Psychologists disagree about what psychology is.

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

The Psyche

Why you shouldn’t trust psychological research.
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Psychology does not mean the same thing to everyone.

There appears to be a lot of disagreement about what psychology is and what psychologists do. Many people look to psychology for answers to everyday life problems like why are they are anxious or depressed or how can they be happier or more productive. Unfortunately, a lot of psychological research is completely unhelpful in solving people’s everyday problems.

Looking the word psychology up in the dictionary gives us things like; the study of the human mind, or the science of behavior and mind. Some of the definitions include efforts to classify psychology as a science, a field of study, an academic discipline, an effort to understand either individuals or groups. Every definition I looked at included a great deal of ambiguity.

For example, on the one hand, we say psychology is the study of the human mind, but a great deal of research is conducted on rats or other lab animals. One criticism of psychology is that it is a soft science. It occurs at the intersection of a great many disciplines, including sociology, medical science, anatomy, the humanities, and philosophy. The boundary between psychology and counseling or therapy is hard to define.

No one theory has arisen which explains all the phenomena psychology attempts to study. Frequently it is difficult to decide what topics are outside of psychology. Parapsychology, hypnotism, and the supernatural are generally excluded from the definition of psychology.

Other accounts of psychology try to define it by specifying what it is that psychology studies. Psychology often studies thinking, referred to as cognition, brain function, motivation, intelligence, and personality. In general, definitions of psychology exclude the topic of emotions or feelings. Occasionally affect, the way emotions are displayed, get investigated.

In recent years, psychology appears to be diverging into two unrelated areas. Many recent inquiries occur in the field of neurobiology, the structure, and the functioning of the brain and nervous system. The other area of study involves metacognition, that is thinking about thinking. Lots of psychological research involves interviews, questionnaires, and global tests in an effort to understand what people think about and how that thinking affects their behavior.

The practical applications of psychology have been disappointing.

Early in psychology’s development as a science, there were high hopes. Some proponents hoped it to be used to cure the diseases of the mind. Businesspeople hoped it would be useful in convincing people to buy a certain product. Politicians and religious groups hope psychology could be used to get people to think correctly and to identify those who might commit crimes or cause problems. Despite advances in psychological thinking, psychology still has limited ability to predict who will become violent or commit a crime.

Efforts continue to apply psychology, the discipline of trying to understand the mind, and the process of thinking about a particular endeavor to practical issues. The American Psychological Association, the principal organization for all psychologists in America currently has 54 separate divisions, each with a distinctive focus.

Here are some of the ways that the study of psychology has developed.

Evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology overlaps, to some extent, other disciplines such as anthropology. It tries to explain how certain patterns thinking may have been useful to the human species and resulted in our survival. Common thinking patterns in humans may be the result of having to solve similar problems repeatedly.

Cognitive psychology.

The primary focus in cognitive psychology is the processes that underlie human and animal mental activity. Most of cognitive psychology is directed towards research. Some of this research has been applied to therapy and counseling using the cognitive-behavioral model. Cognitive psychology studies memory, problem-solving, attention, learning, perception, and reasoning. Sometimes feelings and emotions are also included as the topics of cognitive psychology studies.

Social Psychology.

Social psychology focuses on the topic of how humans interact with each other. Why do people conform and how are people persuaded to do or think something? Beliefs and attitudes, as well as stereotypes and prejudices, are topics for social psychology. Social psychologists investigate groups, why some people become leaders and some followers. There’s been some effort to apply the findings of social psychology to individual life events. The topics of how self-esteem, social class, nationality, or migration affect people’s thinking.

Educational psychology.

Educational psychology might better be referred to as the psychology of teaching. It studies how humans learn in an educational setting. Its focus is on teaching students and meeting their learning objectives. It would look at curriculum and teaching activities and would need to be very depending on student characteristics. Educational psychology could include teaching those with learning disabilities, meeting the needs of advanced gifted students, making school campus safe and supportive, and encouraging socially acceptable behaviors on the school campus.

School Psychology.

School psychology is sometimes seen as a part of educational psychology and sometimes as a separate discipline. While educational psychology views things from the teachers and administrator’s perspective, school psychologists look at things from the student’s perspective.  Many school psychologists focus on the problems the student has in being academically successful. What classes should the student take, what personal problems may be interfering with students’ academic successes, and what classes clients may need to take to graduate on time. School psychologists may use some clinical counseling psychology techniques, but their primary goal is often academic success.

