Definitional Problems

There are a number of serious problems associated with defining psychology as the scientific study of behavior and mental and affective states. Not only is the definition imprecise, but it also has apparently made it very difficult to generate an integrated body of psychological knowledge. While impressive research on the behavior of animals and humans has been conducted, and some progress has been made in understanding mental and affective processes and states, the knowledge generated is fragmented and therefore of limited value.

One could argue, in fact, that psychology is not the study of behavior at all but is rather the study of the information each person or animal has available that makes behavior—that is, directed and controlled actions—possible. While this information has traditionally been referred to as mind and consciousness, there might be some virtue in calling it "the psychological domain" in order to avoid long-standing arguments. Behavior is a methodological concept because it refers to something researchers must study in order to make inferences about the psychological domain. On the other hand, researchers can also investigate the products of human actions, such as the languages people develop, the buildings they construct, and the art and music they share, to the same end. Some psychologists perform research on the physiological processes associated with seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking. Definitions of psychology should include the terms "culture" and "physiological and biochemical correlates" as well as the concept of behavior.

A better approach might be to define psychology as the systematic study of the psychological domain, this domain being the personal information that makes it possible for individual human beings and other life-forms to move with direction and control. To go beyond this definition is to describe how psychologists do research rather than what the field is about.

Another problem associated with standard definitions of psychology is the assumption that there is general agreement concerning the meaning of the concept of behavior. As has been pointed out by many analysts, that is not the case. The term has been used to refer to sensory responses, cognitive and affective processes, muscle movements, glandular secretions, activity taking place in various parts of the nervous system, and the outcomes or consequences of particular complex actions. Behavior, in other words, is an ambiguous concept. In a strict sense, the only actions or changes relevant to the psychological level of analysis are those that are self-initiated and unique to the total-life-form level of organization in nature, because it is these changes that depend on the psychological domain. Changes in the individual cells or subsystems of life-forms, on the other hand, do not constitute behavior in the psychological sense.

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