What exactly is psychology?
One way that we might define psychology is as the scientific study of the human mind. This means that, as psychologists, we try to apply the scientific method to answer questions about how and why people think the things they do (note: you might occasionally hear people describe psychology as a “social science.” This is a term I take issue with because it implies that all psychologists study topics related to social interaction, which simply isn’t true).
As you might remember from a basic science class in high school or college, the scientific method is a way of looking at the world, or more specifically it’s a way of objectively testing tentative explanations of phenomena that occur in nature.
And although there are multiple ways to describe the steps of the scientific method, it essentially boils down to this:
- Observe some natural phenomenon (either directly or indirectly by reading about it in the relevant scientific literature).
- Propose a tentative, testable explanation for why the phenomenon occurs (called proposing a hypothesis).
- Design an experiment or other type of research project that will test your hypothesis.
- Carry out the research project and collect data.
- Analyze the collected data.
- Determine whether the data you’ve collected are consistent or inconsistent with your hypothesis.
- Communicate your findings.
In our case, the natural phenomenon that we are interested in trying to understand and explain is the human mind.
And herein lies the major challenge that faces all areas of psychology (as mentioned in my last post, psychology is an extremely diverse field with many different areas of specialization).
As we all know, science is generally concerned with studying things that are observable and directly measurable (think of anatomy, biology, and chemistry). But in psychology, the thing we are interested in understanding and explaining cannot be observed. This means that the mental processes we are often interested in – things like learning, memory, love, intelligence, etc. – cannot be directly observed either.
So how can we scientifically study something that by its very nature can neither be seen nor observed?
The answer is that we need to rely on an indirect measure of the mind – something that is directly observable and measurable and that is related to mental processes in an orderly and predictable way.
What is a common and useful indirect measure of the mind?
So, psychologists observe, record, and measure behavior and then attempt to infer what is going on inside the mind by noticing how specific behaviors change in different experimental conditions or situations.
This is really no different from what we do everyday in our social interactions with friends, family members, and strangers. In fact, each of us acts like a psychologist whenever we try to get inside someone else’s head and “read their mind” by paying attention to their behavior or “body language.”
For example, if you are having a conversation with a friend and she is standing with arms crossed looking away from you, what are you likely to infer is going on inside her mind? Is she interested in hearing about what you have to say? Is she preoccupied with a project at work? Is she rude, inattentive, and uncaring?
If any of these are conclusions that you would likely draw based on your friend’s observable behavior, then you are doing exactly what psychological scientists do – looking to observable and measurable behavior in an attempt to draw inferences about unobservable mental processes and feelings.
What distinguishes psychological science from what each of us does in our everyday life is that psychological science usually entails observing and measuring simple behaviors in very tightly controlled experimental conditions. This is so that we can narrow down the number of potential explanations for why a particular behavior occurred.
To clarify, let’s return for a moment to your apparently inattentive and uncaring friend. How accurately are you going to be able to determine what she is thinking just by noticing that she is standing with arms crossed and not making eye contact with you? It’s difficult to know for sure because there are so many potential explanations for why a person would behave in this way. Perhaps she is wearing pants with no pockets and simply doesn’t know what else to do with her hands. Or perhaps she is feeling self-conscious about wearing a shirt with an embarrassing stain on it and crossing her arms helps to hide the stain. Furthermore, perhaps she isn’t making eye contact with you because she just noticed a friend off in the distance.
If we wanted to be scientific and zero in on the most likely explanation for her observable behavior, we would need to manipulate and control the environment in which the behavior occurred. How does she act when talking to someone other than you, when wearing a different outfit, or when familiar friends are unlikely to be noticed in the background? If talking with you is the only situation that elicits this type of behavior from your friend, only then can we conclude that she is not very interested in what you have to say.
And so here is the peculiar thing about psychology. We ultimately want to understand mental processes like attention, learning, and memory and emotions like love, happiness, and anger. However, we have no way of directly observing and measuring these things. All that we can observe and measure is behavior. And so psychologists often end up studying behavior even though they don’t care about behavior, per se. We’re interested in behavior only insofar as it provides us with insights into what is going on inside the unobservable mind.
And so if the eyes are the window into the soul, as they say, then behavior is the window into the mind.