1.1 General Psychology: What is psychology? What is the nature and scope of psychology?

Chapter 1


1.1 Define psychology. Describe the nature and scope of psychology


This is the introductory lecture where some important terms are defined to provide a foundation for the learning of the course.


The Nature and Scope of Psychology

Psychology is a science. It is a science that studies behaviour that is, what people do, reasons for doing certain things, conditions under which this behaviour occurs, etc.


Rathus (1984) defines Psychology as a science that studies observable behaviour and mental processes.


Psychology is also defined as the science or study of human and animal behaviour.


Can Psychology be Classified as a Science? What Makes a Subject a Science?

A science is a body of systematized knowledge obtained by observation and verified by experimentation


Science is objective that is, it is free from personal biases; it is critical and has a universal approach to knowledge.


The major objective of science is to seek and find truth irrespective of personal beliefs, biases or religious persuasions


Psychology obtains its information by means of careful observation and measurement of behaviour. This information is formulated into theories or a systematized body of knowledge which is used for both descriptive and predictive purposes. For this reason, Psychology is a science.


In Psychology we are concerned about behaviour. We cannot observe feelings and thoughts without the use of special equipment but we can observe and measure behaviour. Behaviour can be seen, it can be recorded and studied for example you can hear what a person says and record it.


In Psychology we are only concerned with the observable and measurable behaviour. The role of the mind or brain can only be inferred on the basis of behaviour.


Psychology extends its interest to the behaviour of animals for two purposes:

  • To understand purposes
  • To use the knowledge gained to understand human behaviour


Similarities between human and animal behaviour have been observed in laboratories by Psychologists such as Skinner and Pavlov. In Psychology animals are used such as guinea pigs where human beings cannot be used due to ethical reasons.


Psychology as a science is:

  1. Empirical: meaning that its body of information is gathered by means of observation and experimentation
  2. Systematic: meaning the body of knowledge can be classified in an orderly, consistent and meaningful manner
  3. Uses measurement theory: It is accurate and precise. The terms used in Psychology are defined operationally that is, terms such as intelligence and motivation are defined in a manner that makes them measurable.


1.2 Explain the growth of psychology

 Growth of Psychology: Historical Perspective

Psychology as a scientific discipline is relatively new. It evolved from Philosophy, Physiology and Biology. It was considered a part of the Philosophy Department in most universities and it became an independent discipline in the 19th Century. During this time, experimental methods were developed to study the mind and behaviour.


Psychological experiments were initiated by natural scientists that is, Physicists and Physiologists who began to think of themselves as Psychologists. As a science Psychology evolved slowly because some of its basic arguments conflicted with religious beliefs for example the idea of the human mind, soul and spirit having a free will and not being governed by natural laws and principals.


Modern Psychology is dated from 1879 when the first psychology laboratory was established in Leipzig Germany by Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). Wundt was the first to call himself a Psychologist. He developed the first systematic approach to Psychology called Structuralism.


Growth of Psychology as a Scientific Discipline

Psychology as a new scientific discipline has had its own developmental history. This history has been characterized by successive schools of psychological thought. By schools of psychological thought we are talking of ways of thinking, looking at and studying psychology.



This was the first school of psychological thought. The person who started this school was Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920). He did this with the assistance of his student who was called E. B. Titchener (1867-1927). Structuralism was concerned with the structure of the conscious experience or the structure of the mind. Structuralism posited that conscious experience is made up of elements just like matter is made up of atoms and molecules. Titchener broke down the elements of conscious experience into three basic elements that is, physical sensations, feelings and images.


Conscious experience can be studied by breaking down the elements of sensation and studying:

  • The quality of sensation
  • The intensity of sensation and
  • The duration of sensation

This is done through a method called analytic introspection. Introspection is a method of describing ones mental content as objectively as possible. This method can only be used by the individual who is experiencing the sensation. The method involves breaking down complex experience into elementary components for example while looking at a flower the person notes the elements that make up the lower for example size, shape, texture, smell, colour, brightness, etc. This involves perceiving of the parts of the experience in order to construct the whole.


