The Four Goals Of Psychology: What Are They?

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior. It is a multifaceted discipline of the sciences and includes many sub-fields of study, such as human development, social behavior, and cognitive processes. Psychology focuses on understanding a person’s emotions, personality, and mind through scientific studies, experiments, observation, and research. The study of psychology has four goals: Describe, Explain, Predict, and Change/Control.

1. Describe

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We describe things every day with no conscious thought or effort, but the describing of psychology has a slightly different meaning than the describing we do in our day-to-day lives. Accurately describing a problem, an issue, or a behavior is the first goal of psychology. Descriptions help psychologists to distinguish between typical and atypical behaviors and gain more accurate understandings of human and animal behaviors and thoughts. A variety of research methods, including case studies, surveys, self-tests, and natural observation allow psychologists to pursue this goal.

2. Explain

In addition to describing, psychologists seek to be able to explain behaviors. The goal of explaining is to provide answers to questions about why people react to certain stimuli in certain ways, how various factors impact personalities and mental health, and so on. Psychologists often use experiments, which measure the impacts of variables upon behaviors, to help formulate theories that explain aspects of human and animal behaviors.

Many psychologists have developed numerous theories over the past two centuries to explain various human behaviors. Some theories have been debunked or replaced by more recent findings, while others have endured and maintained their acceptance by the scientific community. Some theories focus on explaining small aspects of human behavior, like Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning and Bowlby’s attachment theory. Others set out to describe human behavior in its entirety, like Erickson’s eight stages of human development and Freud’s Freudian theory of personality.

3. Predict

Making predictions about how humans and animals will think and act is the third goal of psychology. By looking at past observed behavior (describing and explaining), psychologists aim to predict how that behavior may appear again in the future, as well as whether others might exhibit the same behavior.

Psychologists can use knowledge gleaned from previous studies to predict why, when, and how observed behaviors might happen in the future. Psychologists can then foresee a pattern of behavior. By being able to predict patterns of behavior, psychologists can better understand the underlying causes of our actions. Prediction, at least in theory, gives psychologists the ability to change or control behavior, the last goal of psychology.

4. Change / Control

Psychology aims to change, influence, or control behavior to make positive, constructive, meaningful, and lasting changes in people’s lives and to influence their behavior for the better. This is the final and most important goal of psychology. These four goals of psychology arenot that different from how you would naturally interact with others. Suppose, for example, that someone did something they weren’t supposed to do, and this action had a negative impact on their life. You may want to try to help or resolve the issue andthe following questions might naturally run through your mind:

  • “What happened?” (describing)
  • “Why did they do that?” (explaining)
  • “What would happen if they did this?” (predicting)
  • “What can they do next time to reach a different outcome?” (changing)

The main difference between us asking these questions versus a psychologist or mental health professional is the high level of education and training that a psychologist brings into the explaining, predicting, and changing processes. Most people ask these questions on a superficial level, but these trained professionals specialize in finding ways to facilitate lasting positive changes in individuals.

How Can the Four Goals of Psychology Help You?

A perfect example of the four goals in action and how they can be useful in our everyday life can be found in Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment. Pavlov noticed his dogs would salivate whenever they saw the lab technician bringing their food. He deduced that this was a learned behavior since the dogs had not initially reacted that way. However, over time, the dogs came to understand the technician was the one bringing them food and once they began to associate him with food, they automatically started to get excited and salivate whenever they saw him.

Pavlov tested this theory by ringing a bell every time he fed the dogs. After repeating this several times, the dogs began to associate the sound of the ringing bell with food and would start salivating every time he rang the bell. Through his experiment, Pavlov successfully changed the dogs’ responsive behavior and taught them a new one. This theory is considered one of the most significant breakthroughs in psychology, and its importance lies in how the four goals are incorporated (consciously or unconsciously) in almost every aspect of a human’s life.

By using Pavlov’s theory, and by following the four goals of psychology, individuals can try to change behaviors. For example, a parent or teacher may notice that young children need to pick up their toys after playing, but they rarely remember. The adult may teach a short, memorable clean-up song to sing at the end of playtime to remind children to clean up. With repetition, the children may start singing the song on their own when it is time to pick up their toys, and in time they will not even need the song at the end of playtime to complete the desired action, which has become routine.

