists Make Human Lives Better

Among the major goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict, and improve human behavior. Some psychologists accomplish this by contributing to our basic understanding of how people think, feel, and behave. Others work in applied settings to solve real-world problems that have an impact on everyday life.

And finally, many psychologists devote their lives to helping people who are struggling with psychological issues.

You may find these professionals working in hospitals, mental health clinics, private practices, and other settings to diagnose psychological disorders and provide psychotherapy to people from all walks of life.

While the work of psychologists may be highly varied, they all share one overriding goal: to help people live better lives.

A Word From Verywell

Psychology is a rich and fascinating subject that has practical applications in many areas of life. If you have ever wanted to learn more about why people think and act the way they do, then studying psychology is a great way to gain greater insight into the human experience.

Psychology has a powerful impact on the world today. Our daily lives are deeply impacted by the interaction of biology, relationships, and mental processes. Psychologists are skilled at understanding the role these factors play in influencing health, happiness, and overall well-being.

16 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Von Wright G.H. In defence of psychology. In: Friedman M., May L., Parsons K., Stiff J. (eds) Rights and Reason. Law and Philosophy Library, vol 44. Springer, Dordrecht; 2000. doi:10.1007/978-94-015-9403-5_14

  2. Benjafield JG. The long past and short history of the vocabulary of anglophone psychology. History of Psychology. 2012;15(1):50-71. doi:10.1037/a0023386

  3. Kelley HH. Common-sense psychology and scientific psychology. Annual Review of Psychology. 1992;43(1):1-24. doi:10.1146/annurev.ps.43.020192.000245

  4. Smith KV, Thew GR. Conducting research in clinical psychology practice: Barriers, facilitators, and recommendationsBr J Clin Psychol. 2017;56(3):347-356. doi:10.1111/bjc.12142

  5. King LA. The science of psychology : An appreciative view. Mcgraw-Hill Education; 2017.

  6. American Psychological Association. Helping people improve their lives.

  7. American Psychological Association. Clinical psychology.

  8. American Psychological Association. Cognitive psychology.

  9. American Psychological Association. Developmental psychology.

  10. American Psychological Association. What is forensic psychology?

  11. American Psychological Association. Industrial and organizational psychology.

  12. American Psychological Association. Personality psychology.

  13. American Psychological Association. Pursuing a career in social psychology.

  14. Eisman, E. J., & Wright, C. V. Related subfields in psychology. In J. C. Norcross, G. R. VandenBos, D. K. Freedheim, & L. F. Campbell (Eds.), APA handbook of clinical psychology: Education and profession (pp. 437–453). American Psychological Association; 2016. doi:10.1037/14774-027

  15. Woodside AG, Sood S, Miller KE. When consumers and brands talk: Storytelling theory and research in psychology and marketing. Psychology and Marketing. 2008;25(2):97-145. doi:10.1002/mar.20203

  16. U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational outlook handbook: Psychologists.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.