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What is Psychology


What is Psychology?

Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes.

  • Behavior: anything an organism does that is directly observable
  • Mental Processes: the internal, private experiences an organism has that cannot be directly observed


Psychological theories combine statements about behavior, mental processes, and biological processes.  Theories propose reasons for relationships among eventsderive explanations and make predictions.

A satisfactory theory allows to predict behavior. For example:

  • A threat can arouse feelings of anxiety.
  • Hunger should allow us to predict when people will or will not eat.



  1. Research
    • Pure:interest in a research topic, but no immediate application.
    • Applied: designed to find solutions to a specific personal or social problems.
  1. Practice
    • Applypsychological knowledge to help individuals change their behavior do they can meet their goals more effectively
  1. Teaching
    • Share psychological knowledge.



1.2 Historical Foundations of Psychology

Greeks Philosophers:

  • About 2500 years ago they started offering natural explanations for phenomena rather than supernatural ones.
    • Socrates:
      • proposed the expression “Know thyself”
      • suggested we should rely on introspection
        • introspection: careful examination of one’s own thoughts and emotions to gain self knowledge
      • Aristotle– argued that human behavior is subject to rules and laws
      • Democritus– suggested we could think of behavior in terms of body and mind

Gustav Theodor Fechter (1801 -1887):

  • Published Elements of Psychophysics (1860)
  • In this book he showed how physical events (such as light and sounds) can stimulate psychological sensations and perceptions and that we can measure the effect of those events.

1.2a Structuralism – Wilhelm Wundt (1832 -1920):


  • First psychology laboratory: University of Leipzig (Germany)
  • Structuralism – the mind functions by combining objective and subjective experiences
    • Objective Experiences: sight or taste
    • Subjective Experiences: feelings, mental images, memories and dreams
  • Main research technique: Introspection! ( See Socrates above)

1.2b Functionalism  – William James (1842 – 1910):

  • Major figure in American psychology.
  • Functionalism – looks at how our experience helps us function more adaptively in our environments
  • Influenced by Charles Darwin theory of evolution, adaptive actions tend to be repeated and become habits

What is the difference between Structuralists and Functionalists?

  • Structuralist tended to ask:
    • What are the pieces that make up thinking and experience?
  • Functionalists tended to ask:
    • How do behavior and mental processes help people adapt to the requirements of their lives?

The video below shows a brief explanation of the difference between the two approaches:

Mary Whiton Calkins (1863 -1930):

  • Studied psychology at Harvard University as a guest student. No woman was allowed in the program at the time.
  • She completed the Ph. D. requirements, but Harvard did not awarded her with a degree!
  • She became the president of the American Psychology Association.
  • Conducted research in memory.


1.4 How psychologists study behavior and mental processes

1.4a The Scientific Method

Scientific Method

  • an organized way of using experience and testing ideas to expand and refine knowledge


  • a specific statement about behavior or mental processes that is tested through research

Imagine that you are having a conversation with your friend and she tells you that she seems to retain more material when she studies while listening to music.  You decide to use the scientific method to see if test if that methodology of studying is efficient.  If you follow the steps mentioned in figure 1.5 it would look like this:

  • Daily Experience: Your friend tells you that she is able to retain more material if she studies with music.
  • One possible question:Does listening to music improves memory?
  • Hypothesis:People who listen to music while learning a list of words will score higher in a recall test.
  • Evidence: Conduct an experiment (One way to do it is to have two groups, one listens to music the other don’t while taking a memory test)
  • Draw Conclusions based on results. – Possible results: the group who listens to music scores higher in the memory test.
  • Construct a new theory or modify the current one: Classical Music was used in this experiment, what if the music played during the experiments belongs to a different genre?
  • New research questions.(Ex. When it comes to performance in a memory test, is it one genre of music better than others?)


1.4b Samples and Populations

One of the most important things to take into consideration when conducting an experiment is how to select your participants.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to have access to all the members of a group, that is why it is important to know how to select a representative sample of that population.  This process have to be done correctly, in order to be able to generalize the results of your study.

A few definitions:

  • Population– Complete group of interest.
  • Sample– Segment of population. 
    • Representative samples allow generalization of findings.  

1.4c Problems in generalizing from psychological research 

Depending on the type of study, there are different ways to select the participants.

