Ask 100 people on the street what psychology is and you’ll get 100 different answers.
Some might say it’s about reading minds and trying to figure out people’s secrets. Others will think it involves working out why people behave the way they do.
But it’s actually a lot more complex than most people think. Psychology is a science and there’s way more to it than guessing what people’s ulterior motives are!
There are actually four core principles of psychology that map out its purpose and intentions. We’ll run through what these are and how you can not only apply them to your life, but benefit from them…
What Are The Goals?
So, what are these four goals of psychology? Simply put: to describe, explain, predict, and control.
Sound pretty straightforward?
There’s a lot more depth to these concepts than you might think, and there are some really easy ways to hack them and apply them to your life.
Let’s look at them one by one.
Describing things is something we all do every single day, but in psychology, it’s slightly different.
Psychologists work to describe the behavior of individuals, as well as subsets and groups of people, as defined by a variety of factors.
By describing what’s going on, we have a greater awareness and an easier, more accessible way of analyzing it.
Sounds pretty good so far, right?
By describing things that are going on in your life, you can begin to make sense of them.
In the world of psychology, this can revolve around counselling sessions and an individual’s thoughts and behaviors.
You can use this same process to document your own thoughts and feelings while also expanding the scope to include your relationships, personal goals and progress, and all aspects of your life.
This can involve making lists, mind-maps, keeping a journal, or recording your thoughts on a Dictaphone or other device.
When you describe something, it’s important to go into detail and be as granular as you can. So rather than use a single word to say how you are feeling or what you are thinking, break it down even further.
Here’s an example:
You feel anxious about an upcoming professional exam. Your anxiety stems from a great number of other things.
Anxiety will no doubt have some physical symptoms too. Your heart may race. You may sweat more than usual. Your stomach may be in knots and you might need to go to the toilet more often.
You may also experience the urge to run away and avoid the exam altogether.
But you don’t have to stop at your own thoughts or behaviors. Your life is, in part, based on the relationships you forge with others. You can use the 4 goals of psychology to help you improve those relationships.
For this first goal, you might describe how a partner, friend, colleague, or family member is behaving, and how their behavior has changed. You can also talk to them to get an idea of how they are feeling.
But, remember, the more detail you can put into your description, the more it will help during the next step…
By knowing what’s going on, you’re in a much better place to explain it.
In general psychology, this can revolve around test results and hard evidence. After describing a patient’s behavior, for example, counselors can look for ways to explain it. This might mean running some tests, either psychological or physical, and finding results that offer an explanation.
It could also mean delving further into qualitative data, such as exploring more of a person’s childhood in order to explain their current issues.
Sure, it sounds pretty cliched, but this kind of in-depth personal research can lead to a lot of potential explanations for a person’s behavior.
Tho notes you made for the Describe goal are key to explaining a behavior, whether in yourself or others.
The main aspect of this goal is to ask ‘why?’ questions and come up with reasonable answers.
Why do you feel the way you do. Why is someone behaving a particular way?
Let’s return to the anxiety example from the describe goal.
Your fears surrounding the exam may have their roots in your past experiences. Have you failed an exam – even this exam – previously?
Did your peers, parents, or boss express their disappointment or poke fun at you when you failed?
Do you fear the unknown element of the exam because you haven’t prepared as thoroughly as you might have?
Is running away from your problems a coping mechanism that you employ in other parts of your life? Do you avoid difficult discussions with others? Do you end relationships as soon as anything starts to go wrong?
Why else might you be feeling anxious about an exam? Does it feel like a major turning point in your life that will have a big impact on your future? Are there repercussions of failing that will be difficult to deal with?
Or if you are observing someone else, think about what’s affecting their actions and thoughts. Has their behavior changed recently? Have they developed a new habit (bad or good)? Are they more emotional of late?
Based on what you’ve seen and the notes you may have taken, ask why these things are happening. What might have happened to push their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a certain direction?
