Sleeper agents—Cold War spies who have been psychologically programmed to flawlessly execute orders at the activation of any trigger—are the ultimate plot devices of best-selling espionage thrillers. Who would stand a chance unmasking virtual human robots who otherwise look as normal as any other human being within any social context?
But are sleeper agents real?
While there have been arrests of sleeper agents (see, for example, the case of the Russian Illegals Program), hardcore fans of the Manchurian Candidate and the like will be disappointed to learn that these real-life counterparts are not the hypnotically programmed, brainwashed types that make the science fiction novel become the bestseller it is.
The idea of psychology enabling sleeper agents to serve evil regimes is the fiction-fed horrific aftermath of reading too much of this science fiction genre. In the real world, the goals of psychology are more of the socially beneficial type: helping addicts recover, aiding people to regain some level of normalcy after the onset of some psychological disorder, assisting people on the brink of suicide, and the like.
In this article, we present how psychology is essentially no different from other sciences, grounded on empirical research, analysis, and the interpretation and dissemination of its key findings.
By definition, psychology is a broad and diverse field that deals with the scientific study of mind and behavior. It is a multifaceted discipline that encompasses many subfields, such as human development, cognitive processes, personalities, and social behavior. The subject aims to understand how biological processes, environmental factors, and social pressures affect how individuals think, act, and feel (“What you should know about psychology,” 2005).
Historical records provide strong evidence that psychology has existed since the ancient civilizations of Greece and Egypt. Originally considered as a branch of philosophy, psychology broke out as an independent branch of scientific study early in the 1870s.
The earliest studies of psychology revolved around two dominant theoretical approaches—structuralism and functionalism.
Structuralism refers to the branch of psychology that deals with the structure of the mind and consciousness, whereas functionalism argues that the main aim of psychology is understanding the mind and consciousness (“What is psychology?,” n.d.).
Essentially, psychology is a field of science that explains why people act as they do. The American Psychological Association defines psychology as “the study of the mind, how it works, and how it affects behavior.” It embraces all aspects of human experience—from brain functions to the differences in social behavior across races and nations (“Psychology’s three great branches,” 2013).
Through the help of various case studies, observations, and surveys, psychology provides deeper insights into the thoughts, feelings, actions, and goals of individuals. Some of the modern applications of psychology revolve around providing people with the necessary knowledge and medication to handle psychological perils that people face in their everyday lives.
In most industries, however, knowledge of psychology can be used to better understand the motivation behind people’s thoughts and actions. While a large part of psychology is devoted to the treatment and diagnosis of mental health issues, it is also commonly applied in a wide variety of fields and industries, from marketing and politics to education and criminal justice.
Aside from healthcare services, psychologists work in a wide variety of fields, including the educational and business sectors. A degree in psychology offers a plethora of career opportunities for qualified professionals. In fact, the industries with the highest levels for clinical, counseling, and school psychologists are found in elementary and middle schools, offices of health practitioners, and individual and family services (“Psychology careers,” 2019).
Source: Career Profiles (2017)
Psychology is devoted to understanding an individual’s emotions, personality, and mind through a series of scientific studies, observations, experiments, and research. Like every other subject, the study of psychology aims to achieve a specific set of goals. Basically, it has four primary goals: to describe, explain, predict, and control behavior (Coon, Mitterer, 2013).
The first goal of psychology is to describe the actual phenomenon in which humans and animals behave in different situations. By describing a problem, an issue, or behavior, psychologists can distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior, allowing them to gain a better understanding and a more accurate perspective of human and animal behavior, thoughts, and actions.
To achieve this goal, psychologists use a variety of research methods, including surveys, case studies, natural observation, and self-assessment tests. Through these scientific methods, behavior can be described in minute details and as objectively as possible. Once the action has been described, the information gathered is used as basis to further study the behavior that just occurred.
Once a specific behavior has been described, psychologists then attempt to go beyond the obvious and explain why people act the way they do. Through a series of rigorous tests, scientific experiments, and observations, psychology expounds on the reason behind someone’s actions. Explaining behavior provides answers to why people behave the way they do under different circumstances.
Throughout the history of psychology, many theories have been formulated to explain all aspects of human behavior. While some are classified as mini theories (those that focus on minor aspects of human thoughts and action), a large part of psychological studies revolves around the grand theories that encompass intricate details to explain everything about human psychology.
Some of the well-known theories that explain all aspects of human psychology include Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning, which refers to a learning procedure where two kinds of biologically potent stimuli are linked together to produce a newly acquired learning response from an animal or a person.
According to John Watson, the American psychologist who popularized the behaviorism theory, Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory explains that everything about human behavior—from speech to emotional responses—is simply patterns of stimulus and response (“Classical conditioning,” 2007).