  • Random Sample– each member of a population has an equal chance of being selected
    • Example: In a study about how commuting time affects academic performances, a computer in your community college randomly selects the names of all the enrolled students.
  • Stratified Sample-Select the sample by randomly selecting participants that proportionally represent those categories
    • Example: In the example described above, the population could divided in two categories to represent the students’ gender as the are represented in the school. 
      • Category 1: Females — 55%
      • Category 2: Males — 45%

Volunteer bias is defined as a source of bias or error in research,
the people who offer to be part of the study.  Why do you think
researches should be worry about this type or source bias?



1.5 Methods of Research

1.5a Methods of observation

·        The case study 

  • To control for epileptic seizures H.M.’s hippocampus was removed ( we will learn more about this case on Chapter 6).
  • After surgery H.M’s long term memory was impaired.
  • This unexpected results gave researchers insight of how memory works in our brains.
  • In this type of study researchers collect information about ONEindividual and in some cases from small groups of participants.
  • It is often used to investigate brain injuries.

This video shows another famous case study  The case of Phineas Gage

  • Surveys
    • Used to collect information that cannot be observed directly or studied experimentally
      • One Advantage:
        • psychologist can study many thousands of people at the same time
      • One Disadvantages:
        • people may recall their behavior inaccurately, or deny or lie about it
      • Question have to be carefully constructed
        • Example: In a survey participants were asked their opinion on censorship of sex and violence in media(TV, film..etc.) 
          • Only 27% approve of “government censorship” of what’s shown on TV
          • 66% approve of “more restrictions on what is shown on TV”
          • NOTE that the question is the same, but the way it was phrased is different.



  • The Experimental Method

All the methods described above are descriptive methods.  That means that they only describe behaviors, but do not explain cause and effect.  The method used to explain cause and effect is: THE EXPERIMENT!

  • The experiment methodology is characterized by using:
    • Independent variables:manipulated by researches so that its effects are measured
    • Dependentvariables: the outcome, or results
      • Example: Experiment to determine whether alcohol influences aggression.
        • Independent Variable – manipulation of alcohol consumption
        • Dependent Variable – aggressive behavior
      • Experimental Groups– participants that obtain treatment
      • Control Groups– participants that do not obtain treatment, while other conditions are held constant

Researchers use different techniques to make sure the results of the experiment are a direct effect of the manipulation and not participant or experimenter bias.

    • Blind study– Placebos are administered on the participants
    • Placebos: A bogus treatment that has the appearance of being genuine
    • Double-blind study– Participants and observers are unaware of who is taking a drug and who is taking a placebo Placebos
  • Example from the textbook Figure 1.7: 
  • In a double -blind study: “A research team found that actual content of the drink was immaterial.
  • The belief about what they drank affected their behavior more than what they actually consumed.”
  • (Lang, 1975)
  • This video shows a brief summary of the differences between the techniques described above.



1.6 Ethics in Psychological Research

1.6a Ethics of Research with Humans

  • Some of the purposes of an ethics review committee are:
    • Review proposed studies according to ethical guidelines before granting approval
    • Weigh the potential benefits of research against the potential harm
    • Before participating in a research individuals need to sing and provide informed consent.
      • Records of research participants and clients are kept confidential!
    • Participants in a research study must be aware of the type of study they are participating, but SOMETIMES, deception is needed in order to get accurate results.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA’s) ethical standards(Links to an external site.), psychologists may use deception when:
      • They believe the benefits of the research outweigh its harm
      • They believe the individuals might have been willing to participate if they had understood the benefits of the research
      • Participants are debriefed later


·        1.6b Ethics of Research with Animals

Animals are used when research cannot be carried out with humans:

  • Animals may be harmed only when:
  • There is no alternative
  • Benefits of the research justify the harm


In the Chapter 1 video, I mention the The Nuremberg Code (Links to an external site.) and the Milgram studies (Links to an external site.)
These two topics are not included on test #1, but I included some links here
in case you want to learn more about them. (Note: we will cover Milgram studies
later in the semester)




1.7 Principles of Critical Thinking

  • Be skeptical
  • Insist on evidence
  • Examine definitions of terms
  • Examine the assumptions or premises of arguments
  • Be cautious in drawing conclusions from evidence
  • Consider alternative interpretations of research evidence
  • Do not oversimplify
  • Do not overgeneralize
  • Apply critical thinking to all areas of life






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Psychology 041 – Life Span Psychology

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