What Are The Four Goals Of Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated April 25, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Psychology is the scientific study of the 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 often focuses on understanding a person’s emotions, personality, and mind through scientific research, experiments, observation, and trials. Psychology often involves four goals, including the following. 

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1. Describe

You may describe aspects of daily life with no conscious thought or effort. For example, labeling a tree as “green” is an act of describing and observing. However, describing in psychology can have a different meaning. Accurately describing a problem, issue, or behavior may lead to understanding that aspect of a person’s psyche. An example here may help a layperson understand better.

Descriptions may help psychologists distinguish between typical and atypical behaviors and better understand human thoughts. Various research methods allow psychologists to pursue this goal, including case studies, surveys, self-tests, and natural observation. Taking a psychological assessment in a therapist’s office is another example of describing in action. 

2. Explain

In addition to describing, psychologists may seek to explain behaviors. The goal of explaining is to answer questions about why people react to certain stimuli and how various factors can impact personality and mental health. Psychologists often use experiments to formulate theories explaining aspects of human and animal behaviors.

Many psychologists have developed theories over the years to explain 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 minor 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 Erikson’s eight stages of human development and Freud’s theory of personality. (not sure if added appropriate links but links are needed)

3. Predict

Making predictions about how humans think and act is the third goal of psychology. By looking at past observed behavior (describing and explaining), psychologists aim to predict when or if others might exhibit the same behavior.

Psychologists may then foresee a pattern of behavior. By predicting behavioral patterns, psychologists may also understand their underlying causes. In theory, a prediction could give psychologists the ability to help change or control behavior.


4. Change/Control

Psychology often aims to change, influence, or control behavior to make positive, constructive, meaningful, and lasting changes in people’s lives. 

In the case where a client performs an action they feel guilty for that harmed themselves or others, a psychologist might approach the action with the following questions: 

  • “What happened?” (Describing)
  • “Why did you do that?” (Explaining)
  • “What would make this happen again?” (Predicting)
  • “What can you do next time to reach a more positive outcome?” (Changing)

Psychologists also bring a high level of education, research, and understanding to their careers. They might use the questions to know which avenue for treatment would be most beneficial for a client. It may be difficult for an individual to come to these conclusions independently. 

How can the four goals of psychology benefit me?

Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment showed how the four goals of psychology might be used. Pavlov noticed his dogs would salivate whenever they saw the lab technician bringing food. He deduced that this behavior was learned since the dogs had not initially reacted that way. Over time, the dogs came to understand the technician was bringing them food. Once they began associating him with food, they automatically started to 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 associating the sound of the ringing bell with food and would start drooling every time he rang the bell. Pavlov successfully changed the dogs’ responsive behavior through his experiment and taught them a new one. 

Using Pavlov’s theory, individuals may try to change behaviors through reinforcement. For example, a parent or teacher may notice that young children struggle to pick up toys after playing. 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. In time, they may not require the song to complete the routine.

Companies may also use reinforcement with employees and for training programs, while mental health professionals could use it in rehabilitation programs, psychotherapy, and other treatment programs. The four goals of psychotherapy may be used independently in your personal life if you are working to change a habit or overcome a difficulty.

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How can you use the goals in your life?

There are several ways you can try to use the four psychology goals in your personal life, including the following. 


Start by visualizing your goal. What do you most want? Once you have that goal in mind, write down your thoughts and feelings about the goal. Doing so may help break down and clarify your thoughts. Additionally, studies indicate that expressive writing can benefit your mental health. You might also make a list, create a mind map, or film a video diary. Try to be as detailed as possible.


Asking yourself “why” questions can be helpful. Explaining is the process of trying to figure out why something is happening. This process may be done by reflecting on a personal experience that could explain your habit or behavior. If the pattern you wish to change is biting your nails, you might see that your work is stressful and keeps you at a desk when you would rather move around. You could be biting your nails because you seek a physical or sensory activity during work.


Taking notes from describing and explaining might help you predict future behaviors. If you have a stressful day, you might expect nail-biting. From this prediction, you can attempt to change the habit to something more sustainable, like squeezing a stress ball, playing with putty, or using another sensory fidget that may not damage your fingernails. 


Change and control in a personal setting may result from breathing techniques, meditation, or mindfulness. It might come from wanting to conquer post-traumatic stress or another anxiety disorder, a frequent goal of cognitive behavioral therapy. Seeking change and control might involve any activity that allows you to take charge of and modify your feelings, thoughts, or behaviors—all key aspects of consciousness psychology in particular.

Finding professional support 

Although it can feel comforting to tackle mental health challenges alone, seeking help may be rewarding. Often, professionals have a high level of experience and have studied mental health for many years. Reaching out to a therapist could provide further insight that you didn’t consider independently. 

Consider online resources if you feel shy or hesitant about seeking help in person or are unsure where to start. Online counseling often allows you to connect with a therapist from any location with an internet connection, and you can choose whether to attend phone, video, or live chat sessions. Additionally, online therapy has been scientifically proven to be as effective as in-person therapy.

A mental health professional can help you work toward your goals in a structured environment. If you are experiencing mental health concerns or just want to improve yourself, mental health professionals can help you through algorithm psychology and other helpful methods. Online resources like BetterHelp are available to provide flexible online counseling and one-on-one support.


The four goals of psychology may help you understand what goes on in a therapy session and why a counselor may ask the questions they ask. Often, these goals allow psychologists to form a basis of a treatment plan. Consider reaching out to a counselor to form your own treatment plan and find support for stress, mental health conditions, or other life issues.
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