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Introduction to Psychology

'Hoping to satisfy their curiosity about people and to remedy their woes, millions of people turn to "psychology." They listen to talk shows featuring over-the-air counseling, read magazine columns on harnessing psychic powers, attend seminars on how to stop smoking through hypnosis, and browse self-help books on the meaning of dreams, the secrets of ecstatic love, and the roots of happiness." (David G. Myers, Exploring Psychology, 5th edition.)

What is Psychology?

Way back in 1890, William James defined Psychology as the 'science of mental life'.It was implicit in James' writings that we are all psychologists in that we interpret the actions and intentions of other people. Gillian Butler describes it thus in Psychology: A Very Short Introduction

"We behave as amateur psychologists when we offer opinions on complex psychological phenomena, such as whether brain washing works, or when we espouse as facts our opinions about why other people behave in the ways that they do: think they are being insulted, feel unhappy, or suddenly give up their jobs. However, problems arise when two people understand these things differently. Formal psychology attempts to provide methods for deciding which explanations are most likely to be correct, or for determining the circumstances under which each applies. The work of psychologists helps us to distinguish between inside information which is subjective, and may be biased and unreliable, and the facts: between our preconceptions and what is 'true' in scientific terms."

Gillian Butler observes that one of the major problems of Psychology is that science demands that 'facts' should be objective and verifiable, but the workings of the mind cannot be observed in the way that we can observe the functioning of (for example) an engine. Instead, they are perceived only indirectly, requiring that we infer them from what can be observed: behaviour.

Butler (p. 4) states:

"The endeavour of psychology is much like that involved in solving a crossword puzzle. It involves evaluating and interpreting the available clues, and using what you already know to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, the clues themselves have to be derived from careful observation, based on accurate measurement, analysed with all possible scientific rigour, and interpreted using logical and reasoned arguments which can be subjected to public scrutiny.">

She goes on to note that:

"Much of what we want to know in psychology - how we perceive, learn, remember, think, solve problems, feel, develop, differ from each other, and interrelate - has to be measured indirectly, and all these activities are multiply determined: meaning that they are influenced by several factors rather than by a single one. "

In his Exploring Psychology, David Myers (p.4) considers that, as scientists, psychologists try to use careful observation and rigorous analysis to sift opinion and evaluate ideas. He contends that Psychology is less a set of findings than a way of asking and answering questions. Unfortunately, students and lay readers often come to the subject expecting 'correct answers', facts and usable theories and frequently go away disappointed and blaming their teachers when they discover that the subject has some fascinating questions ... but not too many answers.

But this is not to say that the subject has no content. On the contrary, as Myers notes:

"Its scientific sifting of ideas has produced a smorgasbord of concepts and findings (...) Once aware of psychology's well-researched ideas - about how body and mind connect, how a child's mind grows, how we construct our perceptions, how we remember and mistrust (and misremember) our experiences, how people across the world differ (and are alike) - your mind may never again be quite the same."

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