Tell someone that you study/are interested in psychology and one of the responses you’ll get most often is ‘ooh, does that mean you can read my mind?’. This will maybe get a smile the first time but it gets old pretty fast.
To be fair, many people go in to psychology thinking on some level that they might just learn some Jedi mind tricks – or at least how to ‘read’ people a little better. In reality though, most psychology courses consist mainly of biology, sociology and statistics. Psychology books meanwhile are either ‘pop’ psychology, or very much the same.
But that’s not to say there aren’t any practical things you can learn from psychology. Read on and we’ll take a look at some of the most practical and actually useful things you will take away from a psychology class.
Learning about Freud is one of the most interesting aspects of psychology sure but it certainly is not the most practical. Freudian psychology – or psychodynamic psychology – is the bit that revolves around your unconscious mind, repressed thoughts and things your parents did that left you scarred. Lots of it is pretty dated and out there, but to give the guy some credit he did introduce us to the idea of an ‘unconscious’ aspect of our psyches and it’s his theory that forensic psychologists often use to catch dangerous criminals.
And for day-to-day use, understanding the ‘defense mechanisms’ can be very useful. These are ‘strategies’ that we use to defend our egos from the truth and there are all kinds of ways we do this. ‘Reaction formation’ for example is our tendency to act the opposite way to disguise our true feelings. Someone who seems homophobic may in fact be struggling with homosexual feelings themselves. Then you have ‘repression’ which is our tendency to outright forget traumatic events. ‘Projecting’ meanwhile is what we do when we accuse someone else of the thoughts or feelings that we ourselves are experiencing. Look for these in other people and it can often shine a light on their behavior.
A cognitive bias is any ‘flaw’ in thinking that can lead us to make the wrong conclusions based on the available evidence. A good example of this is ‘confirmation bias’ for instance, which means that we look for evidence to confirm our existing beliefs, rather than any data that might contradict them. Then there is the ‘retrospective bias’ which causes us to believe things were ‘obvious’ when really they weren’t. ‘Gamblers bias’ is the mistaken belief that if you throw a coin and it lands on heads five times, the next throw must be tails. Of course the chances remain 50/50. One of the most interesting ones is ‘functional fixedness’ which is our inability to think of resources and tools for jobs other than their usual roles.
Looking at your own cognitive biases is very useful to prevent faulty thinking and to make more logical decisions.
One of the most useful things you’ll learn about in biological psychology is the role of the various neurotransmitters and what causes them to get released in the brain. Serotonin can make us feel happy, melatonin makes us sleepy and norepinephrine puts us in ‘fight or flight’.
Learning about neurotransmitters is useful because it allows you to ‘step back’ from your emotions and see them for what they are. The fact that pro-inflammatory cytokines make us feel depressed when we have a cold for instance can remind us not to take negative thoughts too seriously at this time. Likewise, knowing the role of norepinephrine and cortisol can help us to put our fear and stress in perspective.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In clinical psychology you might learn about ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’ which is currently the most affordable and the most popular psychotherapeutic approach.
What’s particularly interesting about CBT is that it can be administered remotely. Essentially this is a set of skills that show the patient how to analyze their own thought processes and then change them via ‘mindfulness’ and ‘cognitive restructuring’.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is particularly useful as something to learn then because you can use it yourself when you find yourself struggling with anxiety, phobias or shyness. At the very least it teaches tools you can use to get nerves under control, so further reading is very recommended.
Knowing what cognitive behavioral therapy is meanwhile and how it differs from other forms of clinical psychology like psychodynamic or social, will also mean you are better able to choose or recommend therapy. Which brings us to the next example of ‘useful’ psychology…
Mental Health Disorders
Understanding mental health disorders is something that hopefully we will never need. Nonetheless though, this is certainly also something that could prove to be highly useful. When you know the mechanisms behind things like depression, phobias, eating disorders and more, this can not only make you more sympathetic to the plight of others but also help you to better notice and subdue symptoms that you might notice in yourself. These are complex subjects and there is usually no easy answer but being armed with knowledge can certainly make a very big difference.
These are just a few of the genuinely ‘useful’ things you learn in psychology and there are more besides. For parents, learning about our psychological development for instance can be very helpful. Meanwhile, you’ll also learn lots of interesting and handy ‘tidbits’ such as how you can make yourself happier, simply by smiling (facial feedback) or how to reduce your chances of getting nightmares.
Psychology is certainly useful then and can teach you a lot that is fascinating and practical. That said though, don’t bother if you just want to be able to ‘mind control’ people – that really isn’t what it’s about at all!