Updated thoughts on 30th March 2017: Honestly, this piece is no longer much valid and useful now that I looked back after some growth as a student and writer. I will just keep it here for archival purposes (to remind myself how naive I had been), but I no longer think this post has any meaning to readers.
This might be going a little off from what I meant to share with this series of articles as I am actually going to take a step back and look at the various fields that are highly similar to psychology and often indistinguishable due to the numerous overlaps. Just out of interest, I decide to look at cognitive science, behavioral science, neuroscience, and sociology and got some really interesting findings. What started out as a waste of time ended up furthering my knowledge of introductory psychology as I know look at the perspectives of psychology and its nature in a new way.
The most commonly accepted definition is the scientific study of the mind and behavior, which is often good enough to introduce to laypeople and commonly accepted by professors everywhere. Some may find the definition too loose and unspecific for their liking. A lot of psychologists find adding the word “human” is necessary as human beings are often the center of this field of study, although I can imagine some animal psychologists (aka comparative psychologists) having issues with that, Some people find the word “mind” too difficult to pinpoint under a scientific scope and “behavior” should be the focus instead. Eventually, I found my favorite and the most satisfying definition (Gregg Henriques, 2011) I encountered thus far:
Psychology is the science of mental behavior and the human mind, and the professional application of such knowledge toward the greater good.”
Cognitive science studies cognitive phenomena, specifically the mind and its processes. A lot of people would have trouble differentiating the two at face value, but once you compare the definition attentively you will notice a major difference. Cognitive science is oriented on the “mind” itself and it doesn’t have to be human. Yes, it examines artificial ones, animals ones and or even possibly extraterrestrial ones. A good and surprisingly accurate layperson explanation would be that cognitive science attempts to answer “What is intelligence?”. Its focus naturally overlaps often with psychology’s cognitive perspective: reasoning, memory, learning, perception, language, emotion, and action. Cognitive science sets itself apart by examining specifically onto the concept of cognition itself, which allows the field to encompass multiple disciplines in depth: psychology, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, neuroscience, and computing (artificial intelligence). In many ways, it is seen as a “cooler” version of psychology but I can only imagine the coursework being actually tougher as it seems to demand actual mathematical, philosophical, and computational knowledge, which are often just “side dishes” in psychology programs.
The central hypothesis of cognitive science is that thinking can best be understood in terms of representational structures in the mind and computational procedures that operate on those structures”
Neuroscience is blessed with an extremely self explanatory definition, the study of nervous system. It doesn’t have to bother about explicitly using the word “scientific” because generally neuroscience is a subfield of biology, a full blown hard science. However, over time neuroscience has became an extremely interdisciplinary field, covering chemistry, medicine, genetics, engineering, and even physics, and is now closely married to cognitive science and its coverage.
Generally, neuroscience studies the humanities from a biological perspective and everything between the two. Neuroscience’s approach is distinctive for beginning from the nervous system and gradually grow from there to the other interrelated areas mentioned above (interestingly cognitive science does the exact opposite, it begins from the six applied fields and moves towards the mind). Neuroscience has an incredible number of subfields, beginning from the molecular level (fundamental structure of the brain), going down to the cognitive level (studying the act of thinking), proceeding to the behavioral level (studying the explanations of why we act), then take on a more medical perspective. It doesn’t end there too, as there are many other niche subfields like neurolinguistics, neuroanthroopology, neuroengineering, and social neuroscience. It often overlaps with psychology as both are interested about mental processes and behavior, but it is entirely oriented to study the nervous system and always takes on the biological perspective on every matter, dealing with more tangible matters and excludes more qualitative experiences.
Neuroscience advances the potential understandings of the humanities by offering hypotheses and conceptualizations for the underlying mechanisms of thought, emotion, behavior, and everything in between”
The simplest way to distinguish behavioral science from the others is that behavioral science emphasizes the effects of actions and interactions. It sits neatly on the edge between the micro (neural-cognitive) and the macro (behavioral-social), and behavioral science majors tend to go down on one of these paths: the informational (neural) path or the relational (social) path. Their career pathways are extremely similar to psychology (management, counselor, therapists) and one often wonder if both are actually the same thing under different names. Behavioral science issues (even those at the neural-cognitive level) are often examined at a more social and relational context.
