Lessons from my Psych Degree

One of the many reasons I pursued psychology as a discipline is my fascination with human behaviour (as frustrating as it can sometimes be to be a behaving human). Some of the other reasons involved chance, unexpected events and Chemistry 101 (not to mention a calculus-based mechanics and relativity class). However, difficulties in disciplines I had previously excelled in aside, I suspect I’m not the only one intrigued by how people tick who ended up studying psychology.

If you’re a psych student, you’re probably familiar with some of the rather silly questions those who are unfamiliar with the discipline are prone to asking. If you’re not a psych student, but are contemplating taking some courses, you might have some questions of your own about what you’re likely to learn in a psych degree. Of course, if you have no interest in psychology whatsoever, you might be asking yourself why anyone else would want to devote so much time and effort into an arts degree.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about what my studies in psychology taught me. Below I’ve detailed a few of the most salient things that I learned (and did not learn).

I did NOT learn: to read minds

You’d be surprised at the number of times I’ve been asked about this. There I am, in a conversation with someone I probably don’t want to be talking with, making small talk and being polite, when after learning that I’m a student, they suddenly ask: “So, what are you studying?”

“Psychology,” I reply, hoping that they’re not about to say what I think they’re going to say, cringing when they do.

“Oh, cool! So, are you like, analyzing me right now? Can you like, tell what I’m thinking and stuff?” Facepalm.

My new favourite way to answer that question is with another question: “Are you paying me right now?”

I did learn: correlation does not imply causation

If you’re thinking about studying psychology, or any other social science for that matter, get ready to hear this in just about every course you take. Not that it’s not a worthy lesson—in fact, I think this is a concept that should be ingrained into students when they’re much younger so they become more critical consumers of research (and the twisted, biased way that it’s presented in the mainstream  non-scientific media).

A correlation implies that something is occurring at the same time as something else. But if I buy an ice cream and get a raise on the same day, it would be ridiculous to say that buying the ice cream caused me to get a raise—thus, no causation. There are any number of other factors that come into play when considering why I got the raise. Nonetheless, this fallacy is not that far from the kind of stuff that gets reported on a regular basis in an attempt to increase readership and ratings (if you’re going to make an outrageous claim, at least try to avoid spelling errors in your article’s title, please).

I did NOT learn: how to win friends and influence people

And I’m glad I didn’t. Although I probably did learn to be cautious of self-help books that claim to change your life in any significant way. My psych courses did not make me more influential, more outgoing, more psychologically healthy or more emotionally intelligent, and I did not learn how to manipulate people into doing anything. In fact, my time studying psychology probably represents the time in my life in which I was the least social, most withdrawn and most obsessive-compulsive, as a direct result of striving to meet academic demands while working.

Learning a thing about people and how they tick doesn’t change that thing in you. Having knowledge of different kinds of personality traits, for example, doesn’t change your personality. I disliked small talk before, and I still do now. I will go out of my way to avoid having to talk to somebody if I know that conversation is just going to be hollow small talk. I think people appreciate it, too. We’ve all been in that situation where you see someone you only kind of know (on the bus, say) and, before they turn to look at you, quickly look away so they don’t know that you recognized them. You convince yourself that they didn’t see you and go about the rest of your day feeling conflicted about not saying hi. What you fail to acknowledge to yourself is that they did the exact same thing when they saw you. We don’t have to feel guilty about this, people.

I did learn: pretty much everyone is screwed up

All it takes is one undergraduate abnormal psychology class. At the start of mine, the professor warned us about the dangers of “medical student syndrome.” It’s kind of hard to read about every psychological disorder currently recognized, though, and not see yourself or some part of you in some of the descriptions.

The sobering truth is that 1 in 5 people will have a mental illness at some point in their life, and that number is likely underreported. The number of people affected by mental illness in family and friends is much higher.

Additionally, while the majority of people won’t have a full-blown mental illness, almost every disorder listed in the DSM-IV describes symptoms that exist on a continuum. In order to be diagnosed with something, that symptom has to be causing you distress or getting significantly in the way of your functioning. Take Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, for example. Everyone experiences obsessions and compulsions. They’re a normal part of human existence. Schizophrenia is considered to be one of the most severe mental illnesses a person can have, characterized by delusions and hallucinations. But these are just extensions of normal parts of existence—we just haven’t had delusions or hallucinations so severe that they’ve impaired our ability to live a “normal” life. The kicker is that there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to psychological health.

Of course, I learned lots more than the above, but sometimes those are the things that stand out the most. What have you learned from your degree?

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