This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 01 table of contents.

What is Psychology?

Every profession has its stereotypes. If you introduce an English teacher at a party, people say, "I'd better watch my grammar!" If you introduce a medical doctor, people describe an ailment and ask for free advice. If you introduce a psychologist, people say, "Oh-oh, you might analyze me!" or "My brother-in-law should talk to you..." This reveals a common assumption: that psychologists are therapists waiting to analyze people.

What is a common assumption about psychologists? What are some non-therapy activities of psychologists?

In actuality, many psychologists are not therapists. Some are researchers in laboratories, some are full-time teachers and researchers, and some are consultants to business and industry. Many have never done therapy in their lives. They may work with animals rather than humans. They may be experts in highly abstract or detailed theories about psychological processes. One of the things you will learn in this course is that psychologists do an amazing number of different things...and not all psychologists are therapists.

The popular notion that psychologists "help people" is more than half true, however, if you go by the numbers. Slightly over half of all psychologists are involved in psychology as a helping profession. That phrase psychology as a helping profession is useful because it covers more than therapy. It may mean community involvement in Help Lines, crisis centers, shelters for the homeless, or it may mean testing students who need special help, designing special educational programs, or providing assistance to the courts. Or it may mean therapy, such as marriage counseling, addiction counseling, or helping people cope with terminal illness.

How many psychologists are involved in psychology as a helping profession? What sorts of activities are included in that phrase?

A common definition of psychology is the science of mind and behavior. When department chairs at the University of Michigan were asked in 1989, "Which one or two questions from your discipline do you wish every liberal arts graduate could answer?" the suggestion from the psychology department was the following question:

The field of psychology has been defined somewhat differently at different times in this century. In one sentence, what is a good current definition of the field?

What was a definition of psychology, circa 1989?

The suggested answer was:

"Psychology is the science of behavior and mental processes." ("What do you know?", 1989)


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