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Basic and Applied Psychology
In every science, including psychology, there is a distinction between basic and applied research. In psychology, basic research uses the scientific method to try to understand fundamental laws of the mind and behavior; applied research tries to solve specific problems by applying scientific principles and knowledge. Thus, for example, basic researchers might look for fundamental laws of learning, while applied researchers would try to find the best way to teach an IBM employee to use a new computer. Or basic researchers might look for differences in the brain chemistry of schizophrenics versus other clinical patients, while applied researchers would more likely focus on evaluating a particular drug used to treat schizophrenia. Similarly, basic researchers might investigate the nature of intelligence, while applied researchers would try to improve a particular IQ test. Note that in each of these examples, the applied researchers focus on a more immediate problem, while the basic researchers provide the foundation for applied work. Thus understanding of the nature of intelligence may be required to produce the best intelligence tests, and knowledge of the brain chemistry of schizophrenia may lead to the discovery of new drugs to treat or even cure it.
Basic researchers who call themselves experimental psychologists typically conduct laboratory studies in such areas as learning, human memory, and sensation and perception. Many experimental psychologists work with animals to unravel mysteries concerning the effects of different patterns of reward and punishment, the development of addictions, and the ability to discriminate among various stimuli. They also study infants to learn more about the basic competencies (visual, auditory, conceptual) with which babies are born and the ways these basic competencies are modified by experience.
Physiological psychologists study the biological bases of behavior: how the structure of the brain is related to experience, for example, or how genetics influence behavior. Physiological psychologists have helped us learn more about how the human senses work discovering, for example, that pilots flying at night can see better out of the sides of their eyes than straight ahead. They have also collected a great deal of important data on sleep, jet lag, and human vigilance. And their work on neurotransmitters has already led to more effective ways of dealing with neurological problems such as Parkinson's disease.
Developmental psychologists focus on the physical, emotional, and intellectual changes associated with aging. Most developmental psychologists today work within a life span developmental framework; they recognize that development is a lifelong process that continues from cradle to grave. While some developmental psychologists focus on the characteristics and behaviors of infants and toddlers, others are more interested in older children and adolescents. Still others attempt to identify and study the major patterns of development that occur during mid-life and old age.
Contemporary personality psychologists are more empirical in their approach and focus on more limited problems than the whole person. Nevertheless, many of these psychologists work within the tradition of Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. For example, they may try to investigate unconscious motives that underlie and give direction to behavior. They believe that there's more to personality than meets the eye, and that we need to know why people behave as they do, not just what they do.
Social psychologists are concerned with the way people respond to other human beings and how they interact with one another. They study such issues as impression formation, attitude change, and obedience to authority. Their emphasis is on how social forces, not internal psychological processes, influence what people do. In doing basic research, social psychologists, like other basic researchers, try to add to our knowledge about human behavior. Other psychologists are more interested in how this basic knowledge can be applied to solve human problems.