When any given person hears the word “psychology” a variety of ideas might come to their mind. One person may immediately picture a therapist, pen in hand, notebook ready, looking curiously at their patient who is partially reclined on a red leather futon. “And how does that make you feel?" Another person’s thoughts may go to their favorite psychological thriller novel or movie, which use suspense and doubt to entwine your emotions with the storyline and characters.
The science of psychology is in general a method for the observation and study of human behavior and a road for discovering the answers to seemingly endless questions about the human mind and the intricacies of thought process. According to John W. Santrock in our text Psychology Essentials (2004), psychology is considered to be a science because it uses systematic methods to observe, describe, predict, and explain behavior and mental processes. He goes on to define behavior as everything that we do that can be directly observed and mental processes to be those thoughts, feelings, and motives that we experience privately and cannot be observed by others.
Historically psychology has sought to answer questions that are as old as man: why we are the way we are and why we do what we do. In his 1890 textbook The Principles of Psychology (Stanford, 2006) American philosopher, psychologist, and physiologist William James compiled a study of human psychological observation into a variety of concepts that were summed up into a school of thought known as “functionalism.” Functionalism focuses on how behavior works to help people live in their environment.
Some of these concepts included that human thought is like an intangible stream, with each idea and experience flowing into each other and mixing with those factors that make us all individuals. Another concept is that you cannot separate the components of an individual’s psyche, that you cannot assess anyone’s behavior while dismissing factors such as religion or life experiences.
James’ theories and research greatly influenced the future concept and study of psychology and helped to support the scientific approach to the subject, even when studying seemingly unscientific factors such as will and emotion. He believed that psychology was a result of interaction and response, and therefore a person’s environment played a key role in their behavior and thought process. He also placed an emphasis on the inability to separate the physical and the spiritual conceptions of psychology.
Contemporary psychology has grown out of the early work of psychologists like James, and that of many others. Ideas such as psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology were introduced and grew in popularity. According to psychosocial rehabilitative specialist Kendra Van Wagner (2005), contemporary psychologists do not identify themselves with any single school of thought but rather focus on a particular specialty area or perspective, often drawing on ideas from a range of theoretical backgrounds, and she believes that the eclectic approach to contemporary psychology has contributed new ideas and theories that have and will continue to shape psychology for years to come.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006) William James. Retrieved August 13, 2010 from:
Van Wagner, K. (2005) Contemporary psychology: the psychology of today. Retrieved August 13, 2010 from: