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5 Topics Covered in an Introductory Psychology Course

Subjects Studied in Psychology 101

Subjects Studied in Psychology 101Introductory psychology is one of the most common courses taught at institutions of higher education. In addition to being a requirement for psychology majors, most other majors – from education to business to biology – often require Psychology 101 as part of their general education requirements as well.

Regardless of where the class is taught and the degree for which it is being taken, every introduction to psychology course essentially covers the same topics. It is a survey of all things psychology, from its development as an area of study to applications in education to research, statistics, and, of course, the study of human behavior.

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If you’re set to enroll in an introduction to psychology course, the topics below are all but guaranteed to be on the course syllabus.

The History of Psychology

The History of PsychologyIt was not until the 19th century that psychology became a formal discipline, but philosophy has been dealing with psychological topics for thousands of years. This means that while psychology is a relatively young science compared to other fields, there is still a wealth of history to study.

Among the topics covered in an introductory psychology course will be how psychology developed as a discipline out of philosophy and natural sciences. You’ll learn about the early theorists, practitioners, and approaches. This will include a look at such people as William James, author of the foundational The Principles of Psychology, which is one of the most important psychology texts ever written.

You’ll also learn about Sigmund Freud, whose theory of psychoanalysis is one of the most important to the practice of psychology. Ivan Pavlov, whose behavioral experiments opened the door to the scientific study of behavior will be studied as well.

Typically, humanistic psychology, including the work of Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, as well as cognitive psychology will also be discussed as part of the field’s history.

Other topics might include the development of personality and intelligence tests, like the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Quotient. You’ll learn about different treatments for mental illness, too, including some like lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy that are highly controversial. More accepted treatments (i.e., lithium for bipolar disorder) for mental illness will also be reviewed. 

Scientific Methods in Psychology

Once psychology began to move out of the realm of philosophy and into that of scientific research, the use of the scientific method became important in psychology research.

An introductory course will probably discuss the basics of designing a psychological research project. This might include basic instructions on how a researcher might formulate and test a hypothesis. This part of the course would also look at creating experimental and control groups –  the former receives an experimental treatment and the latter which does not.

When devising experiments the participants in the study are randomly assigned to the experimental and control conditions. This is done to minimize potential bias and ensure that the two groups are as similar as possible, save for the experimental condition being applied only to the experimental group.

Another significant portion of this line of study is statistics. Designing and implementing an experiment is just the first part. You must also collect and analyze data and interpret those results. Statistical procedures allow you to do this.

Psychological statistics is covered only in broad terms in an introductory psychology course. However, you will likely still learn about a wide range of statistical procedures like measures of central tendency, Chi squares, and ANOVAs, to name a few. 

The Human Brain

The Human Brain is a course taken when studying psychologyPsychology and neuroscience are not the same fields, but it is important for psychologists to have a good understanding of how the human brain works. There is no broad agreement in the field of psychology about how much influence physical processes in the brain have on human psychology, but it is clear that there is a relationship.

As an article in Psychology Today explains, neuroscience may eventually eclipse psychology altogether or it may simply become another subfield. But it will generally always be one of the topics covered in an introductory psychology course.

Again, the depth with which you will study the human brain will be fairly limited in scope in an introductory psychology course. You will likely learn about brain structures, like the different lobes, and what psychologists understand those brain structures to be associated with.

For example, the frontal lobe is responsible for a variety of tasks, from motor control to emotional regulation to language to personality characteristics. Psychologists understand this to be true due in large part to an injury sustained by a man named Phineas Gage.

Gage was a railroad worker who was severely injured when an explosion sent a metal rod through his head under his left cheekbone, behind his left eye, through his frontal lobe, and out the top of his head. Amazingly, he survived. In fact, he was able to walk and talk immediately after the accident.

But in the months after the accident, Gage’s personality reportedly changed. He went from being soft-spoken and mild-mannered to being unpredictable with a lack of self-control. His case was the first time that scientists were able to pinpoint personality as being controlled by the frontal lobe.

Sensation and Perception

Related to the study of the brain is the study of sensation and perception.

What we perceive in the world around us is based on our senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Furthermore, we have systems in the body that control balance, interpret pain, sense temperature, and control body position and movement.

The interplay between our senses and perception is extremely complex. We are constantly taking in sensory information and our brain is constantly processing that information. Beyond that, our brain then has to determine what to do with the information it receives.

For example, if pain receptors in your hand tell your brain that your hand is experiencing heat, your brain will send a signal to the appropriate muscles to move your hand away from the heat source. Of course, all this is done in a matter of milliseconds – and without you having to think about making any of it happen.

Usually, an exploration of sensation and perception will also include brief discussions of:

  • Attention
  • Motivation
  • Subliminal messaging
  • Types of information processing

This unit of study will enable you to develop a stronger understanding of physical systems within the human body – and how they influence human behavior.

