Someone observed a while ago that trends and models in psychology tend to reflect the technology of the day. Freud grew up in the age of steam and viewed human emotional experiences in terms of raw, powerful forces. A few decades later, behaviorists would describe psychological reactions being switched on or off by reinforcement like an electrical appliance. As computers became popular, more cognitive models emerged where what comes out depends on the informational value of what goes in and how it’s processed. Now we have concepts like neural nets, where experiences like memory are thought to result from how impulses travel along certain pathways like – you guessed it – the Internet.
If there really are parallels, we may never know which came first or if there’s any causal link. What these analogies do illustrate, however, is how difficult it might be to separate psychological thinking from its cultural and historical context and how much it can be influenced by other sciences. This is one of the keys to understanding the changing face of psychology. When advancements are made in other areas, somewhere a psychologist is bound to wonder what they might be able to tell us about ourselves.
It’s possibly a misnomer to talk about the changing face of psychology because psychology hasn’t so much changed as bred. It has gone forth and multiplied in a big way. Some of the early ideas have been updated but very few have disappeared entirely.
The result is an immense, extended family that that has even been referred to as “the psychologies”. Like a family, too, individual members have chosen partners from outside the tribe. Biology was the first in-law…their offspring are the neurosciences. New branches of psychology have been produced by pairing it with economics, education, and forensics to name a few. But few of these inter-science marriages take place without the blessing of that great matchmaker, society. Consider, for example, two of our newest arrivals: health psychology and sports psychology.
Is this pluralism a good thing? The answer may be that it’s an unavoidable thing. Psychology cannot ignore new developments because it’s about people and these things affect people. The twin forces of scientific advancements and changing cultural values don’t necessarily transform psychology into something else, they determine which of its branches is on the upswing and hitting the headlines.
Ironically, as far and wide as psychology has spread as a science, the working profession of general “psychologist” has all but disappeared for individuals. Most job vacancies are in specialized areas and require specialist training. As a science, however, psychology has become a hotbed for the cross-fertilization of ideas from different disciplines and a bridge between disparate medical, scientific, academic and industrial communities. Kind of like Facebook.