Introduction to Psychological Science: Integrating Behavioral, Neuroscience and Evolutionary Perspectives - William J. Ray 2021


This book is based on conversations with a number of faculty who have dedicated their efforts to helping students understand the nature of psychological science. Although psychological science has a rich theoretical and scientific tradition, many students come to the course with misconceptions concerning psychology. Some students think that psychology is not really a science. Others think that psychology is only about helping those with mental disorders. Still others expect an easy course which they already know a lot about. Helping students make the transition into an understanding of psychological science lies at the heart of this book.

Both the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have addressed the process of teaching psychology. As such, these concerns have informed this book, including the latest APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. Specifically, the book represents the latest psychological knowledge based on a scientific research tradition. Additionally, features are included in each chapter to help students think critically and apply scientific considerations as well as realize the need for understanding diversity and social responsibility. In this way, the book places scientific knowledge within the larger context of human complexity and a world wide perspective. Overall, this book represents a history of teaching introductory psychology to both large classes and small honors sections. The book reflects both examples and information that students have found exciting and larger clarifications of topics experienced by students as being difficult. Topics such as processing information without awareness as seen in “split brain” patients or those with “blindsight” as well as experiencing a limb that does not exist are intriguing to students. Likewise, the fact that humans make quick moral judgments or have an internal calculus for social and sexual relations are also fascinating topics. On the other hand, drawing valid conclusions from research findings is often a difficult process and requires more attention.

Over the last hundred years, psychology has developed a rich theoretical and scientific tradition. Historically, particular scientific approaches were developed to answer specific questions. This book seeks to integrate the manner in which various scientific disciplines have sought historically to answer psychological questions. This allows students to understand and integrate information from varying perspectives within psychology and the neurosciences. Early chapters of the book offer basic information to understand the nature of psychological science.

With the advent of the 21st century, questions of importance to psychology were being embraced by the neurosciences. This allowed for both a richness and an integration of scientific information concerning important psychological questions. In the past thirty years, we have seen a shift in focus which has included the “decade of the brain” as well as a real emergence of the cognitive and affective neurosciences. Today, advances within the cognitive and emotional neurosciences are available to add additional understanding to traditional psychological science perspectives.

Whereas many of the earlier perspectives in psychology were attempts to bring a scientific approach to human processes, fundamental human behaviors and experiences were often ignored. For example, although for the larger part of the 20th century, psychology emphasized learning as the basis of behavioral adaptation and change, it did so in a limited manner with organisms that were kept hungry or deprived in some manner. Some basic processes, such as one-trial learning after eating bad food, the migration of birds and butterflies without being taught, and the manner in which experience can influence brain and genetic changes, were often ignored.

Even during the time of John Watson and his conditioning of little Albert, there existed research (cf., Valentine, 1930) showing that it was evolutionarily-important objects that were most susceptible to the conditioning process. That is to say, it was shown to be much easier to condition a child such as little Albert to fear furry animals than to fear an inanimate object such as a wooden toy. Today, research performed by individuals such as Eric Kandel has shown that learning causes actual changes in the brain. Other Nobel Prize winning psychological researchers such as Daniel Kahneman have shown that humans think in very different ways depending on the situation.

Such new research is taking psychology beyond historical debates. The historical genetics vs culture debate was often presented in dichotomous ways in textbooks. As such, this debate was of limited value without an understanding of the manner in which humans both live within a culture and are genetically influenced by historical environments. Further, through epigenetic processes, the environment and previous experience strongly influence the manner in which genes are expressed.

On a cognitive and emotional level, humans talk to themselves and greatly influence their own behavior and experience. Expectations play a large role in the human experience and on a larger level, the current generation can be influenced not only from those around them but also from what was written thousands of years ago.

Our human history also has an important influence. As human beings, we have always lived in groups of individuals and our abilities and processes have evolved to encompass a rich social environment. Humans think differently when considering other humans. Current cultural research has also shown the importance of integrating neuroscience perspectives to fully understand the individual in his or her culture and social group.

