What is Psychology?

“..It’s all about thoughts and feelings, isn’t it?”

This is a phrase that is regularly heard when the topic of psychology arises. Psychology is a relatively new subject, and there exist a number of misconceptions about what it is. Therefore, before talking about what psychology is, it might be better to talk about what psychology isn’t.

It’s an easy subject

Psychology is a rigorous, academic subject, requiring good skills in English, Maths and Science. For every theory in psychology, there are about 10 opposing theories! Therefore it is a subject which requires good critical thinking and evaluative skills.

It’s just common sense

While psychological research often confirms what we think we know about human behaviour, often the results of scientific investigation go against what we think is true. For example, did you know that 65% of people are willing to give a fatal electric shock to a stranger if a man in a lab coat tells them to? (Milgram, 1963)

Psychologists are always trying to analyse you. It’s all about thoughts and feelings and/or crazy people!

A common mistake is to confuse Psychiatry (or counselling) with Psychology. Psychology is the study of brain and behaviour, whereas psychiatry is the practice of helping people with mental health issues. While psychologists are often interested in psychological disorders, often they are much more interested in explaining normal behaviour! 

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Early psychologist  

Psychology Is:

The study of people: how they think, act, react, and interact. Psychologists scientifically study all kinds of behaviour and the thoughts, feelings, and motivations of that behaviour.

Psychology examines questions like:

  • How do people act on a first date?
  • Why do people forget things?
  • How can we help people to overcome depression or phobias?
  • Why are some people more aggressive than others? 

By collecting information about what people do, think, and feel, Psychologists try to answer questions about human behaviour.

If you are thinking of studying Psychology, you are probably already curious about why people think and act in the way they do.

Psychology is an interdisciplinary subject that draws on the Sciences and the Humanities by applying scientific methods and theories to understand human behaviour.

It relates to everyday life by addressing topics such as learning, memory and group behaviour but in order to understand psychology, you also need to look at aspects of Biology, Ethics and Philosophy. All this combined makes Psychology a most fascinating subject to study, but also our students develop a wide range of skills.

Career opportunities:

Psychology can lead to specific careers in Industrial, Clinical or Forensic Psychology, counselling and therapy, but it is also a useful qualification to have if you are thinking of any career that involves dealing with people (almost everything!) An understanding of psychological procedures and principles would also be useful in careers such as teaching, health service related occupations, law (including police) and social work.

What we study at CHS: 

Exam Board AQA Psychology:

AQA Specification

Psychology is an exam based subject with all exams culminating at the end of two years of study.  

A Level Psychology Course Content

Unit 1

In Year 12

Social influence - Why do people conform to group pressures and obey authority?

We explore:

·         Types of conformity: internalisation, identification and compliance. Explanations for conformity: informational social influence and normative social influence, and variables affecting conformity including group size, unanimity and task difficulty as investigated by Asch.

·         Conformity to social roles as investigated by Zimbardo.

·         Explanations for obedience: agentic state and legitimacy of authority, and situational variables affecting obedience including proximity, location and uniform, as investigated by Milgram. Dispositional explanation for obedience: the Authoritarian Personality.

·         Explanations of resistance to social influence, including social support and locus of control.

·         Minority influence including reference to consistency, commitment and flexibility.

·         The role of social influence processes in social change. 

Unit 2

In Year 12

Memory -How do we remember and why do we forget?

We study:

·         The multi-store model of memory: sensory register, short-term memory and long-term memory. Features of each store: coding, capacity and duration.

·         Types of long-term memory: episodic, semantic, procedural.

·         The working memory model: central executive, phonological loop, visuo-spatial sketchpad and episodic buffer. Features of the model: coding and capacity.

·         Explanations for forgetting: proactive and retroactive interference and retrieval failure due to absence of cues.

·         Factors affecting the accuracy of eyewitness testimony: misleading information, including leading questions and post-event discussion; anxiety.

·         Improving the accuracy of eyewitness testimony, including the use of the cognitive interview.

Unit 3

Yin Year 12

Attachment -How and why do we form attachments to others?

We investigate:

·         Caregiver-infant interactions in humans: reciprocity and interactional synchrony. Stages of attachment identified by Schaffer. Multiple attachments and the role of the father.

·         Animal studies of attachment: Lorenz and Harlow.

·         Explanations of attachment: learning theory and Bowlby’s monotropic theory. The concepts of a critical period and an internal working model.

·         Ainsworth’s ‘Strange Situation’. Types of attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant and insecure-resistant. Cultural variations in attachment, including van Ijzendoorn.

·         Bowlby’s theory of maternal deprivation. Romanian orphan studies: effects of institutionalisation.

·         The influence of early attachment on childhood and adult relationships, including the role of an internal working model. Explanations of attachment; Types of attachment and the Disruption of attachment 

Unit 4

In Year 12

Approaches in Psychology - What are the origins of Psychology and is Psychology a science?

We examine:

·         Origins of Psychology: Wundt, introspection and the emergence of Psychology as a science. 

The basic assumptions of the following approaches:

·         Learning approaches: the behaviourist approach, including classical conditioning and Pavlov’s research, operant conditioning, types of reinforcement and Skinner’s research; social learning theory including imitation, identification, modelling, vicarious reinforcement, the role of mediational processes and Bandura’s research.