Are they grieving a loss? Did they break up with their partner? Have they got an exam coming up that they are stressed about?
This can be really helpful in a lot of real-life situations, from friendships and relationships to issues at work. You can often find explanations for someone’s actions and reactions if you put your mind to it!
Look into the reasons behind behaviors and you’ll be able to figure out patterns, meaning you can start to predict them…
Perhaps you feel relationship anxiety once you reach the six month point with a new partner. You might see that meeting up with a particular friend makes you irritable. Or maybe you lash out at others when you’ve had a run of bad sleep.
Of course, you may also be able to predict the behavior of others based upon what you’ve observed and your analysis of it.
You might have been able to describe how your partner gets jealous when you do something, you’ll be able to explain it (you’re messaging an ex, for example!) and you can predict that they’ll be upset if you do it again.
Or, on a more positive note, you may describe and explain when someone is particularly pleasant to be around and predict when this good mood is likely to return.
These are really basic examples, but they show how you can put these principles into practice.
This applies in general, so you can think about how to use this at work or in other relationships. By predicting what will happen if you act, or react, in certain ways, you can improve your relationships.
Which brings us onto the last goal of psychology…
Control is something that a lot of us strive for, and it can be a massive comfort. Part of psychology is learning how to change situations and take control of them.
This can range from controlling panic attacks through various techniques to influencing behavior to encourage positivity.
By looking at the ways that certain behaviors link and form patterns, psychology finds a way to alter these paths.
For example, using breathwork to regain control during an anxiety attack, or using various therapy methods to deal with mental health conditions.
This can be used in your personal life, as well as professional life.
First, let’s return to our exam anxiety example.
If you fear failure most of all, you can spend the hours before the exam focusing on the most important parts of your revision and remind yourself of how well you know it all.
If the exam is a very important moment in your life, you can find ways to take the pressure off. Maybe you repeat yourself that you can retake the exam if you fail and that whatever happens, tomorrow is another day to strive for your dreams.
Or if you are anxious about not getting to the exam on time, you can make travel arrangements to get there an hour early to ease those concerns.
Perhaps you describe dissatisfaction with your job – even if it pays well – and you explain this as a desire to have more autonomy and flexibility. You predict that staying in this job will keep you unhappy.
One way to control the situation would be to quit your job and start your own business or become a freelancer.
In your relationships, if you know how and why someone will respond to a given situation, you can do one of two things. Firstly, you can avoid situations that cause negative emotions and behaviors wherever it is feasible. And, secondly, you can help them cope with situations that are unavoidable.
Or if you find that your partner is in a particularly amicable mood at the weekends, you can save important discussions for then in order to make them as easy as possible (for the both of you).
Or, imagine you are a manager who wants to get the most from their team. By observing each team member’s behavior and the way they interact with one another, then describing this, explaining it, and using that to predict future behaviors, you can find more effective ways to motivate them.
Each member might respond well to different things and certain members might work more harmoniously than others. This is valuable knowledge to control the situation and maximize productivity.
There is a fine line, of course, between exerting some control over others to create a more positive outcome for everyone, and manipulating people so that you benefit at their expense. Always keep in mind that your actions should be for the good of all.
So, those are the four main pillars of psychology. Whilst you might not be a practicing counselor or doctor, you can take these concepts and apply them to your own life.
You can describe feelings or thoughts that you want more or less of. You can explain why these feelings and thoughts occur. You can predict when these feelings and thoughts might occur in future.
And, when you bring that all together, you can seek to control certain situations to either relieve those that are negative or promote those that are positive
Remember, the more you are able to dig deep into the whats and the whys and give real detail, the better placed you will be to predict and control your future.
By looking into this process, you’ll be able to find ways to make things easier, and better, for yourself and those around you.
Lucy is a travel and wellness writer currently based in Gili Air, a tiny Indonesian island. After over a year of traveling, she’s settled in paradise and spends her days wandering around barefoot, practicing yoga and exploring new ways to work on her wellbeing.