Contemporary Psychology (OLI)

By the mid-20th century, the field of psychology was still a very young science, but it was gaining a lot of diverse attention and popularity. Psychologists began to study mental processes and behavior from their own specific points of interests and views. Thus, some of the specific viewpoints became known as perspectives from which to investigate a specific psychological topic.

Today, contemporary psychology reflects several major perspectives such biological/neuroscience, cognitive, behavioral, social, developmental, clinical, and individual differences/personality. These are not a complete list of perspectives and your instructor may introduce others. What’s important to know is that today all psychologists believe that there is no one specific perspective with which to study psychology, but rather any given topic can be approached from a variety of perspectives. For example, investigating how an infant learns language can be studied from all of the different perspectives that could provide information from a different viewpoint about the child’s learning. Also as perspectives become more specific, we see that the perspectives are interconnected with each other, meaning that it is difficult to study any topic on human thought or behavior from just one perspective without considering the complex influence of information from other perspectives.

Contemporary Perspectives of Psychology

PerspectiveMajor EmphasisExamples of Research Questions
Behavioral NeuroscienceGenetics and the links among brain, mind, and behaviorWhat brain structures influence behavior? If a brain function is altered, how is behavior affected. To what extent do genes influence behavior when the environment is manipulated?
BiologicalRelationship between bodily systems and chemicals and how they influence behavior and thoughtHow do hormones and neurotransmitters affect thought and behavior?
CognitiveThinking, decision-making, problem-solving, memory, language, and information processingWhat are the processes for developing language, memory, decision-making, and problem-solving? How does thinking affect behavior? What is intelligence, and how is it determined? What affects intelligence, memory, language, and information processing?
SocialConcepts of self and social interaction and how they differ across cultures and shape behaviorHow do social stresses affect self-concept? How do social conditions contribute to destructive behavior? How are behaviors affected by cultural differences?
DevelopmentalHow and why people change or remain the same over time from conception to deathHow does a person’s development from conception to death change or stay the same in the biosocial, cognitive and psychosocial domains? What changes are universal or unique to a person? Which periods of life are critical or sensitive for certain development?
ClinicalDiagnosis and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and promotion of psychological healthWhat are the cognitive and behavioral characteristics and symptoms of a mental or behavioral abnormality? What treatment methods are most effective for the various emotional and behavioral disorders?
Individual Differences/ PersonalityUniqueness and differences of people and the consistencies in behavior across time and situations.What determines personality? How does personality change or remain the same as one ages or experiences social or environmental situations?

Behavioral Neuroscience

Behavioral neuroscience studies the links among the brain, mind, and behavior. This perspective used to be called psychobiological psychology, which studied the biological roots such as brain structure and brain activity of behavior. But due to the advancements in our ability to view the intricate workings of the brain, called neuroimaging, the name behavioral neuroscience is now used for this broad discipline. Neuroimaging is the use of various techniques to provide pictures of the structures and functions of the living brain. And as you read about the following contemporary psychological perspectives, you will see how interconnected these perspectives are, largely due to neuroimaging techniques.
For example, neuroimaging techniques are used to study brain functions in learning, emotions, social behavior and mental illness which each have their own specialty perspective (see the descriptions of these perspectives below). Also the two perspectives of behavioral neuroscience and biological psychology are closely interconnected in that the uses of neuroimaging techniques such as electrical brain recordings enable biological psychologists to study the structure and functions of the brain. Another example is the study of behavioral genetics which is the study of how genes influence cognition, physical development and behavior.

Another related perspective is evolutionary psychology, which supports the idea that the brain and body are products of evolution and that inheritance plays an important role in shaping thought and behavior. This perspective developed from the functionalists’ basic assumption that many human psychological systems, including memory, emotion and personality, serve key adaptive functions called fitness characteristics. Evolutionary psychologists theorize that fitness characteristics have helped humans to survive and reproduce throughout the centuries at a higher rate than do other species who do not have the same fitness characteristics. Fitter organisms pass on their genes more successfully to later generations, making the characteristics that produce fitness more likely to become part of the organism’s nature than characteristics that do not produce fitness. For example, evolutionary theory attempts to explain many different behaviors including romantic attraction, jealousy, stereotypes and prejudice, and psychological disorders. The evolutionary perspective is important to psychology because it provides logical explanations for why we have many psychological characteristics.

Biological Psychology

Closely related to behavioral neuroscience, the perspective of biological psychology focuses on studying the connections between bodily systems (such as the nervous and endocrine systems) and chemicals (such as hormones) and their relationships to behavior and thought. Biological research on the chemicals produced in the body and brain have helped psychologists to better understand psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety and the effects of stress on hormones and behavior.

Cognitive Psychology

Cognitive psychology is the study of how we think, process information and solve problems, how we learn and remember, and how we acquire and use language. Cognitive psychology is interconnected with other perspectives that study language, problem solving, memory, intelligence, education, human development, social psychology, and clinical psychology.