Also, behavioral sciences also serves as an umbrella category which most of psychology (for a lot of people they are essentially similar) falls under, along with cognitive science, sociology, and anthropology. This is rather ideal for those going deep into management, politics, or communication but want a more in-depth education which is well-rounded at the same time.
Behavioral sciences deal with the activities and interactions of all organisms in the natural world.”
Sociology is literally the study of human society. Then what contents would “society” encompass? Everything and not limited to culture, race, conflict resolution, crime, organized faith, gender roles, romantic love, politics, and economics. Unlike psychology, sociology looks beyond the individual and analyzes behavior within a group context and tries to make predictions about social phenomenon. Students are learn about the fundamentals of society, how are societies formed, how policies are formed to maintain them and so on. Both sociology and psychology students employ similar research methods (although interestingly enough, experiments seemed to be strictly “social psychology”), require similar philosophical grounding, and both often ask similar research questions.
Sociology topics are distinctive for not being restricted to be related to the individual mind and are much focused on relationships or institutions, making it essentially psychology minus most of the neurological and cognitive parts, and adding in a lot of humanities related topics such as laws and policies, politics, and economics.
So Where Does Psychology Stand?
The pattern should be rather obvious now, all of the four other fields mentioned above have psychology as part of their subfield. One can say that modern psychology is formed from these intersections of the four disciplines: science of the nervous system, science of the mind, science of behavior, and science of society. These four are the four most fundamental perspectives of psychology, and psychology unites all of them under one name (although psychology does orient itself more often on human behavior). To make up for not having as much depth, psychology adopts another four other assumptions as its perspectives to make psychology more than a compilation of glorified subfields: psychodynamic, evolutionary, humanistic, and post-structuralism.
How should one decide which is more suitable as a field of choice?
Neuroscience majors’ job scope are largely limited to research and healthcare. There are a huge variety of topics and subfields of neuroscience for majors to venture into, but other than that, career opportunities are limited to health-care facilities and universities. Requires: interest into biology and the nervous system, good memorization skills, well rounded in the natural sciences, good in math.
Cognitive science majors’ careers often depend on their expertise. Those focusing on computing will find careers in computer science, systems analysis, and human factors engineering, while those specializing in learning and linguistics can work in education, translation, or information technology for speech recognition or speech to text projects. Requires: philosophical grounding, more advanced computing skills, good in math.
Behavioral science majors are largely similar to psychology majors with communication, management, and sociology electives, even when it comes to careers. They often go into human resource departments, management, social work, counseling, and law reinforcement. Those that specialize in the informational track can venture into behavioral neuroscience and cognitive science for research work and lectureship while those on the relation track may go into sociology or social psychology for research and advocacy for certain causes, or take part in careers like urban planning. Requires: knowledge in statistics, good language command and communication skills.
Sociology majors stereotypically end up as social workers, but they can do much more than that. They often work in marketing or public relations in industries, or in the government as officers or urban planners. A lot of sociology majors take in interest in counseling too and will go to grad school to pursue the required qualification. Requires: well rounded interest about human society and civilization, good in history, skills of critiquing, statistical knowledge
In comparison, I would like to think that psychology majors are the among the most versatile of the bunch (which actually doesn’t say a lot as most of these are already versatile and not highly technical) in terms of career options. They can basically be involved in any of the above minus certain highly technical fields like computer science or neurobiological healthcare, unless they choose to further their studies down that field. Once again, psychology is technically born of the interactions and overlaps between these fields, so it makes sense to say that most of these fields share nearly identical career outlooks and required skills. Chances are you don’t want to venture into any of the four in-depth fields too soon and miss out all the good parts!
To end this, I will give examples of questions asked by researchers of these fields.
Neuroscience: Which part of the brain is responsible for driving us to crave bacon?
Cognitive science: What are the mental processes going on when we crave bacon?
Behavioral science: How do we behave when we crave bacon/exposed to people who crave bacon?
Sociology: What are the impacts of bacon craving on society? What influences have society on an individual’s crave for bacon?
Psychology: Why do we crave bacon? What are the implications of craving bacon?*questions can deviate between the above four depending on perspective, usually with additional perspectives like evolutionary and humanistic basis*
(yeah, psychology questions are generally easier to ask due to the flexibility provided by the perspectives.)
Relevant Stuff for External Reading: