For students embarking on the study of psychology, there is a whirlwind of mythology about the field to sift through. "Will my friends think I'm going to analyze them?" "Isn't it all common sense?" "Isn't it more an art than a science?" Once they actually start to take the course, they seem surprised that there's so much biology or, as one graduating senior put it, "I didn't realize there would be so many numbers." It turns out that psychology is a complex field, and why shouldn't it be? Trying to understand the basis for ALL behavior (much less human) is a tall order indeed.
I'm probably preaching to the choir. You wouldn't be reading this blog at all unless you were even vaguely interested in the field or taking a course in it at the moment. Here I'm going to look specifically at how psychology can help you achieve greater fulfillment, not a question that you may have contemplated before.
Before we look into psychology and personal fulfillment, let's start with the question that we hear so often, "Will my friends think I'm going to analyze them?" Often the question is put in a slightly different form. You tell someone you're a psychologist or that you're taking a psych course, and the person says "Does that mean you're going to analyze me?" Whenever this question was posed to me in the past, I would deny all culpability. "Oh no," I would say, "never!" But then one day I realized that such a rebuttal not only was totally untrue but that I was perhaps selling my professional credentials short. It is in fact my business to analyze people. That's what I've been trained to do; it's how my mind operates. My answer now reflects this reality: "Yes, I am," but to ease the tension this creates, I follow it up with "and the billing starts now."
Now that you are armed with the proper retort when asked this inevitable question, let's move on to what truly is so great about the field and how it can help you become more fulfilled. Psychology does focus on biology, in fact more and more so with each new discovery about the brain and the nervous system. Although William James may have shed doubt on the question of whether there is a biological basis for consciousness, we now know that the mind and the body- specifically the brain- are inseparable. This knowledge can help us not only gain more of an understanding of psychological disorders in which altered neurotransmitters may play an important role, but it also gives us better insight into how to maximize our health. You can use such behavioral strategies as biofeedback to control high blood pressure. Other increasingly chronic health conditions such as adult-onset diabetes, obesity, and arthritis can be addressed through these strategies, both for prevention and treatment. Stress reduction is an important tool that can be used for a wide variety of diseases, even as adjunct therapy for cancer.
Moving on to the issue of whether psychology is all just common sense, the field is replete with evidence showing exactly the opposite. The most popular Psych Today blog postings it seems cover counter-intuitive conclusions that emerge both from the therapist's and the researcher's offices. In a previous blog posting, I pointed out that people will eat MORE not fewer calories when calorie charts are posted in fast-food restaurants. If that is common sense, then you can knock me over with a bucket of KFC. How do psychologists come up with these answers? Glad you asked: it's all in the "numbers." Psychologists rely heavily on the scientific method and as part of the scientific process, they use statistical analyses. The days of "interocular inspection" (eyeing the data), if they ever existed, are swiftly drawing to a close. There are entire fields of psychology devoted to nothing other (or more) than quantitative methods -- and specialists in these areas are in growing demand both in industry and academia.
What about my claim that psychology can help you gain self-understanding? This probably goes almost without saying although invariably someone will put forth the question: "aren't all psychologists crazy?" or "aren't the kids of all psychologists crazy?" (my answers to these questions are no, and no). But these questions are besides the point. How can psychology help YOU better understand yourself? I've already pointed out some benefits to knowing about mind-body connections. Among the many other advantages for learning about yourself lie in such areas as:
Cognition: Learning to think more effectively and quickly and to improve your memory.
Motivation: Understanding what makes you tick.
Development: Realizing that change is possible no matter what your age.
Emotion: Gaining control over your feelings and moods.
Personality: Becoming better able to realize your ideal self.
There is literally an almost incomprehensible mass of information about psychology in the marketplace and media. To help you sift through it all, in addition to the ample resources right here on Psych Today, you can check out the American Psychological Association's extensive web resources which will lead you to many, many, more excellent and accessible sources of psychological wisdom.
Psychology can also give us insight into the complexities of the political and social world. Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram showed back in the early 1960s that people were capable of inflicting tremendous pain on other people; a finding replicated several decades later. But his experiments also showed that certain factors can reduce cruelty, including some relatively simple interventions. Psychologists studying international relations are giving us suggestions (not always successfully followed) to help groups ranging from a few people to several million better get along. There are also psychologists studying areas more far-flung from what we think of as "science" including the arts, spirituality, religion, and philosophy. We can learn from these areas such fascinating ideas as what were possible diagnoses of Van Gogh or - returning to James- what is consciousness or is there such a thing as free will?
Psychology also provides us insight into areas as diverse as helping athletes overcome slumps, intervening in emergencies, designing airplane cockpits, and suggesting behavior changes to help slow global warming. There are over 50 fields within psychology as represented by divisions within APA, and countless theoretical perspectives.
It's true that it is difficult for me to turn off my efforts to analyze people and stop being a psychologist. In fact, I don't want to. I'm having too much fun!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010
Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64, 1-11.