Psychology can seem like a wildly disparate collection of distinct and separate disciplines. How is it that neurochemical interactions in the brain, interpersonal interactions in close relationships and aggressive interactions on the playground all fall within the purview of scientific psychology? The philosophical answer is that all of psychology is united by the goal to understand human cognition, emotion and behavior. The tangible object of one's study may be animals, the method of choice may be mathematical modeling and the slice of human experience under examination may be incredibly narrow, but the goal remains the same: to untangle and explain some facet of human experience.
Many fields of inquiry seek to achieve the same understanding. Poets, artists, philosophers, historians and other observers of the human condition seek to explain the phenomena of human existence. What makes the discipline of psychology unique is that we seek such understanding through the scientific method. Yet there is another common bond that connects all of psychology--the practical value of the knowledge we obtain. Whether a researcher is motivated by curiosity or by the need to solve a practical problem, the discipline of psychology is valued for its contributions to human welfare.
It's through an understanding of human cognition that we are able to improve educational pedagogy, aid decision-making and diagnose diseases of the central nervous system. It's through an understanding of human emotion that we are able to smooth troubled relationships, improve mental health and curb aggression. It's through an understanding of human behavior that we are able to make public spaces safer, facilitate healthy lifestyles and enhance the quality of life.
The practical value of psychology derives from the questions we seek to answer and the insight produced by our science in answering those questions. Even the most esoteric of basic research pursuits contributes to an accumulating base of knowledge that can be put to practical use. A line of inquiry need not be motivated by the goal of application to ultimately contribute practical value. This is the beauty of scientific psychology--applications may be deliberately sought or they may simply emerge out of basic understanding.
Moving from basic knowledge to practical application requires translation. This is the job of the discipline's practitioners. Those who specialize in the translation of psychological science are the practitioners of psychology. Those who translate the knowledge of other disciplines are the practitioners of those disciplines, but not of psychology. In this way, the science of psychology is uniquely and inextricably connected with psychology practice.
In the case of psychology, however, it is important to recognize the many varieties of potential practice. Any translation and application of the scientific knowledge base is properly considered the practice of psychology. The delivery of health-related interventions is the area we most commonly assume. Yet, psychology offers much more.
Consider those who work in the application of the discipline's science in human factors, education, industrial and organizational dynamics, legal processes, consumer behavior, environment, testing, assessment and many others. These, too, are practicing psychologists. Just like their colleagues who work in health-care delivery, these practitioners work every day translating the science of psychology into practical use.
In seeking to derive the greatest practical value of psychological science, we must always keep in mind the diverse and varying needs of the entire professional practicing community of psychology. It is the best way to ensure that the discipline of psychology continues its contributions to human welfare well into the 21st century.