Structuralism as a school of thought had some inherent difficulties that is:

  1. it had serious limitations because it needed people who are very alert to be trained to use analytic introspection therefore people of unsound mind, children and animals could not be used
  2. it was difficult to discover the laws that come into play to make the various elements combine into a perceptual whole for example do parts of a flower add up to the flower? What does one see in terms of colours, brightness, etc?
  3. it is difficult for individuals to study their emotional consciousness using analytic introspection
  4. there is no objectivity in analytic introspection because consciousness is a highly individual and private affair which is not open to public scrutiny.


Due to these inherent difficulties Structuralism wakened and collapsed. Its greatest contribution was to bring science to psychology and to establish psychology as a science.



This was the second school of psychological thought. It was spearheaded by William James (1842-1910) of Harvard University and John Dewey (1859-1952) of University of Chicago. This school of psychological thought was concerned with the study of the mind as it functions in adapting the organism to its surroundings. They argued that conscious experience cannot be broken down to elementary components. They argued that conscious experience should be should be studied as an ongoing process or stream They also believed that the mind can only be revealed in habits and perception.


This school of thought believed that consciousness is caused by the interaction between the organism and the environment. Their main interest was uses or functions of the mind, not its structure. The use of the mind is to help the organism to adapt to its environment. The functionalists believed that past experience teaches us to function more adaptively. Many of our functions such as lifting spoons to our mouths and turning door knobs require our full attention at first but with experience such activities become habitual or automatic through repetition.


Functionalism was concerned about problem solving behaviour and intelligence that enable the organism to adopt to the environment and survive for example food seeking behaviour, avoiding danger and reproductive behaviour. According to Functionalists, behaviour should be studied in terms of its adaptive significance. They argue that behaviour which has any adaptive significance is learned, retained and organised, and evaluated depending on experiences. In this process, the mind and body are involved, therefore all behaviour is psychophysical.


Achievements of functionalism

  1. It broadened the subject matter of psychology to include all types of people that is, children, the mentally ill, other species such as chimpanzees and dogs, etc.
  2. Functionalism developed objective methods of studying behaviour
  3. It was broader in scope than structuralism
  4. It allied psychology to related disciplines like physiology, sociology and related sciences for facts and methodological procedures
  5. The functionalists were the first to develop intelligence tests for classifying children in America.


Behaviourism or The Behaviouristic Revolt

This was the third school of psychological thought to emerge. It was started by a young psychologist known as John B. Watson (1878-1958). He attacked structuralism because he claimed that consciousness and mental contents cannot be studied scientifically. He argued that psychology should study what all reasonable people could agree on that is, behaviour.


Watson brought a new definition to psychology which was the science of behaviour. He argued that psychology should study behaviour as it is overt and observable. Psychology should describe, explain, predict and control behaviour.


Behaviourists study behaviour in terms of stimulus and responses. They believe that given a particular stimulus, we should be able to predict the response for example if we put meat near a dog, we can predict the dog will start to salivate.


Behaviourists believed in the study of the environment as they believed the environment shapes behaviour (not heredity). The study of the environment is important because it provides the stimulus and the organism produces the responses.


Watson contributed a great deal to fundamental research in the area of child psychology and applied research. He is recognised as the father of modern psychology.


Gestalt Psychology

This was a new movement which was developed in Germany in opposition to structuralism functionalism and behaviourism. The key figures in this school of thought were Max Wertheimer (1883-1943), Wolfang Köhler (1887-1967) and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941). These people favoured the study of human behaviour as a whole. They argued that people perceive in unitary wholes and not parts. These unitary wholes are called gestalts that is, forms or patterns.


These psychologists focussed their attention on certain phenomena that is, the tricks that the mind plays on itself and which could not be explained by earlier psychologists for example why do we perceive a table as a rectangular form irrespective of the angle of viewing or why we perceive a series of dots (…………….) as a straight line and not as dots following each other. This is because the mind has an innate tendency to close gaps and to perceive things in wholes and not parts.


There is a tendency to organise the perceptual field following the laws of proximity (nearness), continuity, similarity and closure. Gestalt psychology continues to influence psychology in the areas of learning, perception, child psychology, motivation and social psychology.

 Psychoanalysis (Psychoanalytic Psychology)

Psychoanalysis is the study of the unconscious mind. It was developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). He was interested in the etiology (causes), development and cure of mental disorders with a psychogenic origin.


