Looking at psychology as a field of study, we see three crucial ideas:
(1) psychology is empirical
(2) psychology is theoretically diverse; and
(3) psychology evolves in a sociohistorical context.
Let’s look at each of these ideas in more detail.
psychology is empirical Everyone tries to understand behavior. Most of us have developed our own personal answers to such questions as why some people are hard worker, why some are overweight, and why others stay in demeaning relationships. If all of us are amateur psychologists, what makes scientific psychology different? The critical difference is that psychology is empirical.
What do we mean by empirical? Empiricism is the premise that knowledge should be acquired through observation. This premise is crucial to the scientific methods that psychology embraced in the late 19th century. To say that psychology is empirical means that its conclusions are based on direct observation rather than on reasoning, speculation, traditional beliefs, or common sense. Psychologists are not content with having ideas that sound plausible. They conduct research to test their ideas.
psychology is theoretically diverse Psychologists do not set out to just collect isolated facts; they seek to explain and understand what they observe. To achieve these goals they must construct theories. A theory is a system of interrelated ideas used to explain a set of observations. in other words, a theory links apparently unrelated observations and tries to explain them. As an example, consider Sigmund Freud’s observation about slip of the tongue, dreams, and psychological disturbances. On the surface, these observations appear unrelated. By devising the concept of unconscious, Freud created a theory that links and explains these seemingly unrelated aspects of behavior.
psychology evolves in a sociohistorical context Our review of psychology’s past is filled with examples of how social trends have left their imprint on psychology. For example, Sigmund Freud’s grounbreaking ideas emerged out of a specific sociohistorical context. Cultural values in Freud’s era encouraged the suppression of sexuality. Hence, people tended to feel guilty about their sexual urges to a much greater extent than is common today. This situation clearly contributed to Freud’s emphasis on unconscious sexual conflicts. As an another example, consider how World War II sparked the rapid growth of psychology as a profession.
Themes Related to Psychology’s Subject Matter Looking at psychology’s subject matter, we see four additional crucial ideas: (4) behavior is determined by multiple causes; (5) our behavior is shaped by our cultural heritage; (6) heredity and environment jointly influence behavior; and (7) our experience of the world is highly subjective.
Behavior is Determined by Multiple Causes As psychology matured, it has provided more and more information about the forces that govern behavior. This growing knowledge has led to deeper appreciation of a simple but important fact: Behavior is exceedingly complex and most aspects of behavior are determined by multiple causes.
As a simple illustration, consider the multiple factors that might influence your performance in your introductory psychology course. Relevant personal factors might include your overall intelligence, your reading ability, your memory skills, your motivation, and your study skills. In addition, your grade could be affected by numerous situational factors, including whether you like your psychology professor, whether you like your assigned text, whether the class meets at a good time for you, whether your work schedule is light or heavy, and whether you’re having any personal problem.
Our Behavior is Shaped by Our Cultural Heritage Among the multiple determinants of human behavior, cultural factors are particularly prominent. Just as psychology evolves in a sociohistorical context, so, too, do individuals. Our cultural backgrounds exert considerable influences over our behavior. What is culture? It’s human-made part of our environment. More specifically, culture refers to the widely shaped customs, beliefs, values, norms, institutions, and other products of a community that are transmitted socially across generations.
Heredity and Environment Jointly Influence Behavior Are we who we are athletic or artistic, quick-tempered or calm. shy or outgoing, energetic or laid back- because of our genetic inheritance or because of our upbringing? This question about the importance of nature versus nurture, or heredity versus environment, has been asked in one form or another since ancient times. Historically, the nature versus nurture question
was framed as an all-or-none proposition. In other words, theorists argued that personal traits and abilities are governed entirely by heredity or entirely by environment. John B. Watson, for instance, asserted that personality and ability depend almost exclusively on an individual’s environment. In contrast, Sir Francis Galton, a pioneer in mental testing, maintained that personality and ability depend almost entirely on genetic inheritance.
Today, most psychologists agree that heredity and environment are both important. A century research has shown that genetics and experience jointly influence individual’s intelligence, temperament, personality, and susceptibility to many psychological disorders.
Our Experience of the World Is Highly Subjective People’s experience of the world is highly subjective. Even elementary perception- for example, of sights and sounds- is not a passive process. We actively process incoming stimulation, selectively focusing on some aspects of that stimulation while ignoring others. Moreover, we impose organization on the stimuli that we pay attention to. These tendencies combine to make perception personalized and subjective.