Many different ideas may come to mind when people hear the word "psychology." For some, word associations may be first: psychic, psychedelic, psychotic, psychogenic, psychosomatic, psychopath—words that have associations to psychology in one way or another. Others might think of concepts, such as the psyche, referring to the self and the soul. They may think of getting psyched, or prepared for action, with psyched up being good and psyched out being bad. Some may think about Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 film Psycho, a story about a murderous and odd man—which, sadly, added stigma to the tragedy of mental illness and suffering by reinforcing stereotypes of the mentally ill as violent and dangerous individuals.
When people think of psychology, they often think of clinicians, such as those portrayed on television and in films or heard on the radio—people who work with or otherwise counsel the troubled and mentally ill. Ideas about Sigmund Freud and his theories of the id, ego, and superego are also common associations with the field. Still others will ponder whether psychology is really about consciousness, the mind, psyche, or brain—and wonder how these entities are different and similar. Somewhat less frequently, people might think not about human psychology but instead about rats running mazes, pigeons operating machinery, monkeys using sign language, salivating dogs and ringing bells, and even the mating habits of ducks and other animals. A few people might see psychology as related to machines, for indeed there is psychology involved in the design of artificial intelligence systems and in the interface shared by humans and machines, such as when hands type on a computer, fly a plane, or perform microsurgery with the use of virtual reality-type cameras. All these examples reflect psychology and its research.
Indeed, what people think of when they hear the word "psychology" can vary widely by their personal experience. For some, their first exposure to the term may be through an elective course taken in high school or college. Others may first encounter it in their jobs, when they learn that there may be business value in considering psychological angles to advertising, product development, sales, or business organization management. Similarly, others may learn about it in careers such as medicine or law, when they find that it can enhance performance or improve communication with clients, colleagues, and trainees. Artists might approach the field as a means of learning more about creativity and how to foster it. Some may come to know psychology through a personal or family crisis, possibly through exposure to a counselor or self-help book. Others may learn about the concept through films, songs, current events, or advertising portraying psychological principles or themes.
Most commonly, though, psychology is recognized as the study of human behavior. The field is advanced by the work of many individuals applying the principles of psychology in diverse settings for the purposes of teaching, research, clinical work, organizational management, administration, advocacy, data analysis, and consultation. Psychologists work in many different settings, such as universities, colleges, clinics, forensics units, the armed services, social service agencies, hospitals, research groups, laboratories, government bodies, businesses, wilderness areas, and even space. The work of psychologists has far-reaching effects for diverse peoples and in diverse settings, contributing much in terms of practical solutions to both the large and small questions of daily life.
Psychology has deep roots in applications related to military defense, medicine, and teaching. In terms of military defense, psychology assisted the U.S. government with organizational decisions determining job assignments in the early 1900's via its development of intelligence testing strategies. As a result of creating ways of ranking soldiers for assignment from very basic to very complex work tasks, increases in efficiency were gained. Principles of psychology are also useful for the military in terms of fostering cohesion among soldiers, training and teaching them what they need to know in an efficient manner, and helping soldiers (and their families) deal with the stresses of active military duty. Additionally, the field has made contributions to understanding the psychological aspects of warfare, such as persuading one's enemies to provide information and debriefing those who have been prisoners of war.
The roots of psychology in medicine are obvious. Basic applications began as the treatment of those who were considered ill, feebleminded, or possessed by spirits. With regard to spirituality, there should be no surprise in finding a strong historical thread linking psychology and religion when it comes to healing. This link spans at least from William James's classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) to current efforts in the field examining spirituality as it relates to illness, healing, diagnosis, resilience against stress, and various types of group support. Historically, those not cured by other methods of medicine were usually sent to healers of the mind and spirit. At some point, psychologists were enlisted to help count and categorize such individuals. As the field developed, methods such as behavioral pharmacology grew in prominence with the discovery of new drugs to treat mental disorders. More recently, the effect of psychology in the treatment and prevention of stress-related, lifestyle-related, chronic, and terminal health problems has been noteworthy. As examples, psychological interventions related to stress management have been found useful for preventing heart disease and stroke. Obesity is often treated with behavioral interventions designed to modify lifestyle from a biopsychosocial perspective. Chronic pain is often addressed with cognitive interventions for pain perception and management. Even conditions such as cancer may be better managed with psychological interventions such as group support, family therapy, and mood-enhancing interventions that facilitate adherence to medical interventions for the body.
With regard to teaching, psychology has played a large role in the structure and design of academic settings, the development of educational curricula, achievement and intelligence testing, and career advisement and placement. It has also touched practices such as preschool for young children, the learning of new career skills later in life, retraining after injuries to the body or brain, and behavioral learning (such as how one might learn to shoot a basketball or play the piano). More recently, studies have examined Internet-based learning and how it differs from face-to-face learning. Whether online learning formats can be effective and whether the socialization aspects of learning can take place online are some of the questions pursued.
In the United States, psychology has gained a foothold in government, with psychologists being elected and appointed to public offices and serving in high-level decision-making bodies. One example is the placement of psychologists in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where they have been able to influence government spending related to research, health care, and problem prevention on many fronts. In 1995, an office was established in the NIH called the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research (OBSSR), with a designated role of advancing behavioral science knowledge and applications in the activities fostered and otherwise supported by the NIH.
As these many examples illustrate, psychology has become a diverse field. In looking to the future, it is clear that the role of psychology in the workplace and in international communications and relationships will expand. Notable growth has been seen, for instance, in the numbers of studies examining cultural differences among groups defined in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and other markers of culture. Pick virtually any area of psychological study and look at the number of references for cultural variation or differences since the mid-twentieth century, and it will be easy to spot a trend of increasing publications by year over time. This trend has been inspired by a desire to create better understanding among different cultures, as well as to assist efforts in providing more culturally appropriate and culturally sensitive training, education, and medical care. No doubt, this area of study will increase in importance as the field of psychology continues to evolve and as humans, as a group, continue to understand the ideas of conflict and cooperation as we approach nearly seven billion in number.
I hope that these volumes on psychology allow the diversity and capability of this vibrant and valuable field to shine. I also hope that it encourages its readers to be inspired, curious, and mindful observers of human behavior more and more each day, as there is much to be learned.
Nancy A. Piotrowski, Ph.D.
University of California at Berkeley
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