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The First Fields of Psychology

This lesson is a part of an audio course Brain Science for Non-Scientists by Wilf Nelson

The first field, this is a lesson I wanted to make because when I graduated and was a psychologist, I found almost no one understood what I did. What the next three lessons will do is teach you where psychology is today, what it can do, what can't it do, and what labs look like in the modern era. My show WaterCooler Neuroscience interviews new scientists every week to discuss their work so once you have completed these lessons, please visit us and use what you learned in this course to amplify your experience.

The first scientific field of psychology was behaviourism. We all know about Freud and mothers and sons and dreams, and everyone is repressed or depressed, but that isn't where modern psychology as science takes its roots. Psychology then was in a place between science and art. The first progenitor of modern psychology was BF Skinner, he believed that whatever was going on in the mind was not scientific, a view that didn't hold forever, but this shows why psychology became a science. In his view, whatever I say is going on in my head, is for only me to know. Even under extreme circumstances, I could lie, or just not understand my own thoughts and emotions, it was unreliable, I could say one thing today and another thing tomorrow, and since that would never work in a medical, physics, or chemistry lab it wasn't science. He only studied behaviour, how rats responded to good and bad stimuli, what they did, and when tests on humans were done, we again cared about what they did, not what they said.

Eventually, psychology moved on from behaviourism, but it holds strong roots to this day, and in the next episode, you will see what I mean.

But next came the cognitive revolution, the belief that we could study the mind. This wasn't done with just asking people how they feel, sitting them down on coaches, and talking about dreams but by studying memory, attention, and language to name a few fields. This exploded and became the mainstay of psychology today. In fact, because you can experiment with this, how well does someone remember things after a can of coke, that is an experiment, and it studies cognition, it is the largest field of psychology. Let's make a quick experiment to show you what experimental psychology is. I want to see if motivation improves test scores, it studies the cognition of people, and it studies their behaviour. We have a group who are told this test really matters; it will decide your grade for the year, so very motivating and another group who are told this test doesn't matter, it is just for an experiment. We also don't want them talking to each other because that could confuse things, caused a confound in science. After all, scientists love terms like that. We make sure they get the same textbooks, we ask them to record how much they study, it might make them feel like they need to study more, but because we ask both it is constant, it is controlled, and then we give them the test. This has been done, motivation in and of itself does nothing to test scores. What predicted test scores was general intelligence measured by an IQ test, how many classes they turned up to, and how many hours they logged in their study diaries. If someone who thought the test was a throwaway studied more than someone who thought their future depended on it, well the better studier got the better result, not the more motivated person. Now you may say that the person who studied more was more motivated, fair so what we do then is provided questionnaires, interviews, and retests, all more follow-up experiments. And the same thing, wanting something doesn't make it happen, just lying in bed desperately wanting something is irrelevant. It is the conversion to action that matters.

This might seem obvious, but it matters when you try to understand human behaviour, we know barriers make people find things harder, so we know even very motivating goals like becoming a millionaire are going to have very few people manage because being motivated doesn't matter, it is action and getting past those barriers. This matters hugely when you study business.

That, very briefly, is how cognitive psychology took off. We can turn thoughts and actions into things we can study; we can make predictions, and go from there.

The other field before we reach modern-day psychology is social psychology. Social psychology came about in the 70s and 80s with real pushes at Stanford in its early days. The argument was humans never do anything alone, even listening to this lesson alone involves me, we are talking about people, and you are using a phone made by other people, etc. That means we have to study how people act around others and alone, how different social situations change our actions, and most importantly use social psychology to ask how people think about others. We know that people can commit horrible actions when pressured by authority, we know humans quickly separate others into groups to try and understand situations more easily and we know that humans are very risk-averse so will protect against possible loss. It is not hard to see how all these discoveries, and more important experimental evidence that we can predict, manipulate, and explain these in the lab and outside the lab, and matters for our lives.

In the next lesson, we will talk about the modern fields and how the inventions in neuroimaging have brought neuroscience and psychology together.

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Written by

Wilf Nelson