What Is Psychology?

What is psychology? According to the American Psychological Association, psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. This is the current academic definition. Therefore, it is the definition you should use in your studies.

But psychology also involves more. Psychologists do not study the mind and behaviour for the sake of it. Rather, they study these things so that their insight can help others.

what is psychology graphic

Breaking Down this Definition

statue of psyche


Psyche or Psykhē can mean the mind. Yet, it can also refer to the soul or to human nature. It stems from the ancient Greek story of Psyche and Eros (Cupid). In the latter part of the nineteenth century, when psychology first began, psychologists focused on studying the mind. And, this is where the first part of the word psychology comes from.

Additionally, psychologists also use the Greek letter Ψ (psi) as the symbol of their profession.

Psychology, unlike chemistry, algebra or literature, is a manual for your own mind

Daniel Goldstein

When studying the mind, psychologists focus on mental processes. For example, thoughts, feelings and memory. Yet, some psychologists are also interested in the biological workings of the brain. More specifically, they are curious about how such workings shape both:

  • Mental processes
  • Behaviour

In the first half of the twentieth century, psychologists, such as John Watson, moved away from exploring the mind. Rather, they started to focus on studying observable behavior. This included the behavior of animals.

Today, psychologists study both the mind and behavior. And, they also explore the relationships between the two.

Scientific Study

People have wondered about the nature of humanity for thousands of years. But for most of that time, such musings were philosophical or religious.

Then came the Scientific Revolution. As a result, our approach to understanding the world around us changed forever. Psychology took this approach and turned it inwards. In other words, it sought to study the nature of humanity with scientific rigour.

The word element -ology, forms the second part of the psychology. And, although its meaning has changed over time, it often refers to the:

  • Study of
  • Scientific study of

Science is therefore central to what psychology is all about. Scientific methods, such as observation and experimentation are critical.

Ironically, early attempts to study human nature scientifically (and some later ones), have since been criticised as unscientific. This has led some people to question whether psychology really is a science.

But human beings are complex and psychologists strive to approach their work scientifically.

aims of psychology

Aims & Goals of Psychology

In addition to the above definition, when considering, what is psychology, it is important to understand its aims and goals. At a broad level, it seeks to:

  • Understand people
  • Use this insight to help others

Then, these two aims are often expressed as four specific goals, which are to:

  1. Describe how people act, think and feel
  2. Understand why people act, think and feel that way
  3. Predict how people will act and react (including mental reactions)
  4. Shape people’s behaviour (including mental behaviour) in helpful ways

Psychology In Action?

Make a picture in your mind about a psychologist at work. Many people picture a person helping someone with a mental illness, such as, anxiety or depression. And, they are right. This is something that many psychologists do.

However, there are many other ways and many other contexts where a psychologist’s insights can help. For example, psychologists often help:

  • Organisations predict which candidates will be better leaders
  • Everyday people to lead happier, more fulfilling lives
  • Governments to promote healthy choices and discourage unhealthy ones
  • Veterans to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Families and couples to improve their relationships

And, this is just a sample of the numerous ways psychologists use their knowledge to help people.

10 Psychological Subfields

There are many subfields in psychology. You will find 10 common ones below.

BiologicalExploring how biological process affect psycholgical phenomena and vice versa.
ClinicalHelping people with mental illnesses.
CounsellingHelping people with challenging life events, ranging from career transitions to rape.
DevelopmentalExploring changes in behavior and mental processes as we age (birth to death).
EducationalExploring ways to help teachers to teach and students to learn.
ForensicHelping people within the legal and criminal justice systems.
OrganizationalHelping to select, develop and look after people within organizations.
PersonalityExploring how people’s enduring ways of acting differ from each other.
SocialExplore how people think, act and feel within groups.
SportHelping people to participate in and excel in sports.

What is Psychology in a Nutshell?

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind, behavior and interaction between them + the application of this insight to help people.

How to cite this article:

Killian, S. P. (2019, November). What is psychology? The science of the mind and behavior. Retrieved from The Science of Psychology: https://scienceofpsychology.org/what-is-psychology