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Chapter: Psychology: Prologue: What Is Psychology?

What Unites Psychology?

What Unites Psychology?
1) A Shared Set of Thematic Concerns 2) A Commitment to Scientific Methods


It’s clear, then, that if we are going to understand emotional memories—including why they are so vivid, why they are sometimes inaccurate, why they can sometimes contribute to PTSD—we need to study these memories from many perspectives and rely on many different methods. And what holds true for these memories also holds true for most other psychological phenomena. They too must be viewed from many perspectives because each perspective is valid, and none is complete without the others.

With all this emphasis on psychology’s diversity, though, both in the field’s content and in its perspectives, what holds our field together? What gives the field its coher-ence? The answer has two parts: a set of shared themes, and a commitment to scientific methods.

A Shared Set of Thematic Concerns

As we have seen, psychologists ask questions that require broad and complex answers. But, over and over, a small number of themes emerge within these answers. These themes essentially create a portrait of our science and are a central part of the answer to the broad question “What has psychology learned?” These themes also highlight key aspects of psychology’s subject matter by highlighting crucial points about how the mind works and why we behave as we do.


One of these recurrent themes has already entered our discussion—namely, that the phenomena of interest to psychology are influenced by many factors (Figure P.13). As we have seen, this interaction among multiple factors forces the field to draw on a vari-ety of perspectives, methods, and types of analysis. But, along with this methodological point, there’s an important lesson here about the nature of the mind, and the nature of behavior: We are complex organisms, sensitive to many different cues and influences, and any theory that ignores this complexity will inevitably be incomplete. This is, by the way, why the modern field of psychology has largely stepped away from the all-inclusive

frameworks that once defined our field—such as the framework proposed by Sigmund Freud, or the one proposed by B. F. Skinner. The problem is not that these frameworks are wrong; indeed, these scholars made enormous contributions to the field. The problem instead is that each of these frameworks captures only part of the puzzle, and so our explanations will ulti-mately need to draw on multiple types of explanation.


Another theme is related to the first: It concerns the interplay between our biologi-cal heritage, on the one side, and the influence of our experiences, on the other. It’s sometimes easy to think of these influences as separate. We might ask, for example, whether a particular behavior is “innate” or “learned,” whether it is rooted in “nature” or “nurture.” Similarly, it’s easy to ask whether a particular action arises from inside the organism or is elicited by the environment; whether your roommate acted the way she did yesterday because of her personality or because of aspects of the situation. As our discussion of emotional memories has indicated, though, these “either-or ” dichotomies often pose the issue in the wrong way, as though we had to choose just one answer and dismiss the other. The reality instead is that we need to consider nature and nurture, factors inside and outside the organism. And—above all—we need to consider how these various influences interact. Emotional memories, for example, are influenced by a rich interaction between factors inside the organism (like our genetic heritage, or the functioning of the amygdala, or the individual’s personality or prior beliefs) and factors in the situa-tion (like cultural expectations, or situational pressures). The same is true for most other behaviors as well.


A third theme has also already come up in our discussion: We do not passively absorb our experience, simply recording the sights and sounds we encounter. We have mentioned that our memories integrate new experiences with prior knowledge, and that we seem to “interpret as we go” in our daily lives and then store in memory the product of this inter-pretation. These ideas, too, will emerge again and again in our discussion, as we consider the active nature of the organism in selecting, interpreting, and organizing experience.


A fourth theme is related to the third: Our activities, in interpreting our experience, both help us and hurt us. They help by bringing us to a richer, deeper, better organized sense of our experience, thus allowing us to make better use of that experience. But these same activities can hurt us by leading to inaccuracy—if our interpretation is off, or if our selection leads us to overlook or forget bits of the expe-rience that we may need later. A similar kind of trade-off was relevant to our discus-sion of PTSD: The biological mechanisms that promote emotional memory ensure that we will remember the important events of our lives. But these same mechanisms can burden us with memories that are more vivid and longer-lasting than we might sometimes wish. Trade-offs like these, in which generally useful mechanisms some-times have undesirable consequences, are evident throughout the study of psychology. In other words, we’ll see over and over that some of the undesirable aspects of our perception, memory, emotions, and behavior may just be the price we pay for mechanisms that, in a wide range of circumstances, serve us very well.

Broad themes like these bring a powerful coherence to the field of psychology, despite its diversity of coverage and methods. As we’ll see, there are important consistencies in how we behave and why we do what we do, and these consistencies provide linkages among the various areas of psychology.

A Commitment to Scientific Methods

Along with this set of thematic concerns, another factor also unifies our field: a com-mitment to a scientific psychology. To understand the importance of this point, let’s bear in mind that the questions occupying psychologists today have fascinated people for thousands of years. Novelists and poets have plumbed the nature of human action in countless settings. Playwrights have pondered romantic liaisons or the relationship between generations. The ancient Greeks commented extensively on the proper way to rear children, and philosophers, social activists, and many others have offered their counsel regarding how we should live—how we should eliminate violence, treat mental illness, and so forth.

Against this backdrop, what is distinctive about psychology’s contribution to these issues? A large part of the answer is that psychologists, no matter what their perspec-tive, work within the broad framework of science—by formulating specific hypotheses that are open to definitive testing and then taking the steps to test these hypotheses. In this fashion, we can determine which proposals are well founded and which are not, which bits of counsel are warranted and which are ill advised. Then, when we are rea-sonably certain about which hypotheses are correct, we can build from there—knowing that we are building on a firm base.

Scientific research methods have served psychology well. We know a great deal about emotional memories, and why we sometimes forget things, and how children develop, and why some people suffer from schizophrenia, and much more. But what is the sci-entific method, and how is it used within psychology? By exploring these methodological points, we’ll see how psychologists develop their claims. We’ll also learn why these claims must be taken seriously and how they can be used as a basis for developing applications and procedures that can, in truth, make our world a better place.

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