Psychology: Overview and Understanding


Like many sciences, psychology has evolved from philosophy and inherited questions and concepts which philosophy had been developing. Since the establishment of the first psychological laboratory in 1897, psychology has been progressing as an independent science and created its theories. Wundt’s approach is known as structuralism because he aimed to reveal the structure of mind by analyzing its parts.

This approach was the first step, and all further scholars began their theories by accepting out more often by challenging Wundt’s theory. Nowadays, psychology appears as a pluralistic science because many prominent theories have evolved and exist side by side. This yearbook presents the branches of psychology and their most influential theories, namely, behaviorism, cognitive psychology, psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology, and neuroscience.

Human Behavior

Some psychologists argued that the mind could not be an object for real scientific research because there is no way to observe it. Instead, they suggested behavior as such a proper object for research. Meanwhile, Ivan Pavlov studied animals’ digestion and discovered reflex, or, how Pavlov called it, classical conditioning. For this research, Pavlov eventually received the Nobel Prize in 1904. He suggested that all animals, including humans, had reflex as the major nervous and psychological mechanism.

These premises caused behaviorism to reveal itself. The first studies focused on animals’ learning, depending on conditions. John Watson, the first American behaviorist, argued that any behavior merely could be explained by environmental factors. Burrhus Frederic Skinner showed that the behavior depended on what happened after response, or reinforcer. This kind of behavioral learning is nowadays called operant conditioning.

While first behaviorists insisted on external behavior as the only possible objective object of research, the neuroscientists argued that internal neuronal activity is no less observable. The development of visualization methods like MRI, EEG, and MEG facilitated the development of the area. Behavioral neuroscientists consider neuron as the fundamental element of behavior and study the neuronal determinants of human behavior. For example, the discovery of mirror neurons at the end of the 20th century implied the biological explanation of empathy. Moreover, neuroscientists devote much attention to the chemical process in the brain. Different transmitters have specific effects on the nervous system and thus on behavior. For instance, dopamine is studied as the major transmitter of signals of pleasure and reward and is considered to be one of the main causes of addictions.

Sensation and Perception

Cognition starts with sensation and perception. First, in sensation, one detects the features of the environment, such as lightness or darkness, color, temperature, and size. Sensation is the premise for processing the information in order to interpret the world, the current situation, and to make further decisions. The branch of psychology which studies the laws of transfer between sensation and perception is psychophysics. It started in 1834 from experiments of Ernst Heinrich Weber, who studied the minimum characteristics which are needed for a stimulus to be detected. He determined that the proportion of just noticeable differences in stimulus intensity is constant. Nowadays, Weber’s law is widely used, for example, in training astronauts and evaluating possible perception distortions.

Factors that Affect Consciousness

The state of mind, when a person is aware of their thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behavior, is consciousness. It was found that chemical substances, along with hypnosis and meditation, affect consciousness. Sleeping is a natural unconscious state of mind, but it is unclear if it has any particular reason to be unconscious. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic approach, it is unconsciousness which is active during sleep, revealing intentions that were suppressed by consciousness. As to the evolutionary theory, it suggests the survival significance of sleeping. However, neuroscience argues that there is no hidden meaning in dreams because they are an epiphenomenon of random brain electrical activity during sleeping.

Physiological Theory of Stress

Hans Selye was a pioneer in the research of stress. In 1946, he proposed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model to describe how stress caused biological changes (Feldman, 2019). According to the GAS model, a natural reaction to any stressor is mobilization, or detection of the stressor, resistance, and when the recourses are worn out, exhaustion. Every stage is accompanied by specific physiological changes, such as the production of stress-related neurotransmitters and hormones. According to the GAS model, stress is a biological response to challenges, and the resistance depends on the health recourses which each person possesses. However, psychologists critiqued this point of view and insisted that there were specific psychological features of stress.

Cognitive Theory of Stress

In the 1960s, Richard Lazarus developed a cognitive theory of stress. According to this view, stress is considered as a transaction rather than an organism’s response as it was in the GAS model (Biggs, Brough, & Drummond, 2017). Lazarus suggested that cognitive processing was a crucial factor in stress impact. He distinguished between primary and secondary types of stress. During the stage of primary stress, a person evaluates whether a stimulus is stressful, or it is irrelevant to the current life situation. After that, if the stimulus demands dealing with, cognitive processing will consider the parameters of this challenge performing cognitive perception of the stressor. Lazarus also identified that all the possible strategies could be grouped. These types of ways to deal with stress are nowadays known as coping-strategies.

Stress Management

Stress may be a necessary condition for a motivated activity. Stress becomes harmful when a person does not possess effective skills in stress management. Coping strategies are not always adaptive because most of them are learned at an early age. Therefore, inappropriate coping strategies can result in unsuccessful stress management (Feldman, 2019). As for the positive strategies, they are divided into emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. The first ones are managing the emotional perception of the stressor and switching onto a positive side. The problem-focused coping aims at rational thinking about overcoming the problem. The best approach is to be able to choose which one is more appropriate, depending on the circumstances. The non-adaptive strategies include avoidant coping, defense mechanisms, emotional insulation.


