Psychology plays a part in our daily lives, whether we’re trying to boost our productivity or better teach our preschool children. At a microlevel, we can use it to understand individuals, and on a larger scale, it holds many answers – for organizations and society.

Psychologists use different tools to perform their roles. Increasingly, many are using the latest tech to apply classic, evergreen principles in improved, more efficient ways. This article is a great place to learn about some practical psychology tools and explore examples that are used not only by professionals, but anyone who wants to better understand themselves.

A Practical View on Psychology

Psychology studies people’s minds and behavior. The American Psychological Association gives a great definition for the discipline as a whole[1]:

Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. The discipline embraces all aspects of the human experience — from the functions of the brain to the actions of nations, from child development to care for the aged.

In research, clinical, and workplace settings, psychologists thus look at the mind and behavior to better understand humans; ultimately, one of psychologists’ key goals is to help us achieve balance and mental health.

With such an enormous range of psychological applications, the science spans an immense number of other sectors. It is interconnected to and directly exchanges information with niches such as biology, neuroscience, sociology, and psychiatry.

Broadly, the empirical methods that psychologists use include experiments, studies, and surveys, and they are complemented by more intuitive and abstract approaches. This very complex nature of this science is what brought it the name of a “hub science”.[2]

Psychology Tools: A Guide

So how do psychologists ‘look at the mind,’ exactly?

As the human psyche and behavior are such complex systems and mechanisms, people often wonder how scientists manage to quantify phenomena and draw applicable conclusions.

Like any other science, psychology uses research methods to explore the different facets of how our minds work. For scientists to be able to research a topic, the factors they are examining must be measurable, repeatable, and observable – to some extent, at least.

These are the key characteristics that make psychological research possible. In Kozulin’s words,[3]

Psychological tools are the symbolic cultural artifacts—signs, symbols, texts, formulae, and most fundamentally, language—that enable us to master psychological functions like memory, perception, and attention in ways appropriate to our cultures.

Let’s dive into some examples.

Observation

Observation is a fundamental tool for any science. This is what psychologists have done at the beginnings of this field: they had the motivation to better understand what was already observed in human behavior, like the effects of depression or the psychological mechanisms that created certain social phenomena.

Curiosity about these aspects of life is inevitable, as they are so deeply rooted in our human nature and have such a big influence on all that we do and think.

Scientific observation involves collecting data while watching a certain subject behave in a certain way, or as they evolve toward certain behaviors.[4] Recording information about what is going on naturally enables scientists to define the subject of their interest and better understand it, allowing them to apply other tools further on in the research.

What It Looks Like

Psychologists often observe behavior and collect data without manipulating events in any way, letting nature take its course, so to speak. In the information age, this can include data from wearables, such as fitness software and trackers.

This doesn’t always preclude interaction with subjects, however, as there are tools for this too, but the key to observation is to note and record important phenomena.[5]

For example:

  • The circumstances in which a certain behavior occurs
  • Its nature, and
  • Its impacts on other behaviors or individuals.

Because observation typically involves no manipulation, it’s generally considered an objective research tool. However, it is worth discussing how objectiveness can also be relative since the scientist filters the data through his own system of values and interpretations.

Observations are then noted by the practitioner for review; depending on a professional’s particular field, they may follow a particular structure such as the SOAP or BIRP format.

Experiments

Experiments are fundamental empirical tools in studying psychology or any other science. Experimentation involves collecting data about certain behavior in a controlled environment, which doesn’t necessarily mean a laboratory. These days, telehealth software such as smartphone apps and wearables can collect a wide array of experimental data that gives psychologists a more complete picture of a patient’s behavior.

What It Looks Like

Unlike observation, experimentation uses control over variables to measure certain behaviors and establishing cause and effect relationships. In an experiment, psychologists investigate a certain hypothesis and establish a dependent variable and an independent one.

The main purpose of an experiment is explore whether a scientific hypothesis is supported or refuted by evidence – for example, whether two variables are correlated.[6]

Psychological experimentation is hugely important to the field, as scientists are looking more into the human brain and how it makes us behave. And since psychology’s earliest days, ethics have been an integral part of the experimental method.