Thus, using a broader perspective, the dichotomous positions of nature vs nurture or innate vs learned fuse into the larger question of how aspects of each contribute to an understanding of behavior and experience. On a molecular level, we have come to see that genes must be turned on or off. What this means is that many significant human processes are directed by the environment. The traditional emphasis placed on the environment by psychological science is now being utilized in the neurosciences to understand a number of processes. Other processes such as relationships with our culture and our friends are also critical aspects of psychological science.

We know that a variety of organisms learn and carry behaviors over generations by observing others and adopting these behaviors. With humans an even more impressive process is the active teaching of skills and behaviors to others. If fact, some have suggested that humans are the only species that have formal institutions such as schools and universities to teach the next generation.

Overall, this book presents an integrated perspective. Previous attempts to bring a more integrated perspective to psychology were often interpreted to reflect a biological determinism that ignored critical environmental factors and did not give human plasticity a scientific perspective. Psychology has now moved beyond that perspective. As emphasized by Charles Darwin over 150 years ago, there is a close relationship between an individual’s internal and external environments which makes traditional nature/nurture arguments misleading at best and wrong at their worst. Psychology is just now beginning to come to grips with the manner in which evolutionary thinking can impact and shape psychology. Psychology has come to this perspective indirectly through research and theoretical perspectives from cognitive and affective neuroscience including the study of emotional processing, human ethology, and genetics.

In the same way that psychology offers important insights on the systems level in terms of human behavior and experience, it is imperative that introductory psychology texts begin to offer such an integrative perspective. For example, recent perspectives in social neuroscience suggest that it is not productive to teach brain anatomy or emotionality in one chapter and social relationships, influence, and perception in another without noting their interrelationships. With an integrated approach, students come to understand the nature of social relationships including those aspects of our behavior and experience such as empathy, social grouping, and moral judgments that we share with those humans who came before us. Similar considerations can also be seen in terms of cognition, psychopathology, and developmental processes.

The purpose of the present text is to bring together current perspectives concerning the manner in which the human mind, behavior, and experience can be understood. In addition to the traditional psychological literature, the book draws from work in the cognitive and affective neurosciences, ethology, and genetics/epigenetics. The focus is also on a unification and integration of evolutionary understandings within these broader neuroscience considerations. For example, animals largely live within nature. Humans on the other hand are influenced both by nature and by the culture within which they live. Recent research has shown this to be a two-way street for humans. Human cultures are able to influence biological processes at the same time that these processes can influence human culture. In order to achieve this integration, the book focuses on three themes, that of behavior and experience, that of neurosciences understanding, and that of evolutionary perspectives.

Features in Each Chapter

A number of features of the book help faculty facilitate students’ transition to appreciating the nature of psychological science. In addition, linkage to scientific research related to studying and learning information are presented to help students study effectively. Every chapter begins with learning objectives. The summary at the end of the chapter is organized around these learning objectives. Throughout each chapter are concept checks. At the end of each chapter are a set of Study Resources that include Review Questions, Books and Articles for Further Reading, Key Terms and Concepts, and Web Resources.

Each chapter also includes three types of feature boxes:

1. The World Is Your Laboratory—how psychological scientists can use already occurring events to better understand psychological processes

2. Applying Psychological Science—how psychological principles can be applied to create new research and information

3. Myths and Misconceptions—what are some common misconceptions among the public


Many individuals have contributed to this book. Josh Wede and Brian Crosby discussed both the contents of the book and their experiences with large undergraduate intro courses at a major university. I also appreciate the students in my honors intro class who over the years have given me insight into how to present the information seen throughout this book as well as finding new information and perspectives. Faculty from across the country were extremely helpful in their reviews of this book and suggestions. Three individuals offered insights into the material: Nathan Fox, University of Maryland; Andreas Keil, University of Florida; and Don Tucker, CEO, and University of Oregon.

With great appreciation, I thank Vicki Knight, the editor who initially signed this book for her creative insights and intellectual discussions concerning the book. I also appreciate the efforts of Judy Ray for her careful reading and helpful suggestions. At Routledge, a number of editors made important contributions. These include Georgette Enriquez, Hanna Shakespeare, Lucy McClune, and Akshita Pattiyani.