Learning is changing of behavior under the influence of experience (Feldman, 2019). Therefore, learning follows the principles of conditioning. There are two kinds of conditioning, which are Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning. In both approaches, behavior is connected with the stimulus through the mechanism of association. Figure 2 in the slide shows Thorndike’s Puzzle box. The cat inside had to find the way to open the box to escape and to get the food. Thorndike showed that the time needed to find the solution was increasing steadily with each trial (Wallinda, 2019).

However, cognitive theory eventually showed that there was another type of learning. Tolman and Honzink conducted a study where the experimental group of rats was wandering around a maze for ten days and were given a reinforcement on the 11th day (Feldman, 2019). The rats from the experimental group showed a dramatic increase in learning after the first reinforcement (Figure 3).


The models of memory have been derived from cognitive experiments developing from very simple to a more detailed one. In the model introduced in 1965 by Norman and Waugh, the information first comes into the primary memory, but this information disappears if there is no repetition (Cowan, 2017). After repetition, the information goes to the secondary memory, where it can be stored for a long time. After that, in 1968, the three-stage model was proposed by Atkinson and Shiffrin. The model has a separate sensory domain for sensory memories, a short-term memory block where the information is stored from about 20 seconds, and the long-term memory, which is unlimited in time of storage (Figure 4).

Motivation and Personality

In the 20th century, many theories were proposed to explain motivation and personality. According to the psychoanalytical theory, the unconsciousness functions according to the pleasure principle (Feldman, 2019).This Drive-reduction theory, suggested by Clark Hull in the 1940-s, argues that motivation is determined by the lack of some needs (Feldman, 2019). According, to Hall’s theory, primary needs are biological, and fulfilling them is vital for staying alive. However, there are also secondary drives that are learned through reinforcement. In the humanistic approach by Carl Rogers, the main human characteristic and motivation is self-actualization, which is the intrinsic intention to achieve the highest potential. Rogers showed that self-actualization can be achieved if one’s self-concept agrees with their actual life (Feldman, 2019). Otherwise, a person will struggle with the experience of frustration.

Social and Cognitive Development

Jean Piaget was developing a theory of cognitive development in the second part of the 20th century. He insisted on the qualitative specificity of each developmental stage and studied children’s speech and thinking (Feldman, 2019). Piaget identified the four stages of development from birth to adulthood (Table 1). At each stage, a child develops several cognitive functions, such as symbolic thinking or conversational skills. Piaget argued that these stages were fixed for everybody, and they are independent of experience, and that is why any child would pass them.

Physical Development

While there are many theories on psychological, cognitive, and social development, physical development is less controversial. There are particular stages of physical development, and they coincide with common development stages. In infancy and childhood, there is a fast increase in physical characteristics, such as weight and height. During adolescence, bodies change in shape and size and become sexually mature. After the adolescence stage, physical characteristics stabilize, and health reaches its peak. Aging varies dramatically from individual to individual because the physical characteristics of late adulthood depend on the way of life.

Psychological disorders

Some people experience constant anxiety, phobias, panic attacks, suffering from an anxiety disorder. Although anxiety per se is necessary for normal functioning, it becomes a disorder when people feel incredibly anxious with no apparent external reason (Feldman, 2019). Another common disorder is obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCR), which is characterized by constant repetitive thought (obsessions) and actions (compulsions).

Mood disorders are the states when a person is disturbed by their emotions and cannot control them. In major depressive disorder, a person experiences only negative feelings and anhedonia, while in maniac and bipolar disorder, they are overjoyed and full of energy for a long time, affecting recourse balance in body and mind.

Somatic disorders are the states of a body misfunctioning when there is no obvious biological cause. The classic example from psychoanalysis, conversion, is a manifestation of some internal unconscious conflict in a somatic symptom. Dissociative disorders are in general abnormality of self-perception or a part of the psyche. In addition to dissociative identity disorder, memory can also dissociate as in dissociative disorder and dissociative fugue.

From a biological perspective, all psychological disorders can be caused by specific genes, overstimulation of the limbic system, or other brain deviant features.

According to the behavioral approach, these disorders are the consequences of inadequate responses to stimuli (Feldman, 2019). However, cognitive psychologists argue that it is non-adaptive cognitive processing and evaluation of stressors (Feldman, 2019).

Schizophrenia is characterized by disturbances of thought and speech, delusions, hallucinations, inappropriate emotions (Feldman, 2019). The biological perspective in schizophrenia has grown in recent years due to the development of brain imaging technology and other biological methods. It has been found that people who have a relative with schizophrenia are more likely to have schizophrenia themselves. Moreover, the brain of people with schizophrenia is different from typically developed individuals. The schizophrenic brain produces much dopamine, a neurotransmitter essential for feeling of pleasure, attention, movement. The response of society to schizophrenia has been changing for a long time. People used to think of schizophrenia as insanity, but due to education and clinical research, people are more tolerant to this decease.


Biggs, A., Brough, P., & Drummond, S. (2017). Lazarus and Folkman’s Psychological Stress and Coping Theory. In J. C. Quick & C. Cooper (Eds.) The Handbook of Stress and Health (pp. 349–364). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Cowan, N. (2017) The many faces of working memory and short-term storage. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 1158–1170.

Feldman, R. (2019) Understanding Psychology. Web.

Walinga, J. (2019). 2.3 Behaviourist Psychology. In J. A. Cummings & L. Sanders (Eds.) Introduction to Psychology. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. "Psychology: Overview and Understanding." January 5, 2023.