Four Term Contingency

In the behavioral sciences, researchers analyze factors that (may) directly influence human behavior.[7]

What it Looks Like

One approach for doing so is the four-term contingency model, which rationalizes certain important factors into four main categories:

  • Motivation: These factors represent the “Why” for certain human actions, and are composed of the circumstances that lead to a certain behavior. Looking into the motivation behind certain behaviors (or the lack of it) helps clinical psychologists create a treatment plan for a certain issue.
  • Antecedents: This category of factors represents the signals and cues that precede a certain behavior.
  • Behavior: The behavior itself, and
  • Consequences: What did X behavior lead to?

Techniques Used in Psychology

The tools above are just a very few of the fundamental tools used to understand human behavior.

Along with a much wider range of instruments and approaches, psychologists use them to choose the appropriate techniques – research methods – that should be applied to understand certain situations.

Psychological techniques vary greatly and can be adapted to a psychologist’s particular style, as well as to each patient they assess.

Some examples of notable techniques used in psychology include:

  • Cognitive Restructuring
  • Functional Analysis
  • NET (Narrative Exposure Therapy)
  • Mindfulness
  • Case Formulation, and
  • Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression (BATD)

Cognitive Restructuring

The cognitive model assumes that certain behavior is caused by the patient’s way of thinking about certain things in their life. This method starts with examining the thoughts and images that the patient has about a certain event in their life, learning about the four-term contingency elements – how it’s triggered and how it evolves in time.

The key to this method is to reach a cognitive restructuring, which means helping the patient change their mental schema for that certain event and thus, the behavior that it triggers.

For example, a person with a certain phobia reacts in a destructive way to the stimulus, which leads them to see a psychologist. To eliminate the destructive or damaging behavior, the therapist will help the patient to re-evaluate the way they see the event and redirect their emotions and thoughts toward a safe and healthy reaction.[8]

In this way, someone with arachnophobia may learn to react more to rational thought and less on primary emotions when they see a spider, for example.

A key part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and iCBT interventions, it’s easy to find mental health solutions on the market that can help with cognitive restructuring.

Psychological techniques vary greatly and can be adapted to a psychologist’s particular style, as well as to each patient they assess.

Functional Analysis

Functional analysis is based on the assumption that certain human behavior is that it is triggered by a certain context. Its goal is to identify the exact context that triggers the behavior and examine the chain of consequences it brings.[9]

This psychological assessment technique answers the question: why is this behavior happening?

To exemplify, we can think of the same patient who has arachnophobia – the therapist will work with them to identify the context in which the phobia was triggered and what elements are repeated in the present to replicate the same initial reaction.

This being said, it’s important to understand that behaviors are rarely analyzed as isolated events; they generally have to be linked to other behaviors and circumstances that might affect them for proposed hypotheses to be considered generalizable.

The main purpose of functional analysis for clinical psychologists is typically to develop a treatment scheme, such as a mental health treatment plan. Depending on its findings, it will indicate a certain course of action to be taken.

NET (Narrative Exposure Therapy)

Used frequently with patients who have suffered traumatic events, narrative exposure therapy (NET) uses the memory of that event to re-evaluate it and change the way the patient reacts to it.

With NET, a therapist guides the patient in remembering the event and verbalize it. This way, the patient confronts his feelings and thoughts about what happened, using words that can help them change their thought process.[10]

For example, NET might benefit our arachnophobic patient by helping them remember the trigger-event, then filter it with the present mind. By remembering feelings of imminent danger and rationalizing them in a safe environment, they would ideally be able to change the way they behave when a spider is present.

By recreating an intense moment while feeling safe in the presence of the therapist, the patient can wrap their trauma and deal with it in a much healthier way.

Mindfulness

We hear the term mindfulness a lot in today’s media, as it represents a much longed for a feeling of calm and serenity. In psychology, mindfulness is a way of dealing with trauma and suffering, making them dissipate and become less important in our lives. The key to applying mindfulness is to live a certain feeling in the present and observe it non-judgmentally.[11]

Mindfulness is a concept and technique born within the Buddhist tradition. Its principles are applied by psychologists and individuals on their own, because of its simplicity and benign nature.

With an abundance of mobile apps for meditation, mindset, and even yoga, mindfulness is one technique that’s easily integrated into a blended care program.

By practicing mindfulness every day, a person can learn how to understand their feelings better, how to make them neutral instead of harmful and how to better control their strong emotions. This technique can be successfully used as a complementary tool along with other techniques.

Case Formulation

A technique that is prevalent in cognitive therapy is case-formulation, a way of better understanding the struggles of a patient by involving them directly in the evaluation, analysis and solution proposing processes.[12]

Case formulations can be tailored specifically for a disorder, and such formulations are already published and used by professionals in the field to help in the psychological evaluation of a patient.

A case-formulation is like story-telling, it focuses or the narrative that led to a certain event, what ramifications it has in terms of triggers and consequences, and what solutions are right for a certain patient.

By connecting these pieces together, patient and the therapist can work together towards developing a treatment plan and controlling unwanted behavior.

Applied Behavioral Analysis

Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) focuses on how a client interacts with their environment and is used to encourage more socially acceptable behaviors. Its goal is to help individuals learn skills they can apply to everyday life to modify unhelpful or toxic behaviors, such as:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Behavioral Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) approaches, and
  • Behavior contracts.

Easily adaptable to a patient’s unique circumstances, ABA is based on several key principles and can easily be implemented both in person and virtually using ABA software.

Behavioral Activation Treatment for Depression (BATD)

In today’s world, depression is highly prevalent, no matter what your social status or place of origin might be. Behavioral activation is a psychology technique that is very effective in treating depression, but it can be applicable to a wide range of other disorders as well.[13]

Behavioral activation is a practical and hands-on way of dealing with certain psychological disorders after correctly assessing them.

To make better equip patients to manage their disorder, it uses tools like: [14]

  • Contingency Management
  • Stimulus Control
  • Activity Monitoring, and
  • Skills Training.

By using positive reinforcement and teaching new social skills, the patient is able to keep depression under control and even overcome it.

BATD can be successfully used with individuals and groups of individuals alike, translates well into virtual care service models, successfully serves as the main tool for numerous psychology programs.

Final Thoughts

Psychology, like every other science, uses a large array of tools and techniques to work.

By embracing technology and creating new types of tools, this sector is not only maintaining its importance, but it’s also becoming more and more reliable.

Psychologists today are aware of the importance of adapting to the new needs and habits of their clients and are starting to implement tech tools and software that allows them to improve their work, better monitor patients, and streamline administrative processes.

References

  1. ^ APA. (2020a). About Us. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/support/about-apa
  2. ^ Association for Psychological Science. (2007). Psychology is a Hub Science. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/psychology-is-a-hub-science
  3. ^ Kozulin, A. (1998). Psychological Tools: A Sociocultural Approach to Education. MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. ^ Haig, B. D. (2019). The importance of scientific method for psychological science. Psychology, Crime & Law, 25(6), 527.
  5. ^ Hood, R. W. (2013). Methodology in Psychology. Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.
  6. ^ APA. (2020b). Understanding Experimental Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/action/science/experimental/
  7. ^ Jones, B. M. (2003). Quantitative analyses of matching‐to‐sample performance. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 79(3), 323.
  8. ^ Olatunji, B. O., Cisler, J. M., & Deacon, B. J. (2010). Efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders: a review of meta-analytic findings. Psychiatric Clinics, 33(3), 557.
  9. ^ Sturmey, P. (1996). Functional analysis in clinical psychology. NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  10. ^ Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2018). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques. NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  11. ^ Kabat-Zinn, J. (2012). Mindfulness for beginners: Reclaiming the present moment—and your life. CO: Sounds True.
  12. ^ Eells, T. D., Kendjelic, E. M., & Lucas, C. P. (1998). What's in a case formulation?: development and use of a content coding manual. The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 7(2), 144.
  13. ^ Lejuez, C. W., Hopko, D. R., Acierno, R., Daughters, S. B., & Pagoto, S. L. (2011). Ten year revision of the brief behavioral activation treatment for depression: revised treatment manual. Behavior Modification, 35(2), 111.
  14. ^ Martell, C. R., Dimidjian, S., & Herman-Dunn, R. (2013). Behavioral activation for depression: A clinician's guide. NY: Guilford Press.

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