How to Describe What I Know: The Appeal (and Frustration) of Psychology

How to Describe What I KnowI took my first psychology class in college without really knowing what psychology was or what psychologists did. When I was a first-year student at Harvard, the policy was that you declared a major by your second semester. My foray into English studies was a flop, so I declared psychology and hoped for the best. Fortunately, what I found in those early psychology classes was a revelation: A language to explain the behavioral and emotional phenomena I’d experienced and witnessed my entire life.

Studying psychology has shown me that underneath simple truths (for example, people perform worse under stress) are complicated explanations and exceptions (what about the people who perform better under stress? And did you know that different people have different optimal levels of stress? That some stress is necessary for growth?). I’ve loved diving into the detail layers of human behavior like this, and how doing so has put a new lens on my daily experience.

And that right there is the beauty and the frustration of psychology. I love that feeling of finally having a way to formally understand and explain something that is familiar. Psychology helps me to get into why the behaviors I can observe are as they are. I particularly like learning about research that helps explain why people don’t always react the same way to similar prompts; why sometimes an argument is persuasive and sometimes it isn’t, why the same person could fail a test one day and pass it the next. In this way, my psychology education has shed light on the levers that can be pushed and pulled to influence someone’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.

On the frustration side, it’s sometimes hard to get other people to take psychology seriously. We’re all human beings with a lifetime of experience as having a psychological self, and so these phenomena feel familiar to all of us. Therefore even people who haven’t trained in psychology might think, I understand this. And they’re not entirely wrong, but it’s a little bit like a non-doctor thinking they can treat their own illness because the symptoms are familiar. Sometimes they’ll pick the correct remedy based on experience and availability, and sometimes they’ll suffer needlessly for want of a prescription or a better diagnosis.

Psychology looks easy to other people, yet becomes more complex as you learn it. I love that; I love that the complication in our research mirrors the complication in people. It would be disappointing is psychology were too mechanistic, because that would imply we’re not the autonomous individuals most of us want to be (to some degree). If you think of psychology as a system of explaining our daily lived experience, doesn’t it make sense that it’s full of surprises?