Freud developed the idea that most mental problems were caused by conflicts and emotions that lie in the unconscious mind and which the patient is unaware of. His argument was that behaviour is largely motivated by hidden forces in the unconscious mind. He argued that psychological problems in adults can be traced back to traumatic experiences of early childhood. These experiences are blocked from consciousness or repressed and preserved. The unconscious mind finds an outlet in symptoms of mental illness. In order to bring these repressed memories back to consciousness, Freud developed psychoanalysis or the talking cure. The talking cure involves one relaxing on a couch and speaking out whatever comes to their mind. There is also the interpretation of dreams. This approach is used by Psychotherapists today where they ask their clients to lie on a couch and talk about whatever is troubling them.


1.3 Distinguish between the various school of thought giving their strengths and weaknesses

New Schools of Psychological Thought

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is associated with Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Tolman (1886-1959). The major interest of this approach is to study how people acquire knowledge. It focuses on the internal psychological processes that are involved in the acquisition of knowledge that is, the mental operations that enable one to think, to solve problems, to read, to write, etc.


Cognitive psychologists are therefore interested in such topics as perception, memory, language and thinking. They use hypothetical concepts like memory traces, schema, mental image, etc. They however use behavioural methods to study the effect that mental processes have on behaviour. They can measure behaviour and therefore infer the presence or absence of given mental processes.


Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic psychology is associated with Abraham Maslow. Humanistic psychology came up to protest against the use of scientific methods to study psychology. It argued that we cannot reduce the human being into an object of scientific study.


Humanistic psychologists argued that psychology should study the subjective, conscious experience of the individual person. They believed that people are inherently good and worthy and have an inherent potential for growth and fulfilment. They also argued that psychology should assist every individual person to realise maximum growth of his or her potential. People should be given the opportunity to grow in the direction of health, intellectual creativity, achievement, love and understanding.

1.4 Illustrate some of the branches of modern psychology

Branches of Modern Psychology

Experimental psychology

This branch of modern psychology relies on experiments to study behaviour and mental life. Examples of areas experiments are carried out on include experiments to determine the biological basis of behaviour; experiments on animal learning and behaviour; and experiments to determine cognitive processes for example perception, memory, language and thinking.


Social psychology

Social psychologists are interested in how social factors affect behaviour. They study the interactions between people, peoples’ perceptions of one another, and the effects that groups have on the behaviour of individuals for example how does your friends behaviour affect your behaviour in some situations? Social psychologists are also interested in group processes such as how leaders emerge. They study such topics such as attitude change, conformity and obedience, prejudice and aggression. In all these cases the individual’s behaviour is influenced by others.


Personality psychology

Personality psychologists are concerned about individual differences that is, how people differ in terms of given characteristics such as authoritarianism or emotional stability or why people in the same situation often behave differently. Personality psychologists administer tests and classify people into types.


Developmental psychology

This branch of psychology cuts across all areas of psychology and it is concerned with the physical and psychological changes that occur as a person grows from infancy to adulthood and on to old age. These psychologists might be interested in all changes at a particular age such as adolescence or they may be interested in how a particular function such as memory varies across the life span.


Clinical psychology

Clinical psychologists diagnose and treat individuals who suffer from emotional or adjustment problems. They work in mental hospitals, universities and some are in private practice.


Organisational and Industrial Psychology

This is an applied field. Psychologists in this field are practitioners who apply psychological principles to the work setting. They are concerned with the “human factor” in the technological setup for example how satisfied are workers with their jobs? How can the workers morale and productivity be increased? How can the quality of the industry’s service be increased? How can better training and placement procedure programs be developed? etc.


These practitioners have a special set of skills. They must be able to translate psychological knowledge and skills to practical settings as well as be able to communicate psychological principles to an audience with little or not background in the field.



In this lecture, we have had an introduction to psychology as a course. Psychology is the scientific study of human and animal behaviour. Psychology has grown over the years and there are several branches of psychology in existence such as social psychology, educational psychology and personality psychology.


Self Assessment Questions

  1. Define psychology
  2. Describe Structuralism as a school of psychological thought
  3. Explain why achievements of functionalism
  4. Describe the branches of modern psychology


Further Reading

Hilgard, E. R. (1977).  Introduction to Psychology.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and World

Lamberth, J. (1996). Foundations of Psychology.  New York: Harper and Row Publishers.

Morris, C.  (1980). Psychology and Introduction.  New Jersey: Prentice Hall.



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