I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a skeptical look followed by, “so, are you trying to read my mind right now?”, after telling people I was enrolled in a psychology course. Yep, because psychology actually teaches people how to read everyone else’s mind. And it hasn’t been announced to the public because it’s a secret that only psychology students know; they’re sworn to secrecy.
Psychology isn’t about reading minds or trying to control others, per se. There’s no voodoo magic behind the science, and psychology professors aren’t out to manipulate their students to get them to do what they want. The four main goals of psychology are to describe, explain, predict and control the behavior and mental processes of others.
Control!? Yeah, you heard me right. But it’s not control in the way that you’re imagining, I promise! Let’s review these four goals in more detail.
Psychology is a science. It aims to understand the behavior of others and gather information about the way the brain works in order to better serve humanity. By observing different human behaviors, psychologists determine what is normal and healthy and what is unhealthy. Psychology analyzes the thoughts, feelings, actions and goals of people through the help of various case studies, observations and surveys.
Have you ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov noticed that his dogs were salivating as the result of a stimuli – the lab assistant approaching – before food was even presented to them. This observation acted as a description of what was happening. Once psychologists can describe a behavior or phenomenon, they can use that as a basis for learning more about that behavior. And yes, many psychologists have studied animals in order to learn more about human behavior! You’d be surprised how many similarities there are.
Why does this behavior occur? Under what circumstances will it occur again? In order to explain a behavior, psychologists must conduct experiments to ensure that the behavior is not an anomaly. If there’s only one person (or animal) exhibiting this behavior, it certainly isn’t a cultural norm. In the case of Pavlov, he was able to conduct an experiment using multiple dogs that all seemed to behave in the same way. Through this experiment he was able to notice a handful of important things about the behavior of others. And thus, classical conditioning came to be.
When presented with an unconditioned stimulus (the food), the dogs began to salivate – which is the unconditioned response. When presented with delicious food, humans tend to salivate, right? After the dogs were fed for a period of time, Pavlov began to notice that even the presence of his lab assistant, who fed the dogs, caused them to salivate. Once he noticed this was happening, he realized that he had come across a wonderful psychological discovery. The lab assistant, which was once a neutral stimulus, had become a conditioned stimulus. To further his experiment, Pavlov introduced a bell as a neutral stimulus.
Based on past observed behavior, a psychologist aims to predict how that behavior will appear again in the future and if other people will exhibit the same behavior. Pavlov predicted that the new neutral stimulus – the bell – would become a conditioned stimulus if he presented it with food enough times. Sure enough, after presenting the dogs with food at the same time the bell was sounded, he was able to condition the dogs to salivate when the bell rang even when they weren’t presented with food. This discovery held a lot of importance in the world of psychology and allowed many people to influence the behavior of others.
What did Pavlov’s discovery mean for the future of psychology? It meant that teachers could take control of their classroom easier, parents could teach their children to exhibit good behavior, and manipulative older siblings could control the behaviors of their younger siblings. In other areas of psychology, experiments are used to train new employees faster, increase the success of students and reduce drug addiction.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
A simple example of classical conditioning in action is in a middle school classroom. The students are all sitting at their desks, either doodling or working on homework, and all of the sudden a bell rings. At the sound of the bell, all students pack up their stuff and leave the classroom. How do they all know that this sound means that they should switch classes? On the first day of school, the bell rang and the teacher told them it was time to switch classes. This continued on for the next week, with some students slower than others at picking up on the cue. Finally, after the first week was over, the bell rang and the students all got up and switched classes without any direction from their teacher.
With good comes the bad, and that “bad-ness” can manifest itself in the simplest of ways. Let’s take the fictional boy Andy who enjoys torturing his younger brother John. Andy likes to pinch John when he least expects it. Whenever he pinches John, he hums the tune to “Let it Snow”. After a week or so of doing this, Andy realizes that if he hums “Let it Snow” at the dinner table, John gets noticeably uncomfortable. With this newfound knowledge, Andy can make John nervous whenever he wants just by humming that tune.
So, You’re Right
I guess I was a little misleading when I said psychology couldn’t be used to “control” people. It can be used to manipulate the behavior and thoughts of others, but only if people decide to use it for wrong-doing. In the four main goals of psychology, “control” is used to help people better their lives. Psychologists study the behaviors of masochists, drug addicts and other negative personalities and aim to change those behaviors. Through careful observation and experimentation, psychology is used to better mankind by reducing negative traits.
The next time someone tells you that they’re enrolled in a psychology course, there’s no need to be nervous around them. They’re not trying to take over your brain, I promise. If you want to learn more about the goals of psychology, Udemy has a great course to get you started! It’ll help you understand yourself, understand others, and who knows? Maybe you’ll even be able to help someone get rid of a nasty habit.