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What Is Psychology?

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  1. 1:04 Biological Psychology
  2. 1:48 Psychodynamic Psychology
  3. 2:33 Behavioral Psychology
  4. 3:12 Cognitive Psychology
  5. 3:56 Humanistic Psychology
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Taught by

Polly Peterson

Psychology is the scientific study of how we think, feel and behave. In this lesson, you'll get an overview of the five main approaches that have guided modern psychological research.

Why do you act the way you do? Have you ever wondered why some people are the life of the party and others prefer to curl up with a good book? Or why you remember certain events but not others? People have studied the mind and how it works since the time of the ancient Greeks, but the scientific study of psychology only dates back to a little over a hundred years ago.

Since Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychology lab in 1879, psychologists have studied various aspects of human behavior, such as personality, brain functions and socio-cultural influences. As psychology progressed, it began to tackle the question of why we do what we do from different angles, including: biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive and humanistic perspectives. Let's look at each of these five main approaches that guide modern psychological research.

Biological Approach

Biopsychologists look at how your nervous system, hormones and genetic makeup affect your behavior. Biological psychologists explore the connection between your mental states and your brain, nerves and hormones to explore how your thoughts, moods and actions are shaped.

So what does that mean? It means that for the biological approach, you are the sum of your parts. You think the way you do because of the way your brain is built and because of your body's needs. All of your choices are based on your physical body. The biological approach attempts to understand the healthy brain, but it also examines the mind and body to figure out how disorders like schizophrenia develop from genetic roots.

Psychodynamic Approach

The psychodynamic approach was promoted by Sigmund Freud, who believed that many of our impulses are driven by sex. Psychologists in this school of thought believe that unconscious drives and experiences from early childhood are at the root of your behaviors and that conflict arises when societal restrictions are placed on these urges.

Psychologist Sigmund Freud
Psychodynamic Approach

Now, there are a lot of jokes about Freud and his now mostly outdated theories. But have you ever thought that something about who you are today comes from your experiences as a child? Say, you blame your smoking habit on an oral fixation that stems from being weaned from breastfeeding too early as a baby. Well, that also comes from Freud's theories, and it was an idea that revolutionized how we see ourselves.

Behavioral Approach

Behavioral psychologists believe that external environmental stimuli influence your behavior and that you can be trained to act a certain way. Behaviorists like B.F. Skinner don't believe in free will. They believe that you learn through a system of reinforcement and punishment.

The behavioral approach is really effective when you don't care what someone thinks, as long as you get the desired behavior. The influence of these theories affects us every day and throughout our lives, impacting everything from why we follow the rules of the road when driving to how advertising companies build campaigns to get us to buy their products.

Cognitive Approach

In contrast to behaviorists, cognitive psychologists believe that your behavior is determined by your expectations and emotions. Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget would argue that you remember things based on what you already know. You also solve problems based on your memory of past experiences.

Piaget was a cognitive psychologist
Jean Piaget

So, with this approach, we turn away from people as machines without free will and delve back into thoughts and feelings. How you act is based upon internal processes, and there is much more stress upon individuals. From a cognitive perspective, your expectations of an upcoming party will affect how you feel and act while you're there and will color your memory of the night after you return home.

Humanistic Approach

Humanistic psychologists believe that you're essentially good and that you're motivated to realize your full potential. Psychologists from this camp focus on how you can feel good about yourself by fulfilling your needs and goals. The prominent humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers called his patients 'clients' and offered a supportive environment in which clients could gain insight into their own feelings.

In contrast to the behavioral approach, the humanistic approach works on individual empowerment. Whether you are right or not, in a larger sense, you are motivated to be the best person you can be. All your choices come from trying to improve your life. So, if you're trying to cut back on your nightly wine consumption, a humanistic therapist would be encouraging and supportive but won't directly advise you to quit or try to analyze why you drink in the first place.

Review

Let's summarize what you've learned. Psychology is truly modern: it's the way we understand ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings and our behaviors. Five major approaches in psychology are biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive and humanistic. Each has its own perspectives on the roots of why you do what you do.

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