Organizational psychology.

This subfield of psychology has been referred to by many names. Is sometimes called industrial psychology, workplace psychology, personnel psychology, or employment psychology. Its primary interests are selecting employees, retaining employees, and maximizing productivity.

Industrial psychologists study the effects work environments, management styles, pay scales, and job satisfaction may have on employee’s productivity.

Positive psychology.

The focus of positive psychology is on people who were currently healthy and maintaining that health. The effort is to focus on having a happy life rather than on what is wrong. Some conclusions from positive psychology being applied to the fields of counseling psychology and coaching psychology.

Forensic psychology.

Forensic psychology studies psychology as a relates to the criminal justice population. It looks at what causes people to commit crimes, which criminals should be granted parole, and which need to remain in prison. While we need to rely on this field for making some decisions, its ability to predict future behavior has disappointed a lot of people. Saying that a certain percentage of criminals if discharged from prison will never commit another crime, is not much help when we know that another percentage will re-offend.

Clinical psychology.

Clinical psychology technical is psychology which occurs in the clinic. Generally, this refers to people with a serious and persistent mental illness. Clinical psychologists are licensed professionals with a doctoral degree. Some clinical psychologists work in private practice where they may do testing for IQ, ADHD, disability applications, or custody evaluations. Clinical psychologists are specially trained to use batteries of tests and to write reports rendering their evaluation. Some clinical psychologists see ongoing patients for psychotherapy, particularly those with serious mental illnesses that need frequent contact to function outside the psychiatric hospital.

Counseling psychology.

Counseling psychology tries to apply principles learned in psychological research to the treatment of mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. Some counseling psychologists practice as licensed clinical psychologists, others may be licensed under one of the other mental health specialties.

Coaching psychology.

Coaching psychology is a new specialized part of psychology. Coaches are generally not licensed and may or may not have had formal training. The scope of practice for coaching psychologists includes those people who want to improve their performance and reaching life goals. Treating people with a mental or emotional disorder is outside the scope of practice for coaching psychologists or life coaches unless they are trained and licensed to treat mental illness.

Research psychology.

Most research psychology involves either physical neuroscience or studies of presumably normal people. The majority of research psychology is conducted by faculty members at the larger universities. Occasionally research psychology happens in a mental health setting but even here is usually restricted to a very small group of patients with one specific disorder.

Comparative psychology.

Comparative psychology studies thinking and behavior in species other than humans. There have been some efforts to compare animal behavior to human behavior. What we learned in animals often doesn’t apply to human thinking feeling and behaving.

Community Psychology.

The effects of housing on people’s thinking and behavior.

Health psychology.

Health psychology works in the area of how to keep people healthy and the effects that physical illness may be having on their mental and emotional health.

Abnormal psychology and adjustment psychology.

Abnormal psychology is the realm of those things we call mental illness. Adjustment psychology is about the problems of living life. When most people ask psychology for answers these two disciplines they are thinking of. Abnormal psychology and adjustment psychology are the principal topics of the blog.

There are probably a great many other “psychologies.”

It seems every time I read another article about psychology, I find another label for a specific subset of psychological research, thinking, or practice.

The conclusion.

This is a short list of some of the types of psychology. It does not include all of the 54 divisions of the APA, and this is clearly my opinion. If any of you read this work in the field of psychology, I would welcome your comments and your opinions. When you see how specialized the various types of psychology are, I think you can see why we’ve been expecting results from the study of psychology it hasn’t been able to provide.

In future posts, I want to look at the many ways in which psychology has affected our current thinking and those ways in which psychology has let people down.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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3 thoughts on “Psychologists disagree about what psychology is.

  1. i had to visit psychlogists several times. made tens of sheets question/answer tests and several others. conclusion – i had to find help elsewhere, because diagnosis, those psychologists made, were waaaaaay away from reality. when i did get mad and did prove them, with facts, that they were wrong, one of psychlogist did kick me out of room… literally.
    what can i say… sad that those psychologists had so much influence in my life. sad that people believe them more, then me, because they have fancy title.
    and one more – by free will i wont let visit any of them, my kids or go there, by myself.
    ignorance, non-logical arguments and, honestly saying – stupidy some of them is just shocking.


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