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How Psychotechnology Works


Psychotechnology in Practice
Clinical psychologist Albert Carlin, co-creator of cyber therapy, an approach to treating phobias through virtual reality, posing over a virtual screen peppered with spiders in the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory.
Clinical psychologist Albert Carlin, co-creator of cyber therapy, an approach to treating phobias through virtual reality, posing over a virtual screen peppered with spiders in the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory.
Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Because it's such a loose term, psychotechnology encompasses a broad spectrum of tools. Technology doesn't imply just computers and fancy gadgets; some of the most important factors psychologists can apply to subjects are the straightforward guidelines of tests and the data one receives from those tests.

Indeed, some of the simplest technologies have led to the more important discoveries in psychological thinking. One of the most famous examples of applied psychology occurred when Russian research physiologist Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion in animals, particularly dogs. During the early 1900s, Pavlov was researching gastric reflexes -- the secretion of gastric juices upon eating food -- in canines. He was able to do this by surgically implanting small pouches into the laboratory dog's stomachs, which would collect the juices while keeping food from contaminating any samples.

Before going through with any tests, however, Pavlov was confronted with a slight nuisance. The dogs, whether or not there was food in the room, would start salivating; all it took was an assistant to walk into the room, and the samples in the dog's pouch would be corrupted.

Pavlov's main area of study was the physical nature of reflexes, and he reportedly detested the entire field of psychology, firing employees for using any psychological language. But he couldn't ignore this interesting reflex. He decided to put the dogs in a room by themselves, keeping human presence out of the way so as not to signal the possibility of food. After a buzzer sounded, however, food was dropped through a chute into a dish, somewhere between five and 35 seconds later. At first, the dogs showed a normal reflex, pricking their ears at the sound of the buzzer. But after just a few of these tests, the buzzer would trigger a dog's urge to salivate, whether