A guide to everyday psychology


What is Psychology – and how is it different from Psychiatry?

When I set off to Portsmouth to begin my degree in 1976, I had the same view about psychology as most other people have. I thought it was like a poor man’s version of psychiatry – all about sorting out mental illnesses.

And I quite liked the idea. True, I wouldn’t be able to prescribe pills like a proper doctor after I qualified… But I could see myself hypnotising beautiful women in a few years time, causing them to confuse me with someone brilliant.

The reality came as a horrible shock. Psychology, it turned out… was a science. It involved – literally – doing experiments on people to test things like reaction times. And, worse, these experiments had to be analysed using statistics. It was not about hypnotising women at all. Psychology was mostly about using science to study the causes of normal behaviour.

But as the months passed, I began to quite like this sciencey view. It said that if we want to sound off with our theories about people, we must test those theories first – and prove them to be true. Evidence is the compulsory basis of any believable theory about people.

Objectives of Psychology

In those days, the formal objectives of psychology were often given as: to understand, predict and control behaviour. Even back then, this sounded like the mission statement from a Soviet labour camp. Today, psychology’s formal aims are much softer: the promotion of happiness and mental well being. Psychology has become a science focused on feelings as much as behaviour. That new focus must be good, right?

Well, there are two (main) problems. The first problem is a practical one. Unlike behaviour, we can’t see feelings. So, if we are to measure feelings, we must use questionnaires and interviews. This is a problem because, frankly, most of our questionnaires are dreadful.

The second problem? The change in formal objectives has led many people to conclude that the psychology carried out before 1980 (with its focus on behaviour) is mostly obsolete – or so irrelevantly focused on behaviour that we should ignore it. And so, in 2021, people who write about psychology, especially those who have never actually studied psychology, rarely reconcile their opinions with the discoveries of the past. All too often, they seem to be completely unaware of them.

This has left psychology in a unique position. Alone among the sciences, psychology can (and does) say many contradictory things at once.

The ‘agreed facts’ vacuum

Because we don’t have any agreed facts (not even one) that bind everyone who calls themselves “a psychologist”, psychology has become very susceptible to political pressures. The result is that a rather sentimental and moral version of psychology now dominates the science. It is common for writers to state, without any real proof, that people are inherently moral, and even inherently ‘good’.

This has led to some doubtful social policies… A view has arisen that – if we want well-trained adults – what we need to do is bring up children in an atmosphere of love, respect and tolerance. Explanations for so-called ‘bad’ behaviour centre on bad training – or mental disorders that should be ‘spotted’ in school. So we must identify the disorder early and give people therapy or medicine when they go wrong. Punishment, especially any kind of physical punishment, is frowned upon and even illegal in many countries.

In the last 20/30 years psychology has become far more like psychiatry.

Here I hope to explain how the life-problems that we (and our children) all face can often be much better understood by using simple psychological discoveries, all based in evidence, that were made decades ago.

And psychiatry itself?

Psychiatry is an offshoot of medicine. Medically-trained doctors deal with mental illnesses and – sometimes – brain illnesses. Where psychologists use the discoveries of normal psychology to understand ‘abnormal’ feelings and behaviour (as ‘clinical psychology‘), psychiatrists use the model of ‘illness’ and ‘disease’. We will return to these different approaches frequently in the articles and posts.

I would admit to being rather psychiatry-sceptic at times, and for this reason: How can one ever understand the causes of abnormal feelings and behaviour if one has never studied the mechanisms that govern normal feelings and behaviour?

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