I have been fascinated with psychology ever since I was a child. I wanted to understand what made people do what they do, what the story was behind their behavior. I wanted to strip back the outer cover and see the machinery within. Many years later, I am still fascinated with psychology. Psychology is ultimately the foundation of all human endeavor. Why do we think, feel, and act the way we do? Why do we love, hate, eat, work, or dance the way we do? How does our three-pound brain produce the incredible intricacies of human behavior? How much of our psychology is due to genes and how much to our environment? These questions are addressed every day in thousands of laboratories and consulting rooms across the country and across the world. And the answers to such age-old questions are closer at hand than at any point in history. While I do not believe we will ever fully understand the extraordinary mystery of the human mind, we certainly can learn—and have learned—a tremendous amount about our mental processes. Moreover, such discoveries can help reduce the suffering and improve the lives of millions of people.

Interestingly, the major players in the field of psychology used to be far better known to the general public. Fifty years ago, the average person on the street was more likely to be familiar with the likes of Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, or Jean Piaget. There was a widespread appreciation of the importance of the field of psychology and its relevance to everyday life. In contemporary times, there is far less general awareness of the contributions of the field of psychology. Perhaps psychology—that is, the scientific discipline of psychology—has been a victim of its own success. Certainly talk shows and magazines are filled with psychological topics. Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura, and Dr. Joyce Brothers remain household names. But I would suggest that the entertainment value of popular psychology has overtaken the appreciation of serious science.

Meanwhile, psychology is flourishing within the walls of academia. Psychology remains an incredibly popular major in college and graduate school. But within the university, the seriousness of the field has overtaken its inherent entertainment value. Thus psychology has split into two vectors: popular psychology, which is entertaining but not rigorous, and academic psychology, which is serious but not easily accessible to the non-specialist.

This book is intended to find a middle ground, to provide a rigorous and scientifically grounded book that is nonetheless accessible and engaging to the general public.

The first section of this book gives an overview of the fundamentals of psychology. We cover the history and pioneers of psychology, the major theoretical movements, the science of psychology, the brain and its relationship to behavior, and psychological development across the lifespan. These are the areas traditionally covered in textbooks.

In the second half of the book we address how the scientific methods of psychology have been applied to questions of everyday life. Here we see how the science of psychology has immediate relevance to a broad spectrum of human activities. What can psychology tell us about love, marriage, family, and sexuality? What can psychology tell us about happiness or our relationship with money? Chapter 7 explores the psychology of the group and how group dynamics play out in the work place, the public sphere, and in the problems of prejudice and racism. Chapters 8 through 10 look at abnormal psychology. Chapter 8 addresses clinical psychology, covering such topics as psychopathology, psychiatric diagnosis, psychotherapy, and psychiatric medication. Chapter 9 looks at the psychology of trauma, and chapter 10 at forensic psychology, where psychology intersects the law.

As part of the “Handy Answer Book” series, this book is structured in a question-and-answer format. Approximately 1,000 questions are answered with one- or two-paragraph answers. The goal is to break down complex topics into bite-size ideas. While the questions were carefully selected to create a narrative flow, this is also the kind of book that you can open at any point and browse. If you want, you can read the book from cover to cover, but you can also flip through to find questions that particularly jump out at you.

Although I want the reader to feel free to jump around, the nature of science is that it is cumulative. In other words, the most recent developments rest upon the shoulders of earlier work. Because of this, the sections in the second half of the book will sometimes refer to topics and people introduced in the first half. If readers run across an unfamiliar idea, person, or issue, they can look the topic up in the index, which will then point them to other areas in the book where the issue is discussed.

I have applied the same scientific standards when writing this book that I use when writing scientific articles for professional journals and have worked hard to only include conclusions that are supported by solid if not multiple references. In professional papers, you cite your sources in the middle of the text, right where you are referencing them. While this practice is necessary for scientific accuracy, it does not make for easy reading. Therefore we put the reference list at the back of the book. Readers who are interested in learning more about any particular area can look up the relevant references for more information.

This book is intended for the general public. Anyone who has a passing interest in psychology could pick up this book to learn more about the field. Did you study psychology in college and always maintained an interest in it? Have you had personal experience with psychological problems, either in yourself or in your family? Are you thinking you might like to pursue a career in the mental health field? Or do you just wonder about why people behave the way they do? Then The Handy Psychology Answer Book is for you.

Although this book is intended for the general public, it can also be used to supplement traditional textbooks. If you want a quick review on Attachment Theory or on Behaviorism, if you want to remind yourself of the basics of brain-behavior relationships, or if you want a quick introduction to key psychological theories, this book can be helpful for you.

Whatever your reasons for picking up this book, I hope that you can put it down with a better appreciation of just how fascinating psychology can be and how important it is to everyday life.

Lisa J. Cohen, Ph.D.

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