·         The cognitive approach: the study of internal mental processes, the role of schema, the use of theoretical and computer models to explain and make inferences about mental processes. The emergence of cognitive neuroscience.

·         The biological approach: the influence of genes, biological structures and neurochemistry on behaviour. Genotype and phenotype, genetic basis of behaviour, evolution and behaviour.

·         The psychodynamic approach: the role of the unconscious, the structure of personality, that is Id, Ego and Superego, defence mechanisms including repression, denial and displacement, psychosexual stages.

·         Humanistic Psychology: free will, self-actualisation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, focus on the self, congruence, the role of conditions of worth. The influence on counselling Psychology.

·         Comparison of approaches.

Unit 5

In Year 12

Psychopathology - What is ‘abnormality’? And how do people develop Phobias, Depression and OCD? 

We consider:

·         Definitions of abnormality, including deviation from social norms, failure to function adequately, statistical infrequency and deviation from ideal mental health.

·         The behavioural, emotional and cognitive characteristics of phobias, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

·         The behavioural approach to explaining and treating phobias: the two-process model, including classical and operant conditioning; systematic desensitisation, including relaxation and use of hierarchy; flooding.

·         The cognitive approach to explaining and treating depression: Beck’s negative triad and Ellis’s ABC model; cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), including challenging irrational thoughts.

·         The biological approach to explaining and treating OCD: genetic and neural explanations; drug therapy.

Unit 6

In Year 12














In Year 13

Research Methods - How is psychological research carried out and interpreted?

Students should demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the following research processes at Year 12 as well as the techniques of data handling and analysis, be familiar with their use and be aware of their strengths and limitations. 

·         Experimental method. Types of experiment, laboratory and field experiments; natural and quasi-experiments.

·         Observational techniques. Types of observation: naturalistic and controlled observation; covert and overt observation; participant and non-participant observation.

·         Self-report techniques. Questionnaires; interviews, structured and unstructured.

·         Correlations. Analysis of the relationship between co-variables. The difference between correlations and experiments.

·         Content analysis.

·         Case studies. Methods and techniques; Investigation design and Data analysis and presentation. Aims: stating aims, the difference between aims and hypotheses.

·         Hypotheses: directional and non-directional.

·         Sampling: the difference between population and sample; sampling techniques including: random, systematic, stratified, opportunity and volunteer; implications of sampling techniques, including bias and generalisation.

·         Pilot studies and the aims of piloting.

·         Experimental designs: repeated measures, independent groups, matched pairs.

·         Observational design: behavioural categories; event sampling; time sampling.

·         Questionnaire construction, including use of open and closed questions; design of interviews.

·         Variables: manipulation and control of variables, including independent, dependent, extraneous, confounding; operationalisation of variables.

·         Control: random allocation and counterbalancing, randomisation and standardisation.

·         Demand characteristics and investigator effects.

·         Ethics, including the role of the British Psychological Society’s code of ethics; ethical issues in the design and conduct of psychological studies; dealing with ethical issues in research.

·         The role of peer review in the scientific process.

·         The implications of psychological research for the economy.

·         Reliability across all methods of investigation. Ways of assessing reliability: test-retest and inter-observer; improving reliability.

·         Types of validity across all methods of investigation: face validity, concurrent validity, ecological validity and temporal validity. Assessment of validity. Improving validity.

·         Quantitative and qualitative data; the distinction between qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques.

·         Descriptive statistics: measures of central tendency – mean, median, mode; calculation of mean, median and mode; measures of dispersion; range and standard deviation; calculation of range; calculation of percentages; positive, negative and zero correlations.

·         Presentation and display of quantitative data: graphs, tables, scattergrams, bar charts, histograms.

In Year 13 we expand on the information leant in Year 12 and study:

·         Features of science: objectivity and the empirical method; replicability and falsifiability; theory construction and hypothesis testing; paradigms and paradigm shifts.

·         Reporting psychological investigations. Sections of a scientific report: abstract, introduction, method, results, discussion and referencing.

·         Primary and secondary data, including meta-analysis.

·         Distributions: normal and skewed distributions; characteristics of normal and skewed distributions.

·         Analysis and interpretation of correlation, including correlation coefficients.

·         Levels of measurement: nominal, ordinal and interval.

·         Content analysis and coding. Thematic analysis. 

Students should demonstrate knowledge and understanding of inferential testing and be familiar with the use of inferential tests.

·         Introduction to statistical testing; the sign test.

·         Probability and significance: use of statistical tables and critical values in interpretation of significance; Type I and Type II errors.

·         Factors affecting the choice of statistical test, including level of measurement and experimental design. When to use the following tests: Spearman’s rho, Pearson’s r, Wilcoxon, Mann-Whitney, related t-test, unrelated t-test and Chi-Squared test. 

As well as scientific processes and techniques of data handling and analysis, be familiar with their use and be aware of their strengths and limitations.

Unit 7



In Year 12:






In Year 13




Biopsychology - How does the brain work?

