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Chapter: Psychology: Prologue: What Is Psychology?

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Prologue: What Is Psychology?

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we feel thethings we feel, or say the things we say?

Prologue: What Is Psychology?

Why do we do the things we do? Why do we feel thethings we feel, or say the things we say? Why do we find one person attractive and another person obnoxious? Why are some people happy most of the time, while others seem morose? Why do some children behave properly, or learn easily, while others do not?

Questions like these all fall within the scope of psychology, a field defined as the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes. Psychology is concerned with who eachof us is and how we came to be the way we are. The field seeks to understand each person as an individual, but it also examines how we act in groups, including how we treat each other and feel about each other. Psychology is  concerned with what all humans have in common, but it also looks at how each of us differs from the others in our species—in our beliefs, our personalities, and our capabilities. And psycholo-gists don’t merely seek to understand these various topics; they are also interested in change: how to help people become happier or better adjusted, how to help childrenlearn more effectively, or how to help them get along better with their peers.

This is a wide array of topics; and, to address them all, psychologists examine a diverse set of phenomena—including many that nonpsychologists don’t expect to find within our field! But we need this diverse coverage if we are to understand the many aspects of our thoughts, actions, and feelings; and, in this text, we’ll cover all of these points and more.


Studying other species is one way that psychologists can address these ques-tions. It turns out that many species—young chimpanzees, wolf pups, and even kittens—engage in activities that look remarkably like human play (Figure P.5C). And, in many of these species, we see clear differences between male and female play—the playful activities of the young males are more physical, and contain more elements of aggression, than the activities of females.

As these points suggest, there are surely biological influences on our play activities— and, in particular, biological roots for the sexual differentiation of play. More broadly, the widespread occurrence of play raises interesting questions about what the function of play might be, such that evolution favored playtime in so diverse a set of species.

Social Behavior in Humans

Animal playtime shares many features with human play, including the central fact that play behavior is typically social, involving the coordinated activities of multiple individ-uals. Social interactions of all sorts are intensely interesting to psychologists: Why do we treat other people the way we do? How do we interpret the behaviors of others around us? How is our own behavior shaped by the social setting?

Many studies indicate, in fact, that we are often powerfully influenced by the situations we find ourselves in. One striking example concerns people who confess to crimes—including such horrid offenses as murder or rape. Evidence from the laboratory as well as the courts tells us that some of these confessions are false—meaning that people are admitting to hideous actions they actually didn’t commit. In some cases, the false confessions are the product of mental illness—they come from people who have lost track of what is real and what is not, or people who have a pathological need for attention. But in other cases, false confessions are produced by the social situation that exists inside a police interrogation room (Figure P.6): The suspect is confronted by a stern police officer who steadfastly refuses the suspect’s claims of innocence. The suspect is also


isolated from any form of social support—and so the interview continues for hours in a windowless room, where the suspect has no contact with family or friends. The police officer controls the flow of information about the crime, shaping the suspect’s beliefs about the likelihood of being found guilty, and describing the probable consequences of a conviction. With these factors in place, it’s surprisingly easy to extract confessions from people who are, in truth, entirely innocent (Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004).

It should be said, though, that the police in this setting are doing nothing wrong. After all, we do want genuine criminals to confess; this will allow the efficient, accurate prosecution of people who are guilty of crimes and deserve punishment. And, of course, a criminal won’t confess in response to a polite request from the police to “Please con-fess now.” Therefore, some pressure, some situational control, is entirely appropriate when questioning suspects. It is troubling, though, that the situational factors built into this questioning are so powerful that they can elicit full confessions from people who have committed no crime at all.

 

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