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What is Psychology?

Every profession has its stereo­types. If you introduce an English teacher at a party, people say, "I'd better watch my grammar!" If you introduce a medical doctor, people describe an ailment and ask for free advice.

If you introduce a psychologist, people say, "Oh-oh, you might analyze me!" or "My brother-in-law should talk to you..." This reveals a common assumption: psychologists are therapists waiting to analyze people.

What is a common assumption about psychologists?

In actuality, many psychologists are not therapists. Some are researchers in laboratories, some are full-time teachers and researchers. Some are consultants to business and industry. Many never do therapy in their lives.

Psychologists may work with animals rather than humans. They may be experts in highly abstract or detailed theories about psychological processes. Psychologists do an amazing number of different things.

If students receive a bachelor's degree in psychology but do not go to graduate school, they typically do not work as psychologists. They can thrive in a great variety of jobs where knowledge of human behavior is helpful, such as supervising or managing businesses.

What are some non-therapy activities of psychologists?

The popular notion that psychologists "help people" is more than half true, if you go by the numbers. Between 50-60% of psychologists are involved in psychology as a helping profession.

That phrase psychology as a helping profession covers more than therapy. It also refers to involvement in Help Lines, crisis centers, homeless shelters, addic­tion programs, and other forms of help.

How many psychologists are involved in psychology as a helping profession? What sorts of activities are included in that phrase?

Specialists in psychology and law provide assistance to the courts. Counseling psychologists may engage in marriage counseling, addiction counseling, or hospice work to help people who have a terminal illness.

Defining Psychology

A common definition of psychology is the science of mind and behavior. When depart­ment chairs at the University of Michigan were asked in 1989, "Which one or two questions from your discipline do you wish every liberal arts graduate could answer?" the chair of the psychology department suggested students should be able to answer a question phrased this way:

The field of psychology has been defined somewhat differently at different times in this century. In one sentence, what is a good current definition of the field?

What is a recommended definition of psychology?

The suggested answer was:

"Psychology is the science of behavior and mental processes." ("What do you know?", 1989)

That definition is still accurate.


What do you know? (1989, Spring) LSAmagazine, 12, No. 2, 14-15.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

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