Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology

 

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A Brief Explanation of Psychology as Taught in an Introductory Class

Michael Ofsowitz

First, let me paraphrase an old quip and say that for most of you, Introductory Psychology will teach you more about psychology than you ever wanted to know.

Psychology attempts to scientifically figure out what makes the human creature tick mentally and behaviorally. Some of the basic questions psychologists try to answer are things like: How does a person know what's going on around them? Why do we see what we think we see? How do we remember things? Why do we act at all? How do we learn new tricks? What mental abilities do babies have? How do mental abilities change as we get old? Does playing computer games change the ways our minds work? Why do we behave differently when other people are around? How do we know who to like and to love? What happens when things go wrong - how does a person qualify as having a behavioral disorder? How are behavioral and mental problems dealt with?

To answer questions like these scientifically, which is to say factually and correctly, we have to learn the language and methods of the field that specializes in this: psychology - that is, the way psychologists describe things, and the way they get at answers. The language of psychology makes it possible to avoid problems commonly created by unclear manners of speech or writing. The language gives us precision concerning the components that might be involved in any of the topics we're studying. And the methods of psychology - scientific methods - allow us to escape the constraints of uncritical beliefs and opinions and forces that get us to agree or disagree with these. Yes, scientific methods free us from popular beliefs and persuasive influences coming from people with agendas. Put another way, science forces us to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. Using scientific methods, psychologists search for realities: answers that withstand the tests of skeptical scientific scrutiny. By learning both the language and the methods of psychology, we can carefully and more correctly ask meaningful questions about how human mental life and behavior functions, and seek the right answers.

Some problems with psychology: Students often think psychology is going to examine problem cases: the insane, distressed, incontinent, otherwise disordered, and so forth, along with some pop themes like actualizing self-potential, detoxifying relationships, and maintaining chemical balance in the brain. In reality, however, most of what psychologists do is focused on normal, average people and the attempts to explain how a normal person functions mentally and behaviorally, and that in detail. We don't worry about "what makes serial killers so evil?" as much as we worry about things like "how is it possible to see in color?" Interest in insanities, mental disorders, etc. is a part of psychology, but it's not the central part.

Additionally, students often think psychology is going to be easy; after all it sounds fun. Well, it might be fun, but if it were easy we'd know more about psychology than we know about physics. (I'm not the first to say that.) In other words, explaining atomic energy or predicting the trajectory of a rocket as it passes Jupiter is easy; explaining happiness or aggressiveness or predicting a person's behavior as he enters a situation is tough. But both use the same principles: those of science. Students are often surprised about how scientific their introductory psychology courses are.

Finally, almost everyone comes to their first psychology class with assumptions and beliefs about how people function, what's good for teaching people new things, where personality comes from, etc. We often cling to these assumptions and beliefs because they've gotten us through years of life and they may have been acquired from persons we respect highly (parents, friends, clergy, Dr. Phil...). In other words, we just know they can't be wrong. But in psychology we try to look at the human creature from a rather sober, scientific viewpoint, and what we see often challenges many of our thoughts, even those we most strongly believe in. What this means for students is that they have to come to class prepared to be exposed to explanations of mind and behavior that may seem counterintuitive, and prepared to confront scientific evidence that contradicts, and hopefully shatters, some of their beliefs. This may seem simple in print, but without an open mind, willing to learn what psychologists have discovered about behavior and mental processes, students probably won't do as well in class.

The introductory course in psychology samples the existing base of knowledge and theories in a wide variety of topic areas, such as those listed above. As with most introductory courses there's some tension between breadth and depth, yet the course will appear to be both very broad and very detailed to many students. To others it will simply seem like an endless list of details to be memorized. In large part this is due to the wealth of information that's available and that defines the field of psychology. Ideally we'd want students to memorize the language and some of the facts that have been discovered, to comprehend concepts and begin to appreciate the complexities of the interconnections between them, and to start thinking like scientific psychologists or seeing the world the way scientific psychologists see it. Given the limits on assessment used in PSY 101 @ MCC (multiple guess tests), the focus is on memorization of language and facts, and basic comprehension of concepts.

Assuming you're more curious about psychology in college, also see the pages in my "Psychology" link (same as the link in the left-hand menu).