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Authors: Adam Cash

Tags: #Psychology, #General, #Body; Mind & Spirit, #Spirituality

Psychology for Dummies (4 page)

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Playing Armchair Psychologist

In a way, each of us is an amateur psychologist of sorts. Professional psychologists aren’t the only ones who try to figure people out. When I started taking psychology courses, I had my own ideas about people. Sometimes, I agreed with the theories of Freud and others, and sometimes, I disagreed wholeheartedly. I’m sure that I’m not alone. Most of us seem to have our own ideas about what makes others tick.

One of the neatest things about psychology is that it covers a topic that we all have experience with — people. It’s pretty hard to say the same thing about chemistry and astronomy. Of course, we all encounter chemicals every day, but I can’t remember the last time I asked, “How do they get that mouthwash to taste like mint?”

One of the best places to catch armchair psychologists in action is the local coffeehouse. The tables are filled with people sitting around and talking about the whys and the wherefores of other people’s behavior. “And then I said. . . .” “You should have told him. . . .” It’s like being in a big group therapy session sometimes. We’re all hard at work figuring people out.

 
 

Psychologists sometimes call this armchair psychologizing
folk psychology
— a framework of principles used by ordinary people to understand, explain, and predict their own and other people’s behavior and mental states. In practice, we use a variety of psychological notions or concepts to explain individuals’ mental states, personalities, or circumstances. Two concepts that a lot of us use for this purpose are
beliefs
and
desires.
We all believe that people have beliefs and that they act on those beliefs. Why do people do what they do? Because of their beliefs.

When we practice folk psychology, we assume that people do what they do because of their thoughts and mental processes — their beliefs and desires. Folk psychology isn’t the only tool that armchair psychologists use. It’s not unusual for people to explain other’s behavior in terms of luck, curses, blessings, karma, fate, destiny, or any other number of non-psychological terms. I don’t want to make these explanations sound like a bad thing. It’s pretty hard to explain why someone wins the lottery from a psychological perspective. Explaining why someone continues to buy tickets even when they keep losing? Now that can be explained using psychology.

One Among the Sciences

A number of scholarly fields attempt to use their own perspectives to answer the same core questions that psychology attempts to answer. In one way or another, physics, biology, chemistry, history, economics, political science, sociology, medicine, and anthropology all concern themselves with people. The psychological perspective is just one voice among this chorus of disciplines that strives for validity based on the acceptance of the scientific method as the most valid and useful approach to understanding reality.

Psychology exists among and interacts with other disciplines. Just as each of us lives in a community, psychology is part of a community of knowledge, and it provides a unique contribution to that community. It’s a tool for understanding people. Sometimes, its theories and research are the right tools, and sometimes, they’re not. Not everything is reducible to a psychological understanding, but we need tools for understanding the chaos of human behavior and mental processes.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of psychologists have come up with a basic set of
metatheories
or “grand theories” to guide our work. These theories are used to cast a framework on the whirling and buzzing world of human behavior and mental processes in order to begin to understand it. One comment I get from students from time to time is, “What makes you think that psychology has all the answers?” My answer, “Psychologists are just trying to provide a piece of the puzzle, not all the answers.”

Framing with Metatheories

Each of the following grand theories provides an overarching framework within which most psychological research is conducted. (There are other perspectives that represent hybridized approaches, such as neuropsychology and cognitive science. But for now I’m just sticking with the basics.) Each of these metatheories has a different point of emphasis when approaching the core psychological questions of why, how, and what. A lot of research and theory is based on one or more of these grand theories. When a psychologist finds a behavior or mental process she’s interested in researching, she typically begins to work from within one of these theories.

Biological:
Focuses on the biological underpinnings of behavior and the effects of evolution and genetics. The premise is that behavior and mental processes can be explained by understanding human physiology and anatomy. Biological psychologists focus mostly on the brain and the nervous system. (For more on biological psychology, see Chapter 3.)

