We all like talking about ourselves, don’t we? Those of us with over-active social media accounts will be well-used to revealing parts of their soul to the world, but we all share to a lesser or a higher amount. This is why psychology is so popular.
Research published by psychologists is regularly discussed in the media, so the subject has become a “normal” part of western culture – but not necessarily understood in its fullest sense. Instead, it’s seen through the prism of popular media; reporters or commentators searching for psychological confirmation of the story being discussed – confirmation bias and “common sense” psychology that fits in with their views, rather than looking at the entire picture and allowing evidence to lead the discussion.
But psychology is relevant to our lives in a hundred (and more) different ways; it settles into our culture and even into our language. Freudian slips are an everyday occurrence, everyone knows about short- and long-term memories, and childhood experiences influence the rest of our lives.
There are four men who are considered the “founders of psychology”; yes, men one and all, as women were not often in positions of discovery at the time we’re looking at here – for most of history, in fact, but that’s a discussion for many more articles.
Before Charles Darwin put forward the theory of evolution, he conducted the first-ever scientific infant-observation study by watching his son’s behaviour and emotions.
Wilhelm Wundt is believed to have started formalised psychology when he opened a laboratory dedicated to the science in Germany. He set down a range of formal methods for study psychology, such as introspection (asking people to report on their inner feelings and experiences) and ethnography (observations of human culture).
William James, an American professor trained in philosophy, medicine, and physiology, advocated a range of methods in researching psychology, and published an influential book in 1890.
Sigmund Freud, the first psychoanalyst, was a medical d#octor and research physiologist who opened his psychology consulting room in Vienna in 1886. Freud pioneered listening closely to people’s personal accounts of their symptoms, emotions, and lives more generally.
In the 1960s, there was a “cognitive revolution”, an important shift in thinking about psychology. More recently, there has been a second cognitive revolution; many psychologists now also consider to participants’ own accounts of their experiences.
Psychologists work as advisors, consultants, or therapists in a range of jobs (education, the workplace, sport, and mental health, for example), and they increasingly research areas of practical concern such as dyslexia, stress, police interviewing of eye-witnesses, and autism.
Something that is often quoted is – “All this psychology stuff is just common sense, isn’t it? We can all just work it out.” Aside from wanting to whack people who say that round the head with a wet dish cloth, it’s important to differentiate “common sense” from actual psychology – which is researched, discussed, refined, and tested in real life. Psychologists approach the pursuit of knowledge in a scientific and methodical way; they follow rules and procedures, design studies to test possibilities, collect data, and carefully interpret it.
When psychologists conduct research, they need to be very conscious of ethical concerns; can their research be in any way questionable? You would hope that the answer to this question would always be “no”, but there are examples that might cause people to question that.
The Open University gives an example of a series of experiments conducted between 1959 and 1962. Henry Murray, a professor at Harvard University and a personality theorist, conducted some tests on twenty-two undergraduates at the university (all men). The tests were designed to measure how people respond to confrontation during interrogations.
The experiments were designed to understand what personalities were likely to be able to withstand brainwashing and interrogation during wartime – hence the tests being conducted all on men, as women couldn’t serve on the front line at the time.
The participants were all volunteers, given a small fee, and only told that they would be helping psychologists solve “certain psychological problems.” They were placed in brilliantly lit rooms, filmed through a hole in the wall, and were connected to electrodes that recorded their heart and respiratory rates. While the students had been told that they would be debating views with another undergraduate, they were actually faced with an older, more sophisticated opponent who belittled their values, humiliated them, and provoked them to anger.
It also seems that, at the end of these sessions, many of the participants weren’t clear what the research was about – and they spent upwards of 200 hours in the study. Even 25 years, some of them could remember how unpleasant the entire experience had been.
It’s interesting to note that one of the participants was a man called Theodore Kaczynski, who was a student at Harvard at the surprisingly young age of 15. Some might recognise him by a later nickname – the Unabomber, which he was given after he posted or delivered sixteen parcel bombs to scientists, academics, and others over a seventeen-year period, killing three and injuring twenty-three. Perhaps most disturbingly, Kaczynski targeted scientists at least partly because he felt they were trying to develop techniques for controlling human behaviour. That’s not making a direct connection between the experiments he took part in and his later action, but it would be fascinating to know when his dislike of scientists first occurred.
In the 1970s, a Stanford University psychologist set up a mock prison and randomly assigned student volunteer to be either a guard or a prisoner. The experiment was meant to last two weeks but, when the ‘guards’ became so harsh and the ‘prisoners’ so distressed, it was ended after six days. The experiment showed how easily people could fall into particular roles – “bad” or “victim”, in this instance – but also raised ethical concerns; was it right to allow the experiment to go on for six days? Could the psychologists running the experiment reached their findings without putting volunteers into this kind of situation?
Another experiment that caused a lot of ethical debate was conducted in 1963; a psychologist called Milgram wanted to study the relationship between obedience and agression. He wanted to understand if people would still be aggressive to another person if it was in the clearly-scientific confines of a psychological laboratory, rather than in the real world. Given that this was only 18 years after the end of World War 2, it was a very real and current discussion.
The participants were told that the experiment was to test how punishment affected learning. They believed that they would be giving shocks to another volunteer; in fact, the “volunteer” was actually Milgram’s colleague, and the shocks were fake – he would be acting the entire thing. The participants (all men and non-students) were instructed to give a shock every time the “learner” gave a wrong answer, increasing the intensity of the shock by one level each time. Out of forty participants, twenty-six obeyed the orders of the person “in charge” – even to the point when they were expected to give what they believed was a potentially fatal shock.
The participants were all debriefed afterwards; many became very distressed when they realised the implications of what they had been doing, despite being told that they hadn’t inflicted any pain. Milgram followed up with all the participants via a questionnaire; only one percent reported that they regretted having taken part in the study.
The findings from both Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s studies suggest that it’s all too easy for negative aspects of human behaviour to be shown. However, they also show the power of the setting and of authoritative researchers to control the behaviour of participants.
Psychology needs to be an integral part of our lives; understanding our minds is essential to living to our full potential. But the ongoing research needs to be effective, ethical, and informative – and we, the general public, need to be open to learning about how psychology actually works rather than just picking up the soundbites.