Memory and Learning

Your introduction to psychology course will also include a unit on memory and learning.

Like sensation and perception, these processes have physiological underpinnings yet can greatly influence one’s psychology. Early studies of memory and learning – from iconic figures in psychology like B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov – helped form what would become known as behaviorism.

You will learn about two theories of learning that grew out of behaviorism. First is classical conditioning, which posits that behavior is the result of environmental stimuli. Pavlov, for example, discovered that a dog would begin to salivate before they were presented with food. In fact, salivation began when the people who fed them arrived in the room.

Pavlov hypothesized that he could elicit the same response with another stimulus. So, he began ringing a bell when the dogs were presented with their food. Eventually, he only rang the bell and the dogs did not get any food, yet they still salivated.

Skinner, on the other hand, devised a learning theory called operant conditioning. Rather than explaining learning as a result of environmental stimuli, Skinner believed that rewards and punishments could be used to condition certain behaviors to occur.

For example, when you tell a joke to your friends and they laugh, their laughter is positive reinforcement. This reinforcement will make it more likely that you’ll tell a joke again in the future. Behaviors can be made more likely by removing something unpleasant, too. This is called a negative reinforcer. If your professor tells you that anyone with an A in the class at the end of the semester can skip the final, your behavior of getting a good grade is reinforced by the removal of something unpleasant – the final test.

Operant conditioning also involves punishers. A positive punishment, like being yelled at by your parents, is added to a situation to make a behavior less likely. A negative punishment makes a behavior less likely to occur because something desirable has been removed, like a parent taking away their child’s cell phone for breaking curfew.

These few examples only scratch the surface of memory and learning. These are deeply complex – and highly interesting – topics that you’ll explore in introduction to psychology.

Psychological Theories and Perspective

Over the years, various psychological theories and perspectives have emerged to explain human behavior. These theories are as different as they are many.

    • Behaviorism is a learning theory that posits that behavior is acquired as the result of conditioning. Behaviorism was extremely popular in the early 20th century, and is still used by many psychologists today as a therapeutic approach to learning new behaviors.
    • Humanism focuses on the essential goodness of people. Its goal is to help people fulfill their potential. It is forward-thinking and does not focus on eliminating dysfunction as many other psychological theories do.
    • The Psychoanalytic approach emphasizes the importance of one’s unconscious and its influence over behavior. One’s past experiences have great control over how you behave today. Psychoanalysis helps people discover what’s in their unconscious mind, thus allowing them to address those past experiences and change their behavior for the better.
    • Cognitive theories zero in on things like one’s motivation, thinking, attention, and decision-making. Cognitive psychologists look specifically at how we acquire information, process it, store it, and use it.
    • Biological theories posit that behavior is the result of physical and biological processes. Biological psychologists examine the role of genetics, for example, in human behavior. They also explore how damage to certain parts of the brain results in changes in behavior.
    • The evolutionary perspective focuses on how evolution and physiological processes can account for certain behaviors. For example, this perspective might examine a specific human behavior, like mate selection, through the lens of its evolutionary purpose to the survival of the species.

These are just a few of the theories and perspectives you will learn about in an introductory psychology course. There are many other perspectives – both old and new – that offer vastly different explanations for human behavior.

Psychology Subfields

There are many different concentrations within the broader field of psychology. Some, like experimental psychology and clinical psychology, are much older than others. Newer disciplines are emerging and additional specialties are being developed. More recent subfields include trauma psychology, international psychology, and pediatric psychology.

There is not time to delve deeply into any of these concentrations in an introductory course. But it will usually briefly examine some of the most common disciplines within this field.

For example, introductory courses typically offer an overview of:

  • Educational psychology
  • Psychotherapy
  • Forensic psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Physiological psychology
  • Gestalt psychology
  • Counseling psychology
  • Health psychology
  • Neuropsychology

Additionally, you will learn about psychopharmacology, quantitative and qualitative research methods, and substance abuse.

Psychological Disorders

Another topic covered in an introductory psychology course is psychological disorders. This might include a discussion of what is considered abnormal psychology, how disorders are diagnosed, how they are treated and how that diagnosis and treatment have changed over time.

The disorders covered may include personality disorders, anxiety disorders, and mood disorders. For example, you’ll learn about borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and schizoaffective personality disorder. You’ll also get an introduction to generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias. Mood disorders like major depression and cyclothymia will be discussed.

There will also be a look at schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. These disorders are characterized by a person’s break from reality. They typically suffer from hallucinations, delusions, or both. In some cases, as with dissociative identity disorder, a person will have multiple distinct personalities.

The purpose of an introductory psychology course is to prepare psychology students for a full course of study in the topic and to give other students a good grounding in the basics of the field. The topics covered in an introductory psychology course give a sense of the history, scope, and methods used in the field, and the knowledge you will gain will help you further your education either in psychology or in another topic.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

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