Attain a Basic Knowledge of Psychology

What is psychology? We often hear about psychological studies in the news or see psychologists in movies and TV shows, but many people still don't know what psychology is really about. This guide will provide you with a brief overview of the basics of psychology, including its definition, history, major perspectives and influential psychologists, and some popular specializations within the field.


  1. Understand what psychology means. The word psychology is derived from the Greek words psyche, meaning "mind" and logos, meaning "study". Therefore, the word psychology itself literally means "the study of the mind". The actual definition of psychology is not too far off from that - psychology is commonly defined as "the scientific study of behavior and mental processes". This essentially means that psychology seeks to find out why people act and think the way we do.
  2. Recognize that psychology is a social science. The discipline of psychology is scientific because it relies on empirical testing - this means that psychologists rely on evidence, tests, and research in order to come to conclusions about our brains and behavior. Psychologists don't just rely on common sense or intuition when making claims about the ways people think and act - they observe behavior or come up with ways to scientifically test out their theories to see if they hold true. Even after research has been done, other psychologists will often replicate or re-create studies to ensure that the results of the initial study weren't just a fluke.
  3. Understand what psychology is not. Since psychology is a scientific discipline, it does not include any topics or methods that aren't supported by scientific evidence. Things that appear psychological but cannot be scientifically tested are referred to as pseudo-psychologies (meaning "fake psychology"). Popular aspects of pseudo-psychology include palmistry, psychics and mediums, and astrology. Because there's no way to scientifically test whether or not these things exist, they cannot be included in the field of psychology.
  4. Learn about the history of psychology. The roots of psychology go back to before 300 B.C. when philosophers like Aristotle and Plato discussed mental processes. However, psychology's major advances didn't begin until the 1800s, when Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychology lab and some of the first schools of psychological thought began to be created. These schools of thought were called Structuralism, which focused on the contents (structures) of the mind, and Functionalism, which focused on how the mind works (its functions). Many current psychological perspectives are derived from these two initial schools of thought.
  5. Read about influential psychologists and their work. Although countless psychologists have made and continue to make contributions to the field, it's a good idea to start by reading about some of the most well-known psychologists, including:
    • Sigmund Freud: Founder of Psychoanalytic Theory, a controversial yet influential theory stating that people are motivated by their unconscious drives. Other prominent psychoanalysts include Carl Jung and Alfred Adler.
    • B.F. Skinner: Introduced the concept of operant conditioning, the notion that learning is related to consequences.
    • Ivan Pavlov: Known for his work on classical conditioning, a process of learning that involves pairing stimuli together to create a response.
    • Carl Rogers: Developed the person-centered approach, which led to the creation of client-centered therapy.
    • Abraham Maslow: Known for his hierarchy of needs, indicating the needs a person must satisfy in order to move on to the next level of needs and eventually reach self-actualization.
    • Jean Piaget: Known for his theory of cognitive development, which is about how children's minds develop.
    • Albert Bandura: Developed social learning theory, which is about how people learn by observing others.
  6. Know about psychology's major perspectives. Currently, psychology is made up of seven major perspectives, which each emphasize a different aspect of learning about the brain and behavior. The seven perspectives are:
    • Psychodynamic perspective: derived from Freud's psychoanalytic perspective, and focuses on how traumatic childhood experiences and the unconscious drives affect one's development.
    • Behavioral perspective: Focuses on learned, observable behaviors. Skinner and Pavlov were behaviorists.
    • Cognitive perspective: focuses on mental processes such as language, perception, memory, and thinking. Piaget and Bandura were cognitive psychologists.
    • Humanistic perspective: focuses on human nature, including peoples' desire to grow and change in a positive way. Rogers and Maslow were humanists.
    • Biological perspective: focuses on biological aspects such as genetics, brain structure, and physiological processes.
    • Sociocultural perspective: focuses on the ways behavior differs across various cultures.
    • Evolutionary perspective: focuses on the ways natural selection, adaptation, and evolution have affected our behavior.
  7. Realize that there are many specializations within the field of psychology. When many people think of a psychologist, they picture someone taking notes while their client lies down on a couch and tells them about their problems. While this is what some psychologists do, it is important to note that psychology is a very diverse field with many specializations, including:
    • Biopsychology/Neuroscience: these psychologists examine the human brain and biological systems to learn about their influence on behavior.
    • Clinical psychology: these psychologists diagnose and help treat people with mental health issues or behavioral disorders.
    • Counseling psychology: these psychologists work with clients to help them use psychological techniques such as stress management and coping strategies to improve their everyday lives.
    • Developmental psychology: these psychologists study how humans develop over their lifespan, from birth through childhood and into adulthood.
    • Educational psychology: these psychologists study how people learn, and apply this knowledge to classroom and educational settings.
    • Forensic psychology: these psychologists work within the legal system to psychologically evaluate criminals and witnesses.
    • Health psychology: these psychologists study how human behaviour influences health, and what psychological strategies can be applied to improve health.
    • Industrial/Organizational psychology: these psychologists study office/workplace environments to figure out how to create a productive workplace and increase employee motivation and satisfaction.
    • Personality psychology: these psychologists study the personalities and individual differences between people, and how these influence their behaviour and thoughts.
    • Social psychology: these psychologists study the ways the in which environment or other people affect the way people think and behave.
    • Sport psychology: these psychologists work with athletes to figure out how to improve their athletic performance and recover from injury.
  8. Learn more about a psychologist or area of psychology that interests you. While this article provides a very brief overview of psychology, there is much more information out there that you can use to learn more. If you found a psychologist, psychological perspective, or psychological specialization that interests you, do some further research to learn more about it.


  • Don't feel overwhelmed if you're just beginning to learn about psychology. Go at your own pace and absorb the information slowly to truly remember and understand it.

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