Psychology 101: Your Introduction to This Fascinating Topic!

The idea of psychology appeals to many. A body of expert knowledge that trained practitioners use to better the lives of thousands of people. But ultimately, “psychology” is an incredibly broad discipline that spans a range of different practices and theories. In this article, we provide something of a psychology 101 introduction, helping you to get a sense of what psychology is all about.

What is Psychology?

So, you’re looking for a guide to psychology 101? Upon asking an expert about what exactly psychology is, you’ll quickly realize that there are multiple ways of answering this seemingly simple question. Similarly, if you read-up on the topic “psychology 101”, you may find the volume of information to be both daunting and overwhelming.

One might think of psychology as the study of human behavior. However, it also encompasses many other aspects of the human experience. So, the “simple” answer is that psychology is the scientific study of the mind and the behaviors that arise therefrom. The tricky thing about this definition, however, is that it can be interpreted and elaborated on in a multitude of different ways. Several of which we discuss below.

Therefore, if you decide to read up on psychology 101, it’s important to realize that psychology is a multifaceted discipline. It encompasses a variety of branches, schools of thought and theories. This truly is an exciting and ever-evolving field. Let’s delve a little deeper.

Psychological Theories

There are many, many psychological theories out there. Below, let’s hone-in on some of the key ideas. The theories that you would likely learn about if you were to enroll in psychology 101 at college.

There are four overarching branches of theory in psychology, the first being “developmental theories”. They describe the principles of human development and include, for example, John Bowlby’s attachment theory as well as Erik Erikson’s theory of psycho-social development. The second important branch of knowledge is known as the “grand theories”, which were proposed by major influencers of psychology. These theories include the psychoanalytic theory (Sigmund Freud) and cognitive developmental theory (Jean Piaget). It’s important to keep in mind, however, that grand theories are often considered outdated in modern psychology. Despite the fact that they are thought to have paved the road in terms of what we know about the mind today.

A third category of psychological theory can be referred to as “mini-theories”. This category focuses on particular aspects of development, such as the formation of self-esteem in early socialization. Finally, “emergent theories” are recently developed theories which are often built using a combination of mini-theories. Many of these theories still need further research and evidence due to their novelty. One example is the approach of neuropsychoanalysis, which uses brain-imaging technology to elaborate on Freudian hypotheses about the mind.

Key Concepts

Psychology touches on so many aspects of human behavior; which, as we know, is a very complex topic. However, there are a few key concepts that should be included in any psychology 101 course.

  • Psychology is the study of the mind and consequent behavior
  • It encompasses both individual and group behavior
  • Psychology rests on scientific methods and principles
  • It is influenced by multiple (and sometimes competing) perspectives
  • Psychology is complex!

Early Beginnings and Evolution of Psychology

Although it is a relatively new discipline, Herman Ebbinghaus (1908) wrote that: “Psychology has a long past, but a short history.” This is such a powerful statement, because “psychological questions” have been around since long before psychology was recognized as a particular discipline.

Why are we here? What makes us human? What is emotion? Why do we dream? How do we adopt healthy behaviors and abandon harmful ones? These are examples of psychological questions that have been asked since the early days of humanity. And yet, psychology has only recently evolved into the respected school of science that it is today. So, in other words, the “past” of psychology can be traced back as far as 387 BCE. This was when Plato suggested that mental processes happen in the brain. It may not have been a popular view back then, but in our modern world, psychology often focuses on the link between the brain and the mind.

So, when did the “history” of psychology actually begin? Some say that it started with Wilhelm Wundt (the “father” of psychology), who founded psychology as an independent experimental field of study. He set up the first laboratory that performed psychological research exclusively at Leipzig University. Shortly after this, in 1890, the American Psychological Society (APA) was founded. This is when things really began to change for the discipline. Most of the advances within the field of psychology happened in the past 150 years, thus giving rise to vastly different schools of thought throughout this time.


Sigmund Freud is arguably the most recognized name associated with early psychology. This Austrian neurologist established psychoanalysis in the early 1890s. He believed that bringing unconscious thought and motivation into consciousness would lead to greater insight that would ultimately “cure” psychologically ill individuals. Thus, psychoanalysis can be described as a set of theories and treatments related to this hypothesis.

In psychoanalysis, problems are thought to stem from the unconscious mind. In other words “hidden” disturbances may manifest themselves as specific symptoms. These latent symptoms typically arise from unresolved issues stemming from early childhood development or repressed trauma. Psychoanalysis views mental disorders as the conflict between the conscious and unconscious mind. Which is why treatment using this method focuses on bringing unconscious thoughts into awareness. Traditional psychoanalysis has fallen out of favor due to treatments being lengthy and expensive. However; modern psychotherapy techniques, that draw on psychoanalytic ideas, have been shown to be effective in the treatment of various psychological conditions.


Behaviorism was founded a while after psychoanalysis. Specifically, John B. Watson (another well-known name in the psychology world), founded this approach in 1913. Behaviorism aimed to understand behavior by measuring only observable behaviors. It emphasized more scientific and objective measures, as opposed to the subjective approach of psychoanalysis.

