Our guide to psychology
Jade O'Donoghue

Our guide to psychology

First published date August 23 2013 Amended date September 16 2014

A lot of people think psychology is all about reading people’s minds and becoming the next Derren Brown. Unfortunately it’s a lot more complex than that and actually a far more scientific subject than it’s often perceived to be. Psychology is all about understanding human behaviour and how the human brain functions.  It covers concepts like emotion, personality, relationships and attention, and encourages students and professionals alike to carry out research into the human mind.

Psychology is a fascinating subject to study and depending on which level you take your studies to it can open many doors for your career. You won’t be selling out theatres and predicting what people are thinking like Derren does, but you will definitely find yourself understanding people better at the end of a psychology course.


What to expect

Most psychology courses combine theory work, in which you will look at other psychologists and their ideas, with practical experiments and research. It’s a very scientific subject and as such you will learn how to conduct research fairly, accurately and ethically so that you can draw useful conclusions.

There’s a lot of remembering involved in taking a psychology course (memory is also something you’ll study!) as you will need to know the names of the top theorists and their ideas. You’ll be taking lots of notes and may find you have coursework to complete outside of your lessons too.


Take it further

If you’re just starting out in psychology, there are plenty of courses that come with no qualification, aimed at providing an introduction, or you could do it at GCSE level. This could be just the start though as it is possible to study psychology right up to postgraduate level where you could find yourself undertaking large scale experiments and contributing your own theories.


Where to work?

Many people go on to become psychologists, perhaps working for public sector organisations like the NHS or social services or even working privately with their own practice. To do this you will have to have quite a strong personality and be able to deal with difficult issues in a calm and constructive manner. You will gain these skills throughout your studies though so that by the time you are working you are confident in your role.

A psychology background can also help in lots of careers where communicating and understanding how people think and behave is important – for example teaching in a school, working as a police officer or even simply managing a team. The scientific aspect of psychology gives you a good base for other types of work too, especially if you have to deal with research or analyse data.



Within psychology there are a number of areas that you might choose to focus on – whether because you’re interested in how psychology can be used in a certain setting or because you see your career heading that way and want to become an expert in this field. If you think you’d like to work with the police, studying criminal psychology might help for example. There is a huge range of other specialist areas within psychology though; child psychology, sports psychology and animal psychology to name a few.


Psychological theories and what they mean

There are certain well known psychological theories that are used in practice and important for any future psychologists to know. On most psychology courses you would go into much more detail than this, but just to give you an idea, here’s a short background to them…


Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed by Sigmund Freud that deals with the idea of ‘repressed’ emotions and memories from our childhoods, how they affect behaviour and how to bring them to the surface so that they can be dealt with. This theory looks at defence mechanisms and also how the unconscious mind can have an effect on the conscious mind.


Behaviourism is based on the idea that rather than looking into the mind to understand a person it is more useful to look at how they behave. Two big names you’ll probably hear in relation to behaviourism are Skinner and Pavlov. B.F. Skinner came up with the idea of operant conditioning which looks at punishment and reinforcement and how this influences behaviour. Ivan Pavlov came up with the concept of classical conditioning in his experiment with dogs and associating sounds and light with food in order to make the dog salivate on hearing or seeing the stimulus without the food being present.


Humanism became big in the 1970s and is a psychological approach which emphasises looking at the person as a whole rather than just their mind or their behaviour. It works on the basis that all humans are intrinsically good but that some need to learn how to overcome hardship and difficulty in their lives. Humanists believe in looking at how a person sees their own behaviour from an interior perspective as well as what psychologists observe from the outside in order to help.

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