[Psychology is the] diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. Psychological counseling is provided by one who is trained in methods of psychological analysis, therapy, and research. (WRH Health System)
As indicated in this definition taken from a hospital website, many people think of psychology solely as a health-related profession with one major goal: to help people change thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that cause problems in their everyday lives, thereby helping them to lead more fulfilling and satisfying lives. According to this definition, psychologists are somewhat like expert “explorers of the disordered mind”: they are trained to seek and identify the mental causes of psychological problems and mental disorders. According to this view, psychologists help to create positive changes in people’s personalities by helping them to understand and “work through” the mental causes of their problems.
Psychology as a mental-health profession is illustrated by the following transcript of a therapeutic session with a 33-year-old schizophrenic patient given the pseudonym, “Joseph.” Joseph had been raised in a town in the north of England (identified in the passage simply as “F”) and had been a shy and solitary person since childhood. He did not develop severe symptoms of schizophrenia until he was 26. In speaking of his schizophrenia, Joseph stated:
If things get worse I won’t be able to cope with my direction gear. I see myself heading for the life of a recluse, being valued at 7 and 1/2 pounds per calendar month.
(Barham, 1984, p. 101)
Joseph’s thinking here seems very confused, which is a major symptom of schizophrenia. Two other major symptoms of schizophrenia are delusions — strongly held beliefs for which there is no evidence, such as believing without question that others are trying to destroy you — and hallucinations — perceiving things that are not really there, such as hearing the voices of nonexistent people. When asked about his parents, who presumably still lived in F., Joseph reported that no one lived there any longer:
Joseph: It’s impossible to live there now. It’s just solid rock you know. You couldn’t live there. It’s just dust you know. You see, you can’t live anywhere you know, you’ve got to have the weather conditions to live in. I mean if you buy a house and find you can never go out of the house. If you buy a house on dry land like, you find that you’re never out of the house.
Joseph: Why, because if you go outside you get dust up your nose and down your throat.
Therapist: In F.?
Joseph: Why anywhere, don’t you. ([Joseph said this] with some irritation)
Therapist: So, we’re not just talking about F.?
Joseph: No, even here. What they do is they get a pressure suit when you take seriously ill and you have to live on tablets. And when you take seriously ill they put you on a crash course in a pressure suit and you go crazy altogether, crackers altogether, for about three weeks. There’s one on M15s [the ward that contains the most seriously ill mental patients in Joseph’s hospital]. That’s psychiatry that. You see the whole world is, you see there’s so much dust and dirt and things like that, you can’t live. Most people live in communities under big domes. Now you don’t know the dome is there. They build a whole village, and then they build a dome over the top, and they paint the dome and you see aeroplanes flying about inside.
Therapist: Inside the dome? And what is there outside the dome?
Joseph: Certain death. There’s domes under the sea.
(Barham, 1984, p. 115, altered slightly for clarity)
Joseph’s delusional and disorganized thinking are clearly demonstrated in this passage. In the following video, a man with schizophrenia shows several symptoms of the disorder (Source: The Brain, PBS).
People who suffer from schizophrenia typically are given biological therapies in the form of antipsychotic medications, which usually reduce the symptoms of this disorder. People with schizophrenia also often receive some form of psychotherapy (“talking therapy”), which helps them to cope with the negative consequences of schizophrenia in their everyday lives.
Although many laypeople think of psychology solely as a mental-health profession, it is in fact a discipline (an area of academic study) that investigates a wide range of phenomena — a discipline in which people are engaged in research as well as in applying this research to our everyday lives. Thus, unlike many other academic or professional disciplines (for example, history, philosophy, mathematics, law, or economics), psychology actually consists of two distinct subdisciplines:
- Professional psychology. Psychology is, in part, a mental-health profession — with its workers located primarily in clinics, schools, business setting, etc. — that has as its main goal the development and application of therapeutic techniques, advice, or guidance to help people function better with respect to a wide range of problems (cognitive, emotional, behavioral, interpersonal, occupational, or academic difficulties).
- Academic psychology. Psychology also is, in part, a behavioral science — with its workers located primarily in colleges, universities, and research institutions — that has as its main goal the use of a scientific approach to understanding the causes of mental events and behavior (including both normal and abnormal behavior).
The two subdisciplines can be distinguished because each places a greater emphasis on achieving its own primary goal. Nevertheless, you should not conclude that professional psychologists don’t care about scientific research or that academic psychologists don’t care about applying their findings to everyday life. There is overlap among the two subdisciplines, although probably not as much as is needed (see the critique by Tavris, 2003).
What is Professional Psychology?
Although professional psychology first emerged soon after the turn of the twentieth century (Caplan, 1998; Witmer, 1907), it did not develop into a major subdiscipline within psychology until after the end of World War II (Freedheim, 1992). From that time to the present, professional psychology has grown tremendously in size and influence. The psychological fields referred to as counseling psychology and clinical psychology are the disciplinary homes of professional psychology (Note: there are other areas of professional psychology that won’t be discussed in this book, such as school psychology and industrial/organizational psychology). In general, the field of clinical psychology focuses on classifying, researching, and treating moderate to severe mental disorders, whereas the field of counseling psychology focuses on providing assistance and guidance to those struggling with interpersonal, occupational, academic, and other everyday difficulties.
What is Academic Psychology?
Academic psychology first emerged during the last part of the nineteenth century (≈1875 and after), when it was referred to as experimental psychology (or simply as the new psychology; Dewey, 1884) because of its focus on designing and performing controlled experimental research in laboratory settings. This research was primarily concerned with understanding the conscious mind. Early experimental psychologists attempted to use a scientific approach to study the mental functions of sensation, perception, learning, and memory. A very early example of such an approach to the study of consciousness may be seen in the work of Theodor Bischoff (pronounced Tay-ah-dor Bish-off), a nineteenth-century German physiologist who experimentally tested a claim about consciousness made earlier by Pierre Cabanis (Pee-air Cah-bah-nee), an eighteenth-century French physiologist. In 1795, Cabanis speculated that consciousness requires a physical connection between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. If this speculation were true, Cabanis and Bischoff reasoned, then consciousness should end if the brain is separated from the rest of the body. According to Hothersall (1995):
Bischoff … arranged a macabre, even ghoulish, test of Cabanis’s assertion on the head of a newly executed criminal [decapitated by guillotine]. Even intense stimuli, including the shouted word Pardon! elicited no reaction … after decapitation. Cabanis … was correct. (p. 81)
Of course, there are other possible explanations for the lack of response on the part of the prisoner’s head. For instance, the shock of having his head cut from the rest of his body may have interfered with the prisoner’s motivation to respond! Nonetheless, Bischoff’s study was scientific because it was performed in accordance with two scientific precepts that I will describe in the next section. (For a brief discussion of other research on consciousness after decapitation, see Bell, 2012.)
For those who may be interested, the American Psychological Association has a section titled “What is psychology?” that includes more information about the discipline, as well as a discussion of careers in psychology.
Study Questions for Section 1-1
Note: Although you won’t be asked to hand in your answers to study questions, many test questions are based on what is asked in these study questions. Thus, in order to have the best chance of doing well on tests, you should spend much of your study time writing answers to the study questions. Your answers should, to the best of your ability, be written in your own words. For more information, see How to Study for Tests and How to Answer Study Questions.
- How would you define the two subdisciplines of psychology?
- In what ways are the two subdisciplines similar to and different from each other?
- What does it mean to say that the two subdisciplines complement one another?
Practice Quiz for Section 1-1
Click HERE to find the details about the articles, books, etc., referred to in this section.