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We are all psychologists of a kind...

Updated on February 8, 2012

We are all psychologists of a kind. In our everyday lives we do what the psychologist does in the laboratory. We watch our fellow humans and listen to what they say. We observe how they react to what we do. We gather together the information from our observations and form theories (short people are aggressive; women are nervous drivers; long-haired students smoke pot). And we test these theories by watching to see if our predictions are accurate; or we seek out evidence to support them. Often we are wrong, although we do not readily admit it.

Our common sense may be adequate for many tasks and situations, but it can also lead us to wrong conclusions and make our actions ineffective. Many of our ideas about human nature, personality, cultural influences, may be simply prejudices or based on assumptions derived from our own natures, personalities and upbringing. We may be poor observers of phenomena, uncritical of information, inadequate assimilators of complex ideas; and this can lead us to misusing psychology, to 'psychologising'.

In attempting to understand or explain behavior it is easy to become attached to false or oversimplified arguments in order to support our propositions. We say, to take a simple example, 'The violence evident in large, poor families is due to conditions of overcrowding.' Why? Because everyone knows that when lots of rats are placed in a small cage they will eventually turn on each other and even kill the weaker rats.

The idea is interesting, the inference tempting; but the assumptions are incorrect. It is true that some people will get violent and that others will become panic-stricken or riotous in overcrowded conditions; but most people will not. Even for those who do, there may be any number of other reasons for their apparently 'typical' behavior. Rats do not equal humans do not equal entire races. Rats hoard, some gypsies hoard. Are the gypsies all misers? Will they kill their brethren in an overcrowded caravan site? No. Yet this process of simplifying the world we live in by making analogies between unlike things can dominate all our responses, even our way of life.

The more complex or baffling a situation, 'the greater our desire to simplify it. Psychologists shudder at this tendency. They argue that the more complexity we can cope with the better, if we are interested in the truth about ourselves and the way we behave. The greater our maturity, the less we will need to simplify or psychologise and the better we will be able to accommodate ourselves to real life, which is not simple. This is why psychologists attempt to follow the methods of science. Unraveling the mysteries

A hundred years ago the idea of adopting a scientific approach to the study of people was an exciting novelty. At that time it seemed great progress to discover how large the difference had to be between two weights for a person (any person) to be able to discern that difference. Then it was found that much the same was true in judging differences in loudness, color or the length of lines. This was an important discovery: it carried the implication that human beings behave in regularly repeatable and predictable ways to which an experimental method of investigation is appropriate.

This development led directly to the next great advances, which come about by using scientific methods to try to answer the question: 'How do we become competent adults?' We start out as helpless infants: at least a part of the new behavior acquired along the path of development to adulthood must be learned: how does the learning process operate?

The first scientific answers came from a Russian physiologist, Pavlov, and an American psychologist, Thorndike. They showed that learning depends on reward and punishment. But their discoveries were more subtle than is apparent from that statement. Just any reward, given at any time, will not do: it must be something that is really wanted by the organism at a biological level, and it must come very soon (about half a second) after the behavior that is to be learned.

We now know that learning is in fact a more complicated process than that, but that was the simple seed from which a great deal of psychology grew. An important aspect of Pavlov and Thorndike's work was that they experimented with animals. With other pioneers, they were able to show that the learning of behavior in humans can be reliably related to the same process in lower animals. This does not mean that humans behave like animals, but that humans and animals learn some of their behavioral patterns in similar ways. In fact we humans have learned a great deal about ourselves by methodically investigating specific aspects of animal behavior.

Psychology in this guise was known as 'the science of behavior', or more fully, 'the science of the behavior of organisms'. But an older definition was 'the science of mental life', and many modern psychologists are returning to this definition, which makes 'consciousness' a central concept and encourages the study of dreams, fantasy, memories, thought processes, sensations and so on, all aspects of the functioning of mind.

Earlier psychologists, particularly the early behaviorists, either denied the importance of such phenomena or saw them as special kinds of behavior. They argued that, for example, thoughts may bear very little relation to what the thinker actually does or is. A man may regard himself as a lion, but be seen by his friends as a mouse, a mild, gentle chap with slightly ridiculous notions. According to the behaviorists, it is what he actually does which matters to others and, in the long run, to himself. Actions speak louder than words.


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    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Nice hub, clear and concise. Well written and easy to understand.