What is Psychology?

When asked, “What is Psychology?” Many people, even within the field struggle to give an easy definition that someone can actually understand.

What is Psychology
Friendship is a big part of psychology

People hear and use the term psychology frequently in conversation. However, many people do not really know exactly what this social science is. There are a variety of definitions for psychology:

  • “The scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context” (google answers)
  • “The study of the mind and human behavior” (American Psychological Association, 2000)
  • “The scientific study of behavior” (Palladino and Davis, 2010)
  • Basically, psychology studies human behaviors, the brain, and the mind, but has expanded into a variety of areas.

These definitions are a little vague, but so is the field of psychology. Psychology is a large field that breaks down into other areas of psychology. All of these fields attempt to observe, understand, and predict behavior in some way or another. They all are in the field of behavior, but fundamentally they have significant, fundamental differences between them:

  • Biological/Physiological Psychology: The study of genes, DNA, and biological processes in an attempt to understand human behavior.
  • Clinical Psychology: The treatment in a clinical setting of mental health disorders, more focused on therapeutic methods than Abnormal Psychology.
  • Social Psychology: The study of how people impact and are impacted by others.
  • Personality Psychology: Understanding, observing, and analyzing the factors that go into the development of personalities.
  • Abnormal Psychology: The study of mental health disorders, diagnosis and treatment, and therapy.
  • Gender Psychology: Studying the multifaceted construct of gender (masculine and feminine) and sex (male and female).
  • Cognitive Psychology:  Concerned with memory, thinking, and how thoughts occur.
  • Sport Psychology: Applying concepts of psychology to athletes and their performance in an athletic setting.
  • Animal Psychology: Studying animals and pets to understand their behavior and mind.
  • Evolutionary Psychology: Similar to Darwinian principles, applying natural selection to psychological constructs and behaviors.
  • Industrial/Organizational Psychology: Applying psychological concepts to the workplace and organizations.
  • School Psychology: Working with students in a school or other academic setting to help diagnose mental health disorders related to learning and identifying appropriate modifications.
  • Consumer Psychology:  Researching, analyzing and understanding the behaviors of consumers, frequently work with marketing and advertising departments.
  • Forensic Psychology: Psychology applied to the legal field and understanding the behaviors of criminals.
  • Health Psychology: Understanding the psychological effects on health, and the effects of health on psychological wellness.

Believe it or not, there are even more sub-fields of psychology. All fields look to understand behavior in one way or another. Within each of these sub-fields, they will break down into different theories and beliefs that help to understand those sub-fields.

Careers in the field of Psychology

There are many different careers in the field of psychology. While psychology can be seen, used, and applied in virtually all jobs, there are some specific jobs that are directly related to the field of psychology. The tasks, responsibilities, and restrictions from job to job can vary greatly.

  • Psychiatrist: This person is a medical doctor, he or she has a either a M.D. or D.O. and has completed medical school. In the last few years of medical choose all students select an area of specialization (family practice, oncology, gynecology, etc.). These doctors have chosen to to specialize in psychiatry. Psychiatry deals with the treatment of mental health disorders. These doctors CAN PRESCRIBE MEDICATION. They have a medical license so the prescription psychotropic, mental health medications.
  • Psychologists: These people are also called Dr. but the major defining difference is that the CAN NOT prescribe medication. They have either received a Ph. D. or Psy. D and are all called Dr. but have not gone to medical school and usually have a clinical degree. They diagnose and treat mental health disorders in a clinical setting. They can focus on any of the sub-fields of psychology.
  • Counselors/Therapists: A counselor or therapist usually has a Master’s Degree in counseling or a related field. They can also diagnose and treat mental health disorders. Generally they practice talk therapy. There are many different forms of talk therapy and approaches to the field. Many counselors specialize in a certain area like couples, substance abuse, eating disorders, and more.
  • Psychiatric Nurses: These folks have a degree in nursing, and usually subsequent training specifically in the field of mental health. They will usually work more in a hospital setting.
  • Psychological Researcher: No matter what the sub-field of psychology, research is necessary. The type of research that is being done will vary drastically based on the area of study.

People with degrees in psychology often have a wide array of jobs that might not have anything directly to do with mental health treatment. Since the field of psychology deals with human behavior, it is applicable to almost all fields and is in no way limited to a clinical setting. Psychology can be relevant to all areas of study.

Why Study Psychology?

Studying psychology is useful not just to people who want to be a therapist, but to everyone. Ranging from relationships, to employment, all the way to your overall happiness and functioning. Having a good understanding of people and basic psychological concepts will help you in professional life, personal situations, relationships and can improve your overall functioning.

Where is Psychology?

The short answer is this: Psychology is everywhere. It is inter-personal, intra-personal, professional, internal and external. Psychology is all around you and the more you study in this field, the more you will realize psychology is always present. Here are a few areas where you can really see psychology:

  • Media: The media generally has an agenda of some sort. They are often trying to persuade you of one thing or another. This can be on a big scale, like CNN trying to get you to vote for a Democrat, or the Fox Fiction channel trying to get you to vote for Donald Trump. Neither of these agencies are likely to provide the “absolute truthful” story and will often spin things one way or another. The media also paints pictures of people or events that may or may not be true.
  • Advertising: Businesses are always trying to persuade to buy their products. They use psychology concepts to try to market directly to you, so you spend money on whatever it is they are offering. Billions of dollars are spent annually on this the psychology of advertising.
  • Relationships: We are all involved in multiple relationships. They can be family, romantic, friendship, professional, or just everyday interactions with people. Understanding how human beings interact with one another, why people act the way they do, and how they behave in relationships is a huge part of psychology. Having a good understanding of people can be extremely beneficial.
  • Mental Health: Usually when people think about psychology, they think about mental health or counseling. Mental health is a huge part of psychology. There are many factors that go into overall mental health and functioning. Psychology often looks to understand and improve mental health.
  • The Workplace: Ever have a co-worker that you just can’t stand? Have ideas of how your company could improve but don’t get a voice at work? Want to murder a customer? Want to improve your ability to sell?  All of these are psychology related topics that can be improved by learning more about human behavior.
  • The Everyday: Ever get road rage? Wonder why you can’t get the courage to ask a girl or guy out on a date? See two people arguing and want to help? Ponder why people act the way the do? All of these thoughts are regarding psychology.

Psychology is all around us, It is extremely important to study this field as it can be very beneficial to you and the people around you. Finding the sub-field of psychology that interests you the most will enhance your overall experience and enjoyment of the class. Try out a few areas and see which is the best fit for you.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Psychology. Retrieved January 21, 2016, from http://www.apa.org/support/index.aspx#answer

Davis, T., & Palladino, G. (2012). Psychology. New York, NY: Pearson.