Making predictions based on how people previously thought and acted is the third goal of psychology. By analyzing past observed behavior, psychological studies aim to predict and anticipate how a certain behavior will appear again in the future. This allows psychologists to form a pattern of behavior and better understand the underlying causes of people’s actions.
By analyzing qualitative data consisting of thought and action patterns, psychologists and researchers can accurately make guesses about human behavior without necessarily understanding the mechanisms behind a certain phenomenon (“How the goals of psychology,” n.d.). For instance, when qualitative data reveals that certain scores in aptitude tests predict student dropout rates, the information can be used to estimate the number of students who might leave school each year.
Successfully predicting behavior is important to the last and most important goal in psychology, which is to control or change behavior.
Aside from treating mental illnesses and enhancing well-being, changing or controlling human behavior is a huge focus of psychology (“How the goals of psychology,” n.d.). Various psychological studies about human behavior are used to influence, change, or control behavior using previously gathered data about human behavior.
In psychology, there are a number of theories that deal with changing or controlling people’s behavior. Some of these widely known theories include the health belief model, the theory of planned behavior, diffusion of innovation theory, social cognitive theory, the transtheoretical model, and the social norms theory.
Whether behavior can be successfully changed or controlled largely depends on one’s ability to accurately define a behavioral issue, assess the fundamental causes of these problems, and develop and implement theory and evidence-based interventions.
Human behavior is the raw data of psychology and psychologists use and observe it to study how the mind works. Since Wilhem Wundt—a German psychologist who’s considered as one of the founders of modern psychology, established the first experimental psychology lab in Leipzig in 1879—scholars have uncovered an enormous amount of information that revolves around the relationship between the brain, mind, and behavior.
Today, psychology is used to better understand why and how people act in various social contexts. Below is a list of how psychology affects people’s everyday lives:
Flawed communication is a major source of clandestine stress and, in most cases, leads to relationship distress and demise. With conversational styles and relationship patterns varying from one person to another, communication tends to differ for every individual who each speaks a “different language” according to their level of assertiveness, directness, and compassion (“What is the importance of communication,” 2019).
According to a report by Virtual Speech Coach (“Virtual speech coach,” n.d.), effective communication relies heavily on three essential factors: spoken words, nonverbal cues, and tone of voice. Since psychology makes it easier to understand what is going on in a person’s mind, it helps people comprehend and interpret an individual’s gestures and actions, making communication easier for different kinds of people.
Source: Virtual Coach (2014)
Psychology plays a major role in fostering and strengthening relationships. With most relationships being formed between people who share a similarity in terms of sociodemographics (age, social class, occupational background, etc.), psychology offers a better explanation of how people act toward others in an interpersonal context. By providing a deeper level of understanding of the factors that affect people’s relationships, psychology can be used to form strategies for relational maintenance (“Psychology of building relationships,” 2019).
Much of the human resources department of every company is heavily centered around psychological principles. Backed by scientific studies about human behavior, psychologists continue to find new ways to improve productivity in the workplace, identify training and development needs, or implement company policies to help organizations find and retain top talents (“Psychologists, helping businesses,” n.d.).
Psychology provides helpful insights into other people’s behaviors and the influences and motivations behind their actions. Empathy, a broad concept that refers to the emotional and cognitive reactions of individuals, is an ongoing area of interest for neuroscientists and psychologists in many fields, and it is defined as understanding what another person is going through by imagining oneself in the same scenario⁴ (“Psychology of emotional,” n.d.).
Self-esteem refers to a person’s overall sense of personal value or self-worth. In psychology, self-esteem is often an important factor affecting an individual’s success or failure. Too little self-esteem usually leads to a person becoming more likely to feel defeated and depressed, whereas a person with a grandiose sense of self-importance can be off-putting or can exhibit signs of a narcissistic personality disorder.
As cited in one Forbes report (Zenger, 2018), a Zenger Folkman research revealed that women tend to have higher self-confidence as they age compared to men’s confidence levels over time. This shows that although women constantly worry more about being disliked, having unattractive looks, grabbing too much attention, outshining others, men are not exempt from having doubts and insecurities about themselves.
Self-esteem levels at either end of the spectrum can be harmful and potentially damage personal relationships. Thus, the study of psychology helps people know more about themselves and their personalities, allowing them to discover and build on their strengths and weaknesses as an individual.
Source: Forbes (2018)
To sum up, psychology is centered on four major goals: to describe, explain, predict, and change or control behaviors. These goals are the foundation of most theories and studies in an attempt to understand the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes that people face in their daily lives.
While psychology is a broad field of scientific study, it is not that hard to see the importance it brings to various aspects of human society. By providing deeper knowledge as to how human thoughts and actions are related to biology, mental processes, social relationships, and interactions, psychology helps facilitate peak human performance, enabling individuals to make healthy lifestyle choices or overcome the obstacles that inhibit them from making smarter decisions.