In the world of science psychology often gets a bad rap. While most people are generally accepting of mathematics, biology, physics and even some of the social sciences like economics, and political science, psychology rarely gets the same level of respect.
We have all heard the terms psychobabble, psychological mumbo-jumbo, and junk science. One rarely hears these types of monikers applied to the other sciences. Of course, psychology does differ from math and science in that it is not an exact science. Therefore, where 2 plus 2 will always equal 4, a child will not always turn out to be just like his father.
Psychology can be defined as the study of human behavior and human mental processes. It relies on well-researched, established principles in order to explain human behavior. For example, one of the oldest most well regarded principles in psychology is Thorndike’s Law of Effect. It goes something like this:
“Behavior that is rewarded or that results in pleasure will likely be repeated, whereas behavior that results in punishment or discomfort is less likely to be repeated.”
Few would argue the validity of the law of effect, it is used in nearly every aspect of human life from parenting to law enforcement and the justice system.
While some doubt the validity of psychology as a legitimate science there are others that actually seem to fear psychology. Some people are of the belief that those who study and practice psychology can somehow “read minds”, or that they are constantly analyzing everyone around them. Neither of these assumptions is true of course.
No one, including so-called “psychics”, is capable or reading the human mind or intercepting another person's thoughts. Psychologists do however rely on certain well-researched principles in order to understand and interpret human behavior. Here are just three examples of techniques that practitioners of psychology might employ to help them understand human behavior.
1. Reaction formation. The principle of reaction formation essentially states that a person will vigorously counter or state the opposite point of view when his or her real feelings are disturbing or unacceptable to him. For example if someone feels the need to go on and on about how wonderful his or her marriage is. They may post things on Facebook and never miss an opportunity to tell others how blessed they are to have such a wonderful amazing marriage.
Who does this? Whom are they trying to convince? Perhaps themselves? Because of the principle of reaction formation, a psychologist might conclude that this person’s marriage is “failing”.
Another often-used example of reaction formation is the proto-typical homophobe. When a man has such strong animosity and is so verbally outspoken about his hatred for homosexuals, then a psychologist might conclude that some latent homosexual feelings may be present in that man.
2. Adult Children of Alcoholics. When it comes to children who grow up in families where alcohol and substance abuse were common, there are certain well-researched behaviors that emerge in these children when they become adults. They will often grow up to become “rescuers” or “caretakers” in their adult relationships. They will subconsciously seek out partners who need to be taken care of while passing on emotionally healthy individuals.
Psychologists also know that these “adult children of alcoholics” have certain personality traits in common. For instance, they tend to be very hard on themselves, they are quite often people-p leasers, they have a difficult time having fun, and they are incredibly loyal individuals.
There are a total of 13 of these traits that adult children of alcoholics share. Therefore, when someone tells a psychologist that their parent was an alcoholic and the psychologist begins asking the person about the 13 traits, he is not engaging in mind-reading, he is practicing science.
3. Pay attention to what angers a man. Human beings do not get emotionally invested in things that do not “hit close to home”. This means that when something gets us upset or angry it is usually a signal that it has some type of personal meaning in our lives. In fact, we can learn a lot about someone by what makes them angry. For example what can we say about a man who gets visibly upset whenever he encounters someone who is overweight or obese. What is that anger revealing about him? Why should it upset him to such a degree? Perhaps he was once fat himself and he is reminded of his “old self"? Perhaps, as a child his mother was fat and this caused him embarrassment among his peers?
Let's suppose that a woman gets very emotional and angry whenever the subject of "drugs" comes up. She talks with great passion about the evil of drugs and the consequences of their use. This woman is clearing telling us something about herself. Remember people rarely invest such emotion in things that do not "hit close to home". Perhaps this woman lost a loved one to drug abuse. Perhaps she is currently dealing with a child who is battling a drug addiction? For someone to exhibit such passion over an issue usually will indicate a personal connection.
These are just some examples of the many tools and patterns of behavior that psychologists employ in their effort to understand human behavior, there are many more.
Psychologists are not clairvoyant and they clearly cannot read minds. However they can use well established reliable techniques to gain insight into human behavior and to the laymen this can often seem magical, amazing, and to some even threatening.
Source material: ACOA.org, Wikipedia,