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What is Psychology?

Studying people

Being a social science, speech-language pathology (speech therapy) is concerned with the institutions of human society (e.g. the family, the workplace, school) and how these operate to influence people’s speech, language and communication. Above all, it is concerned with facilitating interpersonal relationships. Consequently, every speech-language pathologist as part of their speech therapy education studies psychology.

Psychology is a formal research-based discipline which uses scientific methods to study people, the mind and behavior (BPS, 2007).

Psychology in everyday life

Psychological ideas are popular in everyday life because the subject matter of psychology is people and, hence, ourselves. Even if you have never studied any psychology before, it is likely that you will have encountered psychological ideas in the media or in discussions with other people. Psychological research findings and their practical and professional application are regularly in the newspapers, on television, radio, and on the Internet. For example, the possible evolutionary origins of behavior, emotions, consciousness and the brain, and the impact of various therapies, are all recurrent debates in the media in many countries. These public debates help to make psychology a very visible part of everyday life and culture.

Yet, all this media coverage can confuse anyone wanting to find out what psychology is about because psychological knowledge is presented in a variety of ways. For example, so-called common-sense psychological ideas have long been presented in the media. A good illustration of this kind of common sense might be the topic of ‘leadership’, something that is commonly talked about in everyday language. Television, radio and newspapers often raise questions or offer un-researched opinions on leadership qualities, failures of leadership, why a historical figure was a charismatic leader or why some people seem to have the power to influence cults to engage in dramatic and often self-destructive behaviors. The media also can present rather dubious interpretations of psychology drawn upon largely to support the arguments journalists wanted to make in the first place, as when reporters contact psychologists hoping to get a ready quote about why holidays are stressful or why men hate shopping. More recently, however, and for our purposes more usefully, in many countries there are now books, articles, radio programs and quite substantial television series dealing in a serious manner with psychological research and debate.

Psychology has social impact

The relevance of psychology to everyday concerns, and the ease with which it can be popularized and used, mean that psychological knowledge – some of it dubious, some of it accurate – is continually absorbed into culture and often incorporated into the very language we use. Examples of psychological concepts that have entered popular discourse include the notion that we are predisposed, both through evolution and through the functioning of our brains and nervous systems, to behave in certain ways and to have intellectual and emotional capacities and limitations. In many cultures psychoanalytic ideas are commonplace; for example, the centrality of sexuality and its repression, and the idea that Freudian ‘slips’ – mistakes of action – reveal unconscious motivation.

Many people speak of having short-term and long-term memories and recognize that they use different strategies for remembering details of recent and more distant events. And a lot of people now know that it is possible to be fooled into perceiving illusions as real and that things as routine as face-recognition or behavior-in-groups are extremely complex.

Many people have absorbed and take for granted the psychological notion that what happens to us in childhood has an influence on our psychological functioning over the rest of our lives. Ideas about the importance of parenting and parental styles of child rearing have also become part of ordinary talk, with the result that some children now complain about not getting enough quality time with their parents.

Belief and behavior

These examples demonstrate also how psychological concepts have an impact on the ways in which we think life should, ideally, be lived. Such ideas, and many others, have been influenced by psychological research, even when they are ideas that are not widely recognized as psychological. It would, therefore, be true to say that psychology has an impact on our beliefs about ourselves and how life ought to be lived as well as on our everyday behaviors.

Just common sense?

So far we have highlighted a pathway of influence from psychology to society. But this is not a one-way street. It is certainly the case that psychological research quite often addresses questions that originate in common-sense understandings. And this direction of influence between psychology and ordinary, everyday knowledge about people has led some to suggest that perhaps psychology is no more than common sense. However, as a field of enquiry, psychology is about much more than common sense, particularly in the way it investigates its subject matter.


Psychological knowledge advances through systematic research that is based on consciously articulated ideas. And psychology is evidence-based. Psychologists may start from the knowledge they already have by virtue of being people themselves. This can be knowledge about people and psychological processes that are common in the culture or it may come from personal experiences of dealing with the world. It is these kinds of knowledge that are often called common sense. For example, one tradition in the study of personality began from the ordinary-language adjectives that everyone uses to describe other people’s characteristics. And many psychological researchers have chosen research topics and studied them in ways that seem to reflect their own life concerns.

However, evidence-based research findings quite often contradict the common-sense understandings of the time, and can produce new understandings that themselves eventually become accepted as common sense. For example, in the middle of the last century, it was widely accepted in Western societies that infants should not be ‘spoiled’ by being attended to every time they cried. Consequently, they were expected to learn to spend time without adult attention. But a wealth of psychological research from the 1960s onwards has reported that even very young infants are able to interact with other people in far more sophisticated ways than had been thought. And it has been found that they develop best when they receive plenty of stimulation from the people around them and their environments more generally. The idea of leaving infants to cry or to spend time alone is now much less accepted than it was. Instead, the notion that they need stimulation has become part of ordinary knowledge about child rearing and generated a multi-million dollar industry in the production of infant educational toys.

Research directions

Although psychologists may begin from so-called ordinary knowledge or their own preoccupations, they usually start formulating their research questions using the existing body of psychological knowledge (the literature) and the evidence-based research that their colleagues and co-workers are engaged in. Sometimes technological developments can lead to entirely new research directions. These new directions might not have been envisaged through the application of common sense or using older evidence-based methods. One example of such a technology-driven new direction is neuropsychology and the increasing application of brain-imaging techniques as a way of furthering understanding of behaviour and mental processes. Other examples are advances in genetics and the decoding of the human genome, as well as computer-aided analysis of videotaped observations.


BPS (2007) Code of Ethics and Conduct (August 2009) Leicester: British Psychological Society. Available from: [Accessed 08 February 2014].


[Information last accessed: 27 July 2017]

This article draws on ‘Psychology in the 21st century’. An OpenLearn ( chunk reworked by permission of The Open University copyright © 2016 – made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence v4.0 As such, it is also made available under the same licence agreement.