Starting in the 1950s, psychologists developed a rich and technically complex set of ideas to understand human thought processes, initially inspired by the same insights and advances in information technology that produced the computer, cell phone and internet. As technology advanced, so did cognitive psychology. We are now able to see the brain in action using neuroimaging techniques. These images are used to diagnose brain disease and injury, but they also allow researchers to view information processing as it occurs in the brain, because the processing causes the involved area of the brain to increase metabolism and show up on the scan such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). We discuss the use of neuroimaging techniques in many areas of psychology in the units to follow.

Social Psychology

The field of social psychology is the study of how social situations and cultures in which people live influence their thinking, feelings and behavior. Social psychologists are particularly concerned with how people perceive themselves and others, and how people influence each other’s behavior. For instance, social psychologists have found that we are attracted to others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes and interests. We develop our own beliefs and attitudes by comparing our opinions to those of others and we frequently change our beliefs and behaviors to be similar to people we care about.

Social psychologists are also interested in how our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are influenced by our culture. Cultures influence every aspect of our lives. For example, fundamental differences in thinking, feeling and behaving exist among people of Western cultures (such as the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and East Asian cultures (such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia). Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism, which is about valuing the self and one’s independence from others, sometimes at the expense of others. The East Asian culture, on the other hand, is oriented toward interdependence, or collectivism, which focuses on developing harmonious social relationships with others, group togetherness and connectedness, and duty and responsibility to one’s family and other groups.

As our world becomes more global, sociocultural research will become more interconnected with the research of other psychological perspectives such as biological, cognitive, personality, developmental and clinical.

Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology is the study of the development of a human being from conception until death. This perspective emphasizes all of the transformations and consistencies of human life. Three major domains or aspects of human life, cognitive, physical and socioemotional, are researched as one ages. The cognitive domain refers to all of the mental processes that a person uses to obtain knowledge or think about the environment. The physical domain refers to all the growth and changes that occur in a person’s body and the genetic, nutritional, and health factors that affect that growth and change. And the socioemotional development includes development of emotions, temperament, and social skills. Developmentalists study how individuals change or remain the same over time in each of these three domains. It is easy to see how the perspective of developmental psychology is interconnected with all of the other major contemporary perspectives because of the overlapping and all encompassing aspects of the developmental perspective.

Clinical psychology

Clinical psychology focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders and ways to promote psychological health. This field evolved from the early psychodynamic and humanistic schools of psychology. While the clinical psychology perspective emphasizes treating individuals so that they may lead fulfilling and productive lives, clinical psychologists also conduct research to discover the origins of mental and behavioral disorders and effective treatment methods. The clinical psychology perspective is closely interconnected to behavioral neuroscience and biological psychology.

Individual differences: Personality

Personality psychology is the study of the differences and uniqueness of people and the influences on a person’s personality. Researchers in this field study whether personality traits change as we age or stay the same, something that developmental psychologists also study. Researchers interested in personality also study how environmental influences such as traumatic events affect personality.

Did I get this

Research in genetics and the inner workings of the brain refers to the ___________ perspective.
behavioral neuroscience OR biological OR cognitive
The behavioral neuroscience is a broad perspective that relies on using neuroimaging techniques to research nature versus nurture questions, genes, and brain structures and functions and how they are linked to behavior.

The ___________ perspective uses neuroimaging techniques to investigate mental processes such as reasoning, thinking, problem solving, language and memory.
behavioral neuroscience OR biological OR cognitive
The cognitive perspective emphasizes thinking, decisionmaking, problem-solving, memory, language, and information processing. This perspective uses neuroimaging techniques to study these specific activities in the brain.

The ___________ perspective emphasizes how people see themselves and others in their environment and culture and how people influence each other’s behavior.
personality OR biological OR social
The social perspective emphasizes how people see themselves and others and how they influence each other’s behavior in their environment and culture.

The __________ perspective focuses on the causes, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of different types of behavioral and emotional disorders.
clinical OR cognitive OR social
The clinical perspective emphasizes diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behavioral disorders and promoting psychological health.

A psychologist is interested in researching how one’s personality influences career choices. What contemporary perspective of psychology does this type of research represent?
social perspective OR clinical perspective OR personality perspective
The individual differences or personality perspective emphasizes the uniqueness and differences of people and how personality influences our behavior such as choosing a career.

A psychologist is interested in observing and recording infants’ temperaments for changes and stability as the children age to young adulthood. He plans to study these children’s temperaments as they evolve into personalities for 18 years. This psychologist’s perspective is most likely the __________ perspective of psychology.
developmental OR personality OR biological
The developmental perspective emphasizes how cognitive, biosocial and psychosocial aspects change and remain stable across the lifespan. Determining how infants’ temperaments change into adult personalities represents the developmental perspective.


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