Insight: The role of psychology


Psychology is one of those disciplines which most people practise unconsciously. They have practised it from time immemorial. When someone greets you with a broad smile you assume that he is friendly and that he does not have sad news to tell you.

During a sound sleep you dream, upon waking up you try to interpret those dreams, sagas from Joseph who interpreted one Pharaohs dream to Sigmund Freud Carl Jung have interpreted dreams.

At work some supervisors have used exhortation or praise to make their subordinates work harder. Some people tell us that slightly built supervisors are likely to lose temper at work than heavily built ones. In all those instances some branch of psychology is at work, so what is psychology?


When someone was asked what economics was he answered that economics was that economist did. Not many people would make much sense of this. What about if we said psychology is what psychologists do? It is better to start with verbal definitions before observing what some people do that constitutes psychology.

The word psychology is derived from two Greek words psyche (mind, soul or spirit) and logos (discourse or study), which put together produce study of mind.

One of the pioneer American psychologists William James said “psychology is the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and their conditions. The phenomena are such things as we call feelings, desire, cognition, reasoning decision and the like”.


Although psychology has been practised from time immemorial, as an academic discipline it is generally traced to the year 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt, a psychologist opened the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany Wundt and his colleagues were attempting to investigate their minds through introspection. Introspection is the examination or observation of one’s mental and emotional processes.

An American John B. Watson (1872-1958) criticised Wundt’s approach and said that introspection is not reliable because we cannot be sure of what is going on in another person’s mind. Instead psychologists should concern themselves with what can be observed and measured such as behaviour. There are other approaches to psychology but instead of dilating on what is controversial let us move on to what psychologists do:

  1. Educational psychologist: These work within educational institutions and do the following: (a) They administer psychological tests, especially Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests as part of assessing learning difficulties (b) The planning and supervision of remedial teaching (c) Research into teaching methods (d) The planning of educational programmes meant to suit the needs of the mentally and physically handicapped (including the visually challenged e.g. the blind).
  2. Clinical Psychologist: These form the biggest single group of psychologists. They perform the following functions: (a) Assist the mentally handicapped; administer psychological tests to brain-damaged patients. They also devise rehabilitation programmes for long-term psychiatric patients and assess old people’s fitness to live independently (b) plan and carry out programmes of behaviour therapy (cure). This group includes doctors known as psychiatrists. Their methods of treating patients is called psychotherapy which is associated with the name of Sigmund Freud. This is a sub-group of clinical psychologists called “forensic or legal psychologists”. They are employed by the prison or probation service. Forensic psychologist may be called as an expert witness in court trials to testify the credibility of a witness and dependant.
  3. Industrial or occupational psychologists: The industrial or occupational psychologist is found in the workplace. He or she performs the following duties: (a) Selection and training of individuals for jobs as well as vocational guidance in collaboration with the personnel manager (b) Industrial rehabilitation. This involves guidance to people who have been declared redundant at their jobs or are suffering from a chronic illness (c) Fitting the job to the person technically known as ergonomics, machines are specially designed to match those who are going to use them (d) Advising on working condition, motivation and productivity. Teaching of psychologists like Herberg, Maslow are particularly popular. One of the most famous authors of books on success the late Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a clergyman has blended spiritual and psychological insights to good effect. His books have sold in millions.
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