The Main Goals of Psychology

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: INTRODUCTION TO PSYCHOLOGY

By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College

Psychology is the scientific study of mental processes and behavior. It studies how we think, feel, and remember, and also how we act—sleeping, eating, fighting, falling in love. Research in psychology has four main goals: to describe, explain, predict, and bring about change. Sometimes we try to do them all, while at other times, we’re focused on only one or two of these goals.

Printed emoticons of a happy and a sad face used by a psychologist during a therapy session with a child.
Psychology helps us explain why we take the actions that we take and helps us change when needed. (Image: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

What Happens and Why?

First, there’s the goal of description, telling people about what happens in the world. Research in psychology tells us that people paying with a credit card leave substantially larger tips than people paying with cash; passengers who are black wait significantly longer for an Uber ride and are twice as likely as passengers who are white to have a driver outright cancel their trip; and children who take music lessons tend to score higher on intelligence tests than those who don’t.

There are many, many examples of studies that describe some interesting effects, but once you have a description, the next step is to ask why. Answering why questions is the goal of explanation. We’re no longer looking just at what occurs, but the why. The famous nature versus nurture debate focuses on trying to explain whether differences between people are a result of biological and genetic factors (the nature side) or environmental and cultural factors.

Image shows the hand of a student marking answers with a pencil on an examination paper.
Studies show that when people are told how a certain gender performs on a test, the results of the test are affected. (Image: smolaw/Shutterstock)

For example, there is a pretty consistent gender difference within the United States for math and spatial skills. Boys tend to have higher scores on the math SAT, are more likely to major in math and science fields, and are more likely to pursue a career in, say, engineering. So, how do we explain such differences? Well, one study found that men do better than women when people are told they are taking a test measuring spatial ability ‘on which men tend to perform better’

However, women perform just as well as men when the exact same test is described as measuring empathy ‘on which women tend to perform better’. These findings suggest that gender differences in math and science are better explained by gender stereotypes than by any innate differences.

Predicting the Future

When psychology describes what happens and why, then the answers often lead to the third goal of predicting what will occur in the future.

Someone who worked for years as the chief research psychologist for the United States Secret Service conducted an exhaustive study of every active shooter incident at a school since 1999, the year of the Columbine High School massacre. 

What her study reveals is that school shooters typically have four things in common: They’ve suffered early childhood trauma, often including exposure to violence at a young age; they’ve experienced some type of recent negative event, such as a relationship breakup or loss of a parent; they’ve studied other school shootings, often online; and they have access to guns and ammunition, giving them the means to carry out an attack.

These findings provide fundamental insights into the factors that can push someone to carry out a mass shooting.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Changing the Outcome

The fourth goal in psychology is to take the step beyond predicting into realizing the potential for change. Insights into the factors behind mass shootings, for example, can help teachers, parents, and law enforcement agents prevent future tragedies.

All the work in psychology, describing, explaining, and predicting, leads to the possibility of what is for many people the most interesting and important goal of psychology—the possibility to change. Findings from psychological science can prevent unwanted outcomes and bring about desired goals.

Now, most people immediately think about psychologists helping to change people through psychotherapy. While reducing depression, or overcoming a phobia, or recovering from an addiction are all still important, psychology research is much broader than just a clinical science that examines the causes and treatment of mental disorders.

Real-world Implications

Psychology is partly a biological science, grounded in research on genetics and neuroscience, and physiology. Psychology is also a social science, grounded in the study of human behavior, thoughts, and feelings. Plus, psychology is an applied science. Researchers try to predict how a change in policy or procedure will influence some outcomes, such as relationship satisfaction or obesity.

Some of the most exciting research in psychology demonstrates how changes in laws, policies, and procedures have real-world implications.

For example, research on sleep has shown that delaying high school start times leads to better grades and fewer car accidents; a finding that quickly changed how many high schools were run. Research in sport and performance psychology has shown how the use of imagery, or visualization, can help elite athletes perform at an even higher level. Research in forensic psychology has shown how to improve interrogation procedures and police lineups to reduce wrongful convictions.

Common Questions about the Main Goals of Psychology

Q: What is psychology, and what are its main goals?

Psychology is the scientific study of mental processes and behavior. The four main goals of psychology are: to describe, explain, predict, and bring about change.

Q: Is the reason for men performing better than women in math and spatial skills natural or cultural?

One study found that men do better than women when people are told they are taking a test measuring spatial ability ‘on which men tend to perform better’. However, women perform just as well as men when the exact same test is described as measuring empathy ‘on which women tend to perform better’. These findings suggest that gender differences in math and science are better explained by gender stereotypes than by any innate differences.

Q: What, according to many people, is the most interesting and important goal of psychology?

For many people, the most interesting and important goal of psychology is the possibility of change; findings from psychological science can prevent unwanted outcomes and bring about desired goals.

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