Psychological Theories

Psychology is defined as the scientific study of the mind and behavior.

There appears to be some confusion as to which are the differences between a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psychotherapist and a psychoanalyst. Despite widespread interest in the popular media, as evidenced by movies such as Analyze This (1999) and Analyze That (2002, both starring actor Robert De Niro), psychoanalysis has largely been eradicated.

Further, psychiatrists are doctors, thus, to practice psychiatry, a person must first complete medical school, and then specialize in psychiatry. A psychologist is not a doctor. Psychologists do not and cannot prescribe medication. In many jurisdictions psychologists must earn a Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy – second graduate degree, typically entered into after a Master’s degree) in psychology prior to be allowed to practice.

Alternatively, a psychotherapist does not need to study as much, since theoretically, almost anyone could potentially set up shop and act as a psychotherapist. Restrictions vary according to regions, and exceptions apply.

Sigmund Freud, an 19th century Vienna physician, is considered the father of psychoanalysis, and while his theories are still taught in psychological programs, few practicians remain in reality, as many psychoanalytical assumptions have been discarded. Freud’s concepts were contradictory, centering on sexuality (i.e. Oedipus and Electra complexes, penis envy in girls, explanation of vagina dentata, fear of castration in boys, etc.). Freud’s theories are believed to have been influenced by the sexually repressive context of the Victorian era.

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Also, psychology is taught at most institurions of higher learning. Image: Copyright ©

Nonetheless, Freud has also contributed to child or developmental psychology (the scientific study of the individual across the lifespan). Along these lines, the first known psychoanalyst developed a series of psychosexual stages describing growth and development. However, one must keep in mind that none of these have to do with the act per se, but rather how unconscious thoughts and instincts allegedly influence one’s mind. Freudian theories have been criticized extensively because of their strong emphasis on sex, and often sexist views.

Another notorious child psychologist was Lev Vygotsky, who introduced concepts such as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) and scaffolding, arguing that children needed more experienced others and supervision in order to learn. An alternative view came from biologist Jean Piaget, who believed in innate cognitive abilities. Interestingly, many theorists (Freud, Erickson, Kohlberg, Piaget, Gilligan) separated growth into steps, according to ages.

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Erickson suggested that at each psychosocial step a choice had to be made. Conflict to resolve in Erickson's psychosocial stages: 1) Trust vs. Mistrust 2) Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt 3) Initiative vs. Guilt 4) Industry vs. Inferiority 5) Identity vs. Role confusion 6) Intimacy vs. isolation 7) Generativity vs. Stagnation 8) Ego integrity vs. Despair.  Image: Copyright ©

Another prominent theoretical construct was proposed by Mary Ainsworth, who suggested various attachment styles, as assessed by the Strange Situation task. Attachment styles were defined as secure and insecure. The insecure category was further subdivided into anxious, avoidant and dismissive.

Apparently, aside from, logically, impacting one’s relationships in adulthood, attachment style may even carry repercussions on cognitive undertakings, such as academic achievement.

Onwards, although Ivan Pavlov refrained from calling himself a psychologist, but rather a physiologist (he did win the Nobel Prize for physiology in 1904), his experiments with dogs are some of the most famous studies in the field, and likely among the first topics presented in a learning and memory introductory level class. By the same token, classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning.

The initial classical conditioning went as such: dogs salivate to food – the unconditioned or unconditional stimulus – US – terms used interchangeably in academic literature. However, Pavlov paired the US with the sound of a bell – or the conditioned or conditional stimulus – CS. Therefore, in time, the dogs started to salivate to the sound of the bell – or the CS. In the situation described, salivation to food is the natural, or unconditioned response – UR, while salivation to the bell sound is the learned or conditioned response – CR. The famous story of little Albert, who became afraid of white furry pets, rests on the same principle.

Later, behaviorism with such proponents as B. F. Skinner, and his work with pigeons, stole the limelight. Skinner developed such ideas as superstitious behavior and what became known as the ‘Skinner box’.

A deplorable fact of psychology’s dark past is experimentation with animals, which prior to stronger ethics and care committees, was at times cruel and absolutely unacceptable. Perhaps one of the worst incidents is perception research by Hubel and Wiesel, where the eyes of newborn kittens were sewn together. While that laboratory did find that neurons in the visual cortex would fail to progress properly without appropriate stimulation, one wonders if it is even possible to consider such knowledge as worthy of such inhumane treatment of cats. Today, celebrities such as voluptuous Pamela Anderson, and organisms such as PETA, fight against mistreatment of adorable creatures.

Naturally, psychology is also used in business. For example, psychological ideas help in situations involving cross-cultural communication. To illustrate, Japanese businesspeople may feel insulted if certain rituals are omitted, Latin American ones if small talk fails to precede commercial discussion, while in some regions of the Middle East, someone punctual may be perceived as lacking in self-worth.

Moreover, continuing on the subject of psychology, Albert Bandura’s research interests included such areas as television, violence, imitation and modelling. His famous experiment involving a Bobo doll, showed that children tend to see as role models, and thus imitate, adults. Additionally, there has been a study providing evidence that creativity dropped in a small rural town after television and computer games were introduced.

Furthermore, many (and ironically enough MIT or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professor Sherry Turkle) worry that technology and social media may isolate individuals from one another. The academician wrote a book (Alone Together, 2010) on the subject, which she confessed on political satire show The Colbert Report (right after The Daily Show hosted by Jon Stewart on the Comedy Central cable channel) took her 15 years to write! Aside from scholar authorities, many deplore the inability of online virtual life to teach proper social skills and the loss of the once praised art of socializing.