Similar to other scientific disciplines, psychology aims to achieve a set of goals in research and practice.
Psychology is a scientific discipline dedicated to understanding human behavior.
Throughout history, the study of human behavior was initially considered solely a philosophical pursuit. However, in 1879 German professor Willhelm Wundt implemented science and the scientific method into the discipline of psychology with the opening of the first psychological institute in Germany.
Psychology includes four core goals, or principles, that reflect its purpose and intentions: to describe, explain, predict, and modify behavior.
Psychology is considered a science because it uses the same scientific approach as other sciences, such as astronomy or chemistry, to help us understand human behavior.
Similar to other branches of science, psychology aims to achieve a set of goals in research and practice:
- describe behavior
- explain behavior
- predict behavior
- change/ control behavior
The first goal of psychology is to describe behavior. This goal asks “What is happening?” or “What is this individual doing?”
This goal allows researchers to collect information and then describe, name, and/or classify what they see. By thoroughly describing a phenomenon or behavior, psychologists can distinguish between typical and atypical behaviors. Describing is the starting point of making sense of things.
To achieve the describing goal, researchers can use various approaches, including natural observation, surveys, case studies, and self-reporting tests.
As an example, one study observed children’s and teens’ Internet habits, identified their usage patterns, and observed whether the kids shared this information with their parents.
The researchers found that the children and teens spent an average of 3.1 hours a day surfing the web. They also observed that the kids were reluctant to tell their parents what they’d searched for on the Internet.
Once behaviors have been thoroughly documented and described down to the smallest detail, the researchers can use that information as a starting point for explaining it.
After the behavior has been thoroughly described, the next goal is to explain it. Explaining the behavior involves an attempt to understand how and why the behavior occurs.
The goal of explaining helps determine why we behave or react in certain ways, or how certain stimuli might affect our mental health, personalities, or relationships. For instance, why do we listen to music or read books? Are our personalities mostly the result of nurture or nature? What causes a person to risk his life for another?
A 2022 study looked at children’s sharing behaviors and examined whether certain cognitive skills might make sharing more likely. The researchers found that a child’s counting skills were in fact the single biggest predictor of fair sharing behaviors.
So not only did the researchers observe children’s sharing skills, but they also explained why some children may have shared more than others — because, with their counting skills, they were essentially able to count out the items for themselves and their peers.
The third goal of psychology is prediction. Once psychologists have described a certain behavior and explained why it happens, they can better predict how and when it might occur again.
The goal of prediction asks “When might this behavior occur again in the future?” or “What would happen if I responded this way?”
Researchers can use the data they’ve collected from prior studies to predict when, why, and how certain behaviors will happen in the future. Through prediction, psychologists can better understand the underlying causes of our actions.
For instance, we generally understand that alcohol can make some people more aggressive. With this information, we might predict that there are more fights at alcohol-serving bars compared to coffee shops. Researchers might take this hypothesis and conduct a study to see if it’s true.
Successful prediction is important to the final goal in psychology: modifying behavior.
The fourth goal of psychology is to modify behaviors that may be harmful, unproductive, or interfere with daily functioning.
The goal of change asks “How can I stop this habit?” Or “What can I do to be a more generous person?”
Once considered solely a philosophical study, psychology now also uses a scientific discipline involving four core goals: to describe, explain, predict, and modify behavior.
If you’re trying to work through a personal problem, you can practice using these four goals at home.
For instance, if you’re trying to quit a bad habit, ask yourself the following question based on the four goals of psychology:
- Describe. What am I doing? (E.g. I’m watching 3 hours of TV per day.)
- Explain. Why exactly am I doing this? (I’m feeling depressed; lonely; bored, etc.)
- Predict. How would my life be different if I stop watching TV and exercise instead? (I’d probably be healthier and happier.)
- Modify. How can I quit watching long hours of TV? (I will go for a long walk every evening).