Each year, as a professor of psychology, I help hundreds of young adults navigate a rigorous curriculum and prepare for their futures. In one sense, these futures will include advanced graduate training or a career related to the behavioral sciences - or both. But these are not the only goals that we want our students to move toward in their 4-year stints under our tutelage. Below are ten products of a psychology education that, for the most part, psychology professors try to cultivate in their students - year after year.
10. An appreciation of the breadth of content areas that comprise psychology. Psychology is huge! It includes any areas of study that pertain to behavioral or mental processes - across species! Topics studied by psychologists are diverse - addressing, for instance, how babies perceive faces, how dogs learn to avoid adverse outcomes, how seemingly small situations can lead to major behavioral outcomes in adults, how people remember lists, and more. Much more. When someone says that he or she studies “psychology,” you’ve got to ask - “What area? What topic?”
9. An appreciation of the breadth of applied areas that comprise psychology. First-year college students studying psychology often think that all psychologists are applied psychologists (e.g., that all psychologists work to help people solve problems) and that all applied psychologists are therapists. Not true! Applied psychologists come in all shapes and sizes. Some applied psychologists are therapists (such as clinical psychologists, mental health counselors, school counselors, and the like) while some help organizations optimize working conditions (industrial/organizational psychologists) and others work in the health industry to help achieve healthy outcomes that relate to the interface of mental and physical health (health psychologists) - and more! When someone says that he or she wants to “work in the field,” he or she needs to realize just how many different career paths there are!
8. The understanding that a good education in psychology is a holistic education. In our department at SUNY New Paltz, we take holistic education seriously. We have two different psychology clubs open to our students. We organize research talks by several external experts in psychology each year. We have long-standing traditions such as the end-of-year “Psychology Trivia” event each December and our student awards ceremony / BBQ each Spring. And we encourage all of our students to become actively involved in scholarly research and internship opportunities. A good GPA and high scores on tests are great - but at the end of the day, we are preparing future leaders in the field - and we want them to have an education that extends beyond the classroom because, when all is said and done, the classroom is only an approximation for what the real world has in store for you.
7. The ability to design and implement a scientific study on some question related to behavior. In a typical psychology major, you pretty much need to take a course in Research Methods - where you learn the skills needed to design and implement your own study. We want you to take these skills with you after you graduate! You should be able to formulate a solid research question. You should be able to identify the variables in your study - and understand how you are measuring them. You should be able to design a survey that can lead to easily quantifiable data. And you should be able to compute statistics to make heads or tails of your results. Whatever field you find yourself in when you grow up, I promise you that these skills will serve you well.
6. A basic understanding of statistics (such as “indices of central tendency” and “variability”) and the ability to critically evaluate presentations of statistics by others. Your statistics class within the psychology major is not designed to make you feel like you’re going to the dentist! Understanding statistics at a basic level will benefit you throughout your life. It will help you make sense of data presented by others. It will help you ask the right questions when examining results (of anything) that are presented to you throughout your life. And it will help you think about how to best ask and answer questions you have about any and all aspects of the world. From the fields of education to law to medicine, understanding statistics will help you better frame and answer questions relevant to your work.
5. The realization that humans are strongly connected to other forms of life. Not everyone realizes it, but psychology is not just about humans! B. F. Skinner, one of the most famous psychologists in the history of the field, only studied rats and pigeons! Many psychologists, such as Gordon Gallup, have extensively studied non-human primates. Psychologists have studied dogs, cats, crickets, birds, and more! Psychology is the scientific study of behavior - broadly defined! We are importantly connected to the entirety of life - and many rules that govern behavior cut across species. And this a beautiful thing!
4. The understanding that humans are the same everywhere you go. In a standard psychology curriculum, human universality is implied. When you learn, for instance, about long-term memory, you are learning about how human memory works - across people in general. When you learn about Piaget’s stages of early cognitive development - you are learning about human development across the species. When you are learning about how we process emotion (e.g., Ekman & Friesen, 1968), you are learning about a basic aspect of human psychology that stands true across the globe. Much of psychology, either implicitly or explicitly (see Geher, 2014) focuses on what we all share when it comes to mind and behavior.
3. The understanding that cultural influences on human behavior are enormous. Nearly any and all attempts to study the influences of culture on human behavior (e.g., Schmitt, 2005) have led to fruitful outcomes. That is because humans are extremely sensitive to their environments - and culture, which can be seen as a suite of environmental factors that surround a group of people at a given time (including language, religion, art, philosophy, and more), is exactly the kind of environmental factor that profoundly influences how people see the world and how they act. Culture influences such diverse psychological phenomena as emotional reactions, cognitive processes, intimate relationship behavior, and more. While humans are the same all over, to some extent, groups of people around the world have their own unique ways. Culture matters. A lot!
2. The understanding that each person is an individual - and this is not just lip service! All people are individuals! While all people follow several laws that govern psychological behavioral processes, each individual is unique in terms of (a) his or her genetic make-up, (b) developmental history, and (c) perspective on the world. When you see someone act, it’s common to think “oh, that person sees the world just as I do” - but, in fact, this assumption is very often incorrect. Two people looking at the same thing often have dramatically different perceptual and emotional responses. Just think about Justin Bieber! I bet you can think of people in your world who vary from one another in their responses to him! Beyond issues of human universality and the impact of culture on behavior, each of us possesses a unique psychology - and understanding this fact about ourselves and others can go a long way toward understanding your social world.
1. An understanding of the truth that there are no bad people. In the 1960s and 70s, a series of renowned experiments conducted by social psychologists, such as Phil Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, uncovered some amazing insights regarding what it means to be human. In his classic “obedience” studies, for instance, Milgram (1963) showed that a large proportion of “regular” adults were capable of obeying an ostensible psychological researcher - to the point that they, the participants, believed that their actions in the study were causing major physical pain - or death - to another participant in the study. Zimbardo conducted several follow-up studies with similar results - “regular people” are all capable of “evil.” While these thoughts are kind of disturbing, they can also be empowering. One implication of these classic studies is this: Evil is not a characteristic of people - rather, it is a characteristic of situations. If we want people to behave in compassionate and cooperative ways, we need to create situations that facilitate such outcomes. And when you see someone in your world whose behavior just seems atrocious - step back and think about that person’s situation. You might not become besties, but at least you can come to appreciate how that person’s behavior is partly a response to situational factors. There are no bad people - rather, there are situations that lead to bad behaviors. There’s a big difference there!
If you’re a student of psychology, I hope that these points make sense and resonate with you. In my work, providing the best possible education in psychology to young adults as they are about to embark on their journeys into adulthood is essential. If you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, realize that your professors are in the business of building this world’s future leaders - and realize that you, like it or not, are on track to lead in the future and to help make the world a better place. Don’t mess up! ;-)
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378