We examine:

The divisions of the nervous system: central and peripheral (somatic and autonomic).

The structure and function of sensory, relay and motor neurons. The process of synaptic transmission, including reference to neurotransmitters, excitation and inhibition.

The function of the endocrine system: glands and hormones.

The fight or flight response including the role of adrenaline.


We develop our knowledge from Year 12 and contemplate in Year 13:

·         Localisation of function in the brain and hemispheric lateralisation: motor, somatosensory, visual, auditory and language centres; Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, split brain research. Plasticity and functional recovery of the brain after trauma.

·         Ways of studying the brain: scanning techniques, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI); electroencephalogram (EEGs) and event-related potentials (ERPs); post-mortem examinations.

·         Biological rhythms: circadian, infradian and ultradian and the difference between these rhythms. The effect of endogenous pacemakers and exogenous zeitgebers on the sleep/wake cycle.

Unit 8

In Year 13

Issues and debates in Psychology -Are Psychological studies biased in any way?

·         Gender and culture in Psychology – universality and bias. Gender bias including androcentrism and alpha and beta bias; cultural bias, including ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

·         Free will and determinism: hard determinism and soft determinism; biological, environmental and psychic determinism. The scientific emphasis on causal explanations.

·         The nature-nurture debate: the relative importance of heredity and environment in determining behaviour; the interactionist approach.

·         Holism and reductionism: levels of explanation in Psychology. Biological reductionism and environmental (stimulus-response) reductionism.

·         Idiographic and nomothetic approaches to psychological investigation.

·         Ethical implications of research studies and theory, including reference to social sensitivity.


We will then be learning the first topic from each of these option blocks. These topics use our knowledge of Approaches and apply it to real life behaviour.

Option block 1

In Year 13

Relationships, Gender, or Cognitive Development  


·         The evolutionary explanations for partner preferences, including the relationship between sexual selection and human reproductive behaviour.

·         Factors affecting attraction in romantic relationships: self-disclosure; physical attractiveness, including the matching hypothesis; filter theory, including social demography, similarity in attitudes and complementarity.

·         Theories of romantic relationships: social exchange theory, equity theory and Rusbult’s investment model of commitment, satisfaction, comparison with alternatives and investment. Duck’s phase model of relationship breakdown: intra-psychic, dyadic, social and grave dressing phases.

·         Virtual relationships in social media: self-disclosure in virtual relationships; effects of absence of gating on the nature of virtual relationships.

·         Parasocial relationships: levels of parasocial relationships, the absorption addiction model and the attachment theory explanation.


Option block 2

In Year 13

Schizophrenia, Eating Behaviour, or Stress 


·         Classification of schizophrenia. Positive symptoms of schizophrenia, including hallucinations and delusions. Negative symptoms of schizophrenia, including speech poverty and avolition. Reliability and validity in diagnosis and classification of schizophrenia, including reference to co-morbidity, culture and gender bias and symptom overlap.

·         Biological explanations for schizophrenia: genetics, the dopamine hypothesis and neural correlates.

·         Psychological explanations for schizophrenia: family dysfunction and cognitive explanations, including dysfunctional thought processing.

·         Drug therapy: typical and atypical antipsychotics.

·         Cognitive behaviour therapy and family therapy as used in the treatment of schizophrenia. Token economies as used in the management of schizophrenia.

·         The importance of an interactionist approach in explaining and treating schizophrenia; the diathesis-stress model.

Option block 3

In Year 13

Aggression, Forensic Psychology, or Addiction  


·         Describing addiction: physical and psychological dependence, tolerance and withdrawal syndrome.

·         Risk factors in the development of addiction, including genetic vulnerability, stress, personality, family influences and peers.

·         Explanations for nicotine addiction: brain neurochemistry, including the role of dopamine, and learning theory as applied to smoking behaviour, including reference to cue reactivity.

·         Explanations for gambling addiction: learning theory as applied to gambling, including reference to partial and variable reinforcement; cognitive theory as applied to gambling, including reference to cognitive bias.

·         Reducing addiction: drug therapy; behavioural interventions, including aversion therapy and covert sensitisation; cognitive behaviour therapy.

·         The application of the following theories of behaviour change to addictive behaviour; the theory of planned behaviour and Prochaska’s six-stage model of behaviour change.


Course structure:

We will be undertaking the A level Psychology course over 2 years. Covering topics 1-5 in the first year and part of topics 6 and 7. We then develop these topics in more detail in Year 13 as well as topic 8 and 3 more topics (1 each from option blocks 1-3). 

Exams: You will sit 3 summer exams at the end of your second year

Paper 1: Introductory topics in Psychology: 2 hour exam, topics 1-4.                            

96 marks in total worth 33% of the A level Grade 

Paper 2: Psychology in context: 2 hour exam, topics 5-7.                                    

96 marks in total worth 33% of the A level Grade 

Paper 3:Issues and options in Psychology

2 hour exam, topic 8 plus one topic from each of the 3 option blocks.

96 marks in total worth 33% of the A level Grade   

Entry Requirements:     

Students must at least have grades CCC from Mathematics, English Language/Literature and a Science (including Psychology). (Though a B and above are preferred in these subjects).