The approach of behaviorism assumes that behaviors are a response to the environment and that they are consequently learned by interactions with this environment. This school also states, however, that the individual’s history and current state influence these responses. Although behaviorism recognizes that inherited factors may play a small role, it places a much larger emphasis on environmental factors. Thus essentially excluding these inherited factors. Ultimately, behaviorism states that individuals are “blank slates” who act in ways that are learned from the environment.


Described as the “third force” in psychology, this approach arose during the 1970s and 1980s. It offered a new way of viewing and understanding human nature. This approach was heavily influenced by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. It moved away from and basically rejected both the psychoanalytic approach and behaviorism, as they were seen as deterministic and ultimately too dehumanizing. This approach looks at the whole person and the uniqueness that each individual possesses, rather than looking at the separate parts in a fragmented manner. It views humans as having their own free will as well as drive towards self-actualization; which is basically the progression towards realizing one’s own personal capabilities. Ultimately, humanism assumes that individuals are inherently good and that they innately want to better themselves and the world. Thus emphasizing personal worth and human values.

Modern Psychology

Although psychology has been shaped by specific schools of thought, it is slightly different today. Most psychologists do not associate themselves with only one specific school of thought. Rather, modern practitioners tend to identify with specific areas of expertise and they use a variety of different approaches; drawing from multiple schools of thought. Therefore, modern psychology can be divided into several sub-disciplines. Each looking at different aspects of behavior as well as mental processes and ultimately, human nature. This allows for those who work within the field of psychology to constantly evolve as the discipline does. Allowing for new ways to explain human behavior as well as new treatment approaches.

Branches of Human Psychology

Some of the better known branches of modern psychology, likely to be touched upon in any psychology 101 course include:

  • Clinical psychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Forensic psychology
  • Health psychology
  • Organizational psychology
  • Educational psychology
  • Personality psychology

Is Psychology a Science?

The human mind has been a topic of discussion by dedicated researchers for centuries, but is psychology truly a science? There have been extensive debates on whether psychology can be classified as a science, and the answer has yet to be agreed upon.

Science rests upon empirical research which emphasizes that knowledge arises through the senses (by observation or experience), rather than through logic. Psychology rests on scientific principles as psychological research uses the “scientific method” to investigate questions and reach conclusions. Techniques such as observation, experiments, case studies and questionnaires are used to gather information in psychological research. While some might argue that these approaches are unscientific, others argue that they constitute the most scientific of methods that we have for examining the human condition. Further, psychological findings are published in peer-reviewed journals (much like other “scientific” subjects) allowing for the scrutiny of their results. Finally, psychologists are encouraged (and in fact, required) to incorporate the findings from academic research into their everyday practice and intervention methods.

What is a Psychologist?

We have seen that there are many different types of psychologists, each laying claim to their own field of specialization. However, in a broad sense, a psychologist is someone who has been professionally trained to explore mental processes and behaviors relating to human nature. A psychologist does this by observing, interpreting and recording the interactions of individuals with themselves and their environments and intervening appropriately.

What Does a Psychologist Do?

A psychologist uses the skills gained during their studies to help individuals deal with mental health issues and a wide range of other problems. For example, psychologists help to treat people who suffer from mental illnesses; ranging from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They also help with short-term problems that individuals may experience; such as navigating a new job, or the death of a loved one.

Psychologists aim to help in all aspects of human encounters; which may range from short-term to chronic conditions, stressful situations, addictions or specific mental health issues. Psychologists also administer tests and assessments related to human behavior. These tests are often used to help with the diagnosis of a specific mental disorder or to gain insight into how a person thinks and why they behave in a certain way. Finally, psychologists may work primarily as researchers. This involves working in a range of different settings to further our knowledge about various aspects of human functioning.

How to Become a Psychologist

To become a psychologist in the United States, you need a bachelor’s degree in psychology (undergraduate), as well as a doctorate in psychology from an accredited university. It is also mandatory to pass a national board exam. Most states also require you to complete a supervised internship. However, the specific requirements vary from state to state. Once you have fulfilled these national requirements, as well as your specific state requirements, you can become licensed to practice.

Goals of Psychology

There are four main goals of psychology: to describe, explain, predict and change behavior (in positive ways). Each one rests upon the other and each goal is important in the broader scheme of things. Describing and understanding behavior allows for psychologists to potentially predict future actions. All of this knowledge finally allows for psychologists to constructively influence and change behaviors in a way that positively impacts the lives of individuals, families and groups. In essence, psychology aims to understand the human mind by exploring thoughts, emotions, feelings and behaviors.

Psychology 101: The Future of Psychology

Although psychology has evolved tremendously since its origin, it is important to note that it will continue to be an ever-changing topic. It’s the study of human nature. As Ian Hacking once said, “humans are moving targets”; once you study and begin to understand them, they evolve. We are a constantly evolving species, which is what makes psychology such an interesting topic!

author avatar
Angel Rivera
I am a Bilingual (Spanish) Psychiatrist with a mixture of strong clinical skills including Emergency Psychiatry, Consultation Liaison, Forensic Psychiatry, Telepsychiatry and Geriatric Psychiatry training in treatment of the elderly. I have training in EMR records thus very comfortable in working with computers. I served the difficult to treat patients in challenging environments in outpatient and inpatient settings
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