It's Hard to Imagine a World Without Psychology

From relationships to the brain, psychology informs us and our world

Posted Aug 02, 2014

In a satirical piece entitled “Psychology Comes to a Halt as Weary Researchers Say the Mind Cannot Possibly Understand Itself,” the Onion reported, in a way that only the Onion can, that psychology as a discipline has come to its official end. Citing the current American Psychological Association (APA)’s President, they maintained that Nadine Kaslow declared “the APA, with its 134,000 members and 54 academic divisions, forever disbanded.”

The great irony in this article was precisely the fact that Kaslow herself is a leading researcher in the field, a clinical psychologist on the faculty of the prestigious Emory University School of Medicine. If anyone was going to declare psychological research to be a waste of time, it would hardly be the well-respected President of APA.  

In responding to the piece, APA itself showed that it can take a joke, pointing to the role of humor in mental health on its Facebook page.  Clearly, the article was intended to challenge the notion that people could ever actually study people. After reading it, I began to think about what our world would be like without the study of “behavior and mental processes.” True, the world functioned for thousands of years without an official study of behavior and the mind. However, it’s only been since the official “invention” of psychology, usually given as 1879 (when the first psychology lab opened) that a true science has made it possible to gain insight into the why’s and wherefore’s of behavior- human and animal.

The popular media portrays psychology in a variety of ways, from the reasonably accurate way that neuroscience is discussed in the TNT crime drama, Perception, to the silly but enjoyable use of “telepathy” in the USA network comedy Psych (now only shown in reruns). However, as readers of Psychology Today know, there are many practical applications of psychology in areas such as advice, mental health, and relationships. People seek interventions in the form of psychological counseling, guidance, psychotherapy, and help with substance abuse, couple, or family problems.  

Without psychological research, these applications to treatment would not be possible. In addition, psychologists study a range of problems in basic science, such as the role of the brain in behavior, changes in the mind and body in development, processes of learning, memory, sensation and perception, and the ways that people think about others and the world in areas such as social cognition, attitudes, and stereotyping.

The criticism that psychologists aren’t objective enough to study people (because they’re people) is not a concept unique to behavioral science. Researchers in all of the sciences, including the basics of genetics or astrophysics, are people as well, and subject to their own biases and expectations about their findings. If it weren’t for the role of human bias in research, there would be no need for placebo groups.

Let’s return, though, to the question of what a world without psychology might be like in some very practical areas. We might not realize, for example, that punishment is a poor way to change behavior. Instead, through the discoveries of B.F. Skinner, the world now knows that behavior modification is best accomplished through reinforcement. We also wouldn’t recognize that children don’t just think “less,” than adults, they think differently. Piaget’s theory showed that the young have great difficulty seeing the perspectives of others, and until they’re about eight, are pretty much stuck in seeing the world from their own point of view.

In the area of interpersonal relationships, psychologists have made important discoveries as well. One of the most important is attachment theory, the view that adults develop self-concepts and ideas about relationships from the interactions they had with their caregivers. Therapists and family counselors are relying increasingly on this framework because it provides concrete ways for individuals to recognize, and then work to correct, the attachment difficulties they’ve carried with them throughout their lives.

For all the abuse that Freud takes in the popular media (if not in psychology departments), we still might find it difficult to imagine a world in which no one used terms such as “unconscious,” “defense mechanisms,” or even “anal retentive.” Freud was credited with the idea that the way we act is not always indicative of the way we feel, and that to understand behavior you need to look beneath the surface. Although many, if not most, psychologists practicing therapy have moved away from strict Freudian principles, several of his ideas are present in some form in all of the work that psychotherapists do. For example, the notion of the therapeutic alliance, or the basic connection between therapist and client, is at the heart of effective psychotherapy (Norcross, 2011).

In the broader areas of social psychology, the continued existence of prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and political conflict mean that psychology hasn’t exactly provided the fix we would all like to imagine to be able to coexist peacefully in a diverse world. However, it’s not for lack of trying, In fact, the discovery of stereotype threat showed that people incorporate their own notions of their social category into their behavior in ways that can become self-handicapping. Similarly, the implicit association test shows that there can be a wide gap between the positive attitudes toward others that people express and the way they unconsciously (Freud again) feel.

It would be too easy and self-serving to say that all politicians should take courses or refreshers in psychology. The fact of the matter is that much of what occurs in the psych lab mirrors the behavior of political parties, nations, cultures, and religions in daily life. 

What’s so exciting about the field of psychological research is precisely the idea that we are studying ourselves. It might seem like narcissism (Freud, yet again!), but the fact that we do gain insight about the way our minds work does provide an extra incentive for psychologists to continue our own research.  The typical psychology major wants to “help people,” but many also seek self-understanding that they can apply in their everyday lives.

In summary, it’s possible to imagine a world without psychology, but such a world would lack many of the innovative and useful insights that the field continues to provide. Within the scientific community, psychology is becoming incorporated into the more “traditional” disciplines such as chemistry and biology, and its recognition as a STEM discipline by the U.S. department of occupation means that psychology is gaining more and more attention at all levels of education. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m fairly confident that psychology will gain an increasingly important foothold and grow- not disappear- in the coming decades.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 


Norcross, J. C. (Ed.). (2011). Psychotherapy relationships that work (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.