Couples can also use these goals of psychology in their relationships. Companies use them with employees and for training programs, while mental health professionals use them in rehabilitation programs, psychotherapy, and other treatment programs. The four goals can also be used independently in your personal life if you are working hard to change a habit or overcome a difficulty.

How Can You Use The Goals In Your Life?

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If you’re trying to change something in your life or develop a healthier habit, consider using the four goals. To start, visualize your goal. What is that you want? Once you have that goal in mind, start by describing: writing down your thoughts, your feelings, and the status quo in your life. This can help breakdown and clarify your thoughts. You can also make a list, create a mindmap, or choose other ways of recording your thoughts. Try to be as detailed as possible.

Explaining is the process of trying to figure out why something is happening, and this can be done by reflecting on a personal experience that might hold some type of explanation for your habit or behavior. Asking yourself “why” questions can be helpful in reaching the goal of explaining. If the habit you wish to change is biting your nails, for example, you might have observed from describing your feelings that your work is stressful and keeps you at a desk when you would rather engage in more movement. You might then realize an explanation—you could be biting your nails because you are seeking a physical or sensory activity during work.

Taking notes from describing and explaining might help you to be able to predict future thoughts and behaviors. If you have a day full of stressful desk work, you might expect that you’ll end up biting your nails throughout the day. From this prediction, you can attempt to change the habit to something more sustainable, like squeezing a stress ball, some putty, or another sensory fidget that will not damage your fingernails. If it works, you will have attained the fourth goal of change/control.

Change/control in a personal setting can also come in the form of breathing techniques, meditation, or mindfulness.It might come in the form of wanting to conquer post-traumatic stress or another anxiety disorder, a frequent goal of cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, seeking the goal of change/control can involve anything that helps you to take charge of and modify your feelings, thoughts, or behaviors. Because changing or controlling something can be a difficult task, getting help from a trained professional can help.

It is not uncommon to want to conquer your challenges on your own. It may even be difficult for some people to admit that there’s a problem they would like to resolve or to acknowledge they would like help in reaching their goals. It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in seeking help. In fact, more often than not, it is easier to get through a problem with guidance from a professional. But if you feel shy or hesitant about seeking help in person or don’t feel sure about where to start, consider help online. Many resources such as BetterHelp are available to provide online counseling and one-on-one support. There’s no need to sit in traffic or take time out of your day to drive to an appointment since you can BetterHelp from the comfort and privacy of your own home.

It is understandable to want to conquer these challenges on your own. You may even find it difficult to take on the first goal of describing a problem or habit you would like to change. These are common feelings, and admitting you would like to make a change in your life is a big step. That is why seeking professional help to make that change is such a useful choice. A mental health professional who is well versed in the goals of psychology can help you work toward your own change/control goal. If you feel hesitant to seek help in person or are unsure where to start, online resources like BetterHelp are available to provide flexible, private online counseling and one-on-one support. Whether you’d prefer to video chat, talk by phone, or text, you can connect with a therapist on your schedule. Think of them as a training partner to support you while you work toward your goal. Here are some reviews of BetterHelp by people who have set and reached their goals.

Counselor Reviews

“I’ve worked with Jamie for a number of months and he’s helped me with everything that life has thrown my way. Difficulty in work, my relationship, and other stresses that I’ve struggled to navigate by myself. He listens and he helps. I always feel validated and supported. He gives me tools and perspectives that have made a big difference in my overall happiness.”

“In the short span of 9 months, Shonnie has become like one of my best friends. At first, I was skeptical of doing therapy since I’m very “psychologically healthy”. A few challenges in my personal life lead me to try therapy for a month. Now I consider it an important part of my growth as a businessman and leader within my community. Thank you Shonnie for being so helpful during the recent difficulties; I am very lucky to have found you!”:


Students of psychology study the brain, human and animal behavior, and what makes us “tick.” These four goals of psychology were designed to aim and improve lives, bringing about positive changes by replacing negatives.

If you’re ready for a change in your life, embrace the steps and see what you can accomplish! Keep in mind that it is often a challenge to change learned behavior, so consider getting support from a trained professional.With the right guidance and motivation, you can meet your goals and achieve your dreams, whether you dream of becoming more physically or emotionally fit, repairing damaged relationships, or simply being happier. Regardless of what you hope for, believe that you can make the change! Take the first step today.

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