We’ve all seen people act differently when they’re under the influence of alcohol. Holiday office parties are good laboratories for applying the biological perspective. Imagine walking into a party and seeing Bob, the relatively quiet guy from accounting, burning up the cubicles like some kind of disco inferno that could make John Travolta sweat. He’s the lady’s man. He’s funny. He’s drunk. Do you think Bob will remember?

Psychoanalytic:
Emphasizes the importance of unconscious mental processes and early child-development issues as they relate to childish impulses, childish wishes, immature desires, and the demands of the reality that we live in. Sigmund Freud founded psychoanalysis, and since then, hundreds of theorists have added to his work. The newer theories are typically labeled
psychodynamic
because they emphasize the dynamic interplay between various components of personality. (For more on psychoanalysis, see Chapters 10, 11, and 19.)

I once read an article about the significance of a child beating his or her parent at either a game or a sports activity. Should parents let their children win? Psychoanalysts largely believe that competition is inherent between parent and child and that the eventual acceptance of that competition is essential to the child’s healthy psychological adjustment in life.

Behaviorism:
Emphasizes the role of previous learning experiences in shaping behavior. Behaviorists don’t traditionally focus on mental pro-cesses because they believe that mental processes are too difficult to observe and measure objectively.

One of the most powerful behavioral influences on our behavior comes from watching other people. Monkey see — monkey do! Psychologists call this process
observational learning.
In recent years, a lot of controversy has arisen about the influence of television and videogame violence on children. The research has been pretty consistent. Children who view violent television and play violent videogames are more likely to engage in violent behavior.

Cognitive:
Focuses on the mental processing of information, including the specific functions of reasoning, problem solving, and memory. Cognitive psychologists are interested in the mental plans and thoughts that guide and cause behavior.

Whenever someone tells me to look at the bright side, they’re coming from a cognitive perspective. When something bad happens to me, I can feel better if the problem gets solved or the issue is resolved. But how should I feel if nothing changes? If my circumstances don’t change, do I have to feel bad forever? Of course not — I can change the way I think about the situation. I can look on the bright side!

Humanistic and existential:
Emphasizes the uniqueness of each individual person and our ability and responsibility to make choices in our lives. I’m not a victim of circumstance! I have choices in my life. Human-ists believe that a person’s free choice, free will, and understanding of the meaning of events and his or her life are the most important things to study.

Have you ever felt like just another nameless face in the crowd? Has your life ever seemed as if it were controlled by the winds of chance? How did it feel? Probably not very good. Feeling like we have choices and making good choices give us a sense of true being and affirm our existence.

Sociocultural:
Focuses on the social and cultural factors that affect our behavior.

Never underestimate the power of groups or culture in investigating the why, how, and what of behavior and mental processes. The tattoo phenomenon of the 1990s is a good example of this power. Before the ’90s, people who got ink were seen as acting outside of the status quo, so “status quo” people weren’t lined up outside the tattoo parlor. Nowadays, tattoos are widely accepted, and even Mr. Status Quo may have a tat or two or three.

Feminism:
Focuses on the political, economic, and social rights of women and how these forces influence both men’s and women’s behavior. The feminist perspective originated in the women’s movement of the 1960s.

One issue in particular has caught the attention of feminist researchers and clinicians — eating disorders. From their perspective, eating disorders in young women are largely the consequence of excessive pressures to be thin that mass media and culture place upon girls. Feminists draw our attention to the fashion magazines and female role models in popular culture.

Postmodernism:
Questions the very core of psychological science, challenging its approach to truth and its focus on the individual. Post-modernists propose, for example, that in order to understand human thinking and reason, we need to look at the social and communal processes involved in thinking and reason.

They make the argument that people in powerful positions have too much to say about what is “real” and “true” in psychology. They advocate a
social constructionist
view of reality, which states that the concepts of “reality” and “truth” are defined, or constructed, by society. These concepts have no meaning, apart from the meanings that society and its “experts” assign to them.

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