Basics The Major Goals of Psychology Describe, Explain, Predict, Change By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry Facebook Twitter Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. Learn about our editorial process Updated on October 30, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief Print Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Describing Behavior Explaining Behavior Predicting Behavior Changing Behavior Psychology—the scientific study of the mind and behavior—has four main goals: to describe behaviorto explain behaviorto predict behaviorto change behavior. Here's why psychologists pursue these goals and how the information gleaned in their pursuit is used to solve real-world problems. Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell Describing Behavior Simply describing the behavior of humans and other animals helps psychologists understand the motivations behind it. Such descriptions also serve as behavioral benchmarks that help psychologists gauge what is considered normal and abnormal. Psychology researchers use a range of research methods to help describe behavior including naturalistic observation, case studies, correlational studies, surveys, and self-report inventories. Researchers might start by observing human behavior and then describing a problem. By understanding what is happening, psychologists can then work on learning more about why the behavior happens and even how to change it. How Psychological Descriptions Might Be Used Imagine that researchers want to learn more about consumer behavior in a particular retail outlet. They might use market research surveys, direct observation, and other data collection methods to gather information on what people are doing when they shop there. This gives advertisers greater insight into what is really happening in their target market. Explaining Behavior Explaining behavior is probably what comes to mind for most people when they think about the goals of psychology. Why do people do the things they do? What factors contribute to development, personality, social behavior, and mental health problems? Mini-theories focus on a small aspect of human behavior, whereas grand theories serve as all-encompassing explanations of human psychology. Types of Psychological Theories How Psychological Explanations Might Be Used In the previous example, researchers collected data to understand what consumers are purchasing. Psychologists might then conduct research to understand why consumers purchase certain items or what factors motivate them to make particular purchases. What Is Motivation? Predicting Behavior Not surprisingly, another primary goal of psychology is to predict how we think and act. Once psychologists understand what happens and why, they can formulate predictions about when, why, and how it might happen again. Successfully predicting behavior is also one of the best ways to know if we understand the underlying causes of our actions. Prediction also allows psychologists to make guesses about human behavior without necessarily understanding the mechanisms underlying the phenomena. How Psychological Predictions Might Be Used If researchers notice that scores on a particular aptitude test predict high school dropout rates, they can extrapolate that information to estimate how many students might drop out of school each year. In the previous example looking at consumer behavior, psychologists might use the information they collected to predict what consumers will purchase next. Businesses and marketers often employ consumer psychologists to make such predictions so that they can create products with maximum appeal to the targeted buyers. How Consumer Psychologists Study Buying Behavior Changing Behavior Finally, and perhaps most importantly, psychology strives to change, influence, and/or control behavior to make constructive, lasting changes in people's lives. From treating mental illness to enhancing human well-being, changing human behavior is a major focus of psychology. How Psychology Helps Change Behavior In the previous example, researchers might use what they know about the link between aptitude test scores and dropout rates to develop programs that help students stay in school. Likewise, marketers and businesses often use the understanding gained from psychological research to influence and persuade buyers to behave in certain ways. For example, they might develop advertising campaigns designed to appeal to a certain audience. By tailoring their efforts to a specific type of buyer, they're more likely to elicit responses than if they used a generic message. A Word From Verywell The four primary goals of psychology—to describe, explain, predict, and change behavior— are similar to those you probably have every day as you interact with others. When dealing with children, for example, you might ask questions such as: "What are they doing?" (describing)"Why are they doing that?" (explaining)"What would happen if I responded in this way?" (predicting)"What can I do to get them to stop doing that?" (changing) Psychologists ask many of the same types of questions, but they use the scientific method to rigorously test and systematically understand human and animal behavior. What Is the Scientific Method? 3 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. Donohue K, Özer Ö, Zheng Y. Behavioral operations: Past, present, and future. M&SOM. 2020;22(1):191-202. doi:10.1287/msom.2019.0828 Roth S, Mills A, Lee B, Jemielniak D. Theory as method: introduction to supertheoretical options for organization and management research. JOCM. 2021;34(4):689-698. doi:10.1108/JOCM-05-2021-0162 Haig BD. The importance of scientific method for psychological science. Psychology, Crime & Law. 2019;25(6):527-541. doi:10.1080/1068316X.2018.1557181 By Kendra Cherry Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? 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