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Version date: 21 November 2017
Key changes: Version 4
Subject facilitator email: seniorsecondary@tki.org.nz

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What is psychology about?

Psychology student.


Psychology is the scientific study of human thought, emotions, and actions. Psychology helps us to understand human behaviour. It attempts to explain why we behave in the way that we do and explores questions such as:

•  Why do people take risks?

•  Why do good people do bad things?

•  How does culture influence behaviour?

•  What is the nature of intelligence?

Psychology uses research and research-based theory

Psychologists test their theories scientifically. Once they have done so, they are in a position to offer an explanation for observed behaviour.

Psychology addresses questions by deconstructing patterns of thinking, emotion, and behaviour, and identifying and challenging assumptions, theories, and mores.

Psychology offers multiple explanations

In psychology, the term "approach" refers to a paradigm or set of principles based on beliefs about people and the way that they function. Different approaches may offer different explanations for behaviours. 

Each approach influences which aspects of people will be studied and what methods of inquiry will be chosen. For example:

  • Biological researchers look at the chemical and neurological processes that affect us.
  • Behaviourists look at how the environment conditions affect us.
  • Cognitive psychologists examine the mind as an information-processing machine.
  • Psychodynamic psychologists look at the hidden impulses and desires we have, and how these affect our behaviour.
  • Humanists see people as a whole – as unique beings with an ability to reach our potential.
  • Socio-cultural psychologists focus on understanding cultures from their own ecological, historical, philosophical, and religious perspectives.
  • Evolutionary psychologists see behaviour as a result of the process of gradual change in which genes are passed on within a population.

In practice, psychologists may disagree greatly in the explanations they offer. This is a reflection of the richness and complexity of human behaviour.

Psychology curriculum guide content

Use the links below to access the sections of this guide. To navigate through the guide's web pages, select from the section and sub-section menu in the left-hand navigation.

Teaching and learning guides are produced in HTML. They have been designed to be viewed online.

To print individual pages, select the 'Print' button at the top right of each page.

To print the complete guide, select the ‘Download this guide in PDF format’ button. If your browser default is set to automatically open PDF downloads in a PDF reader, the entire guide will open and can then be printed. If not, the entire guide will download into your download folder, where you can then open the document and print. Please note, some guides may be more than 200 pages long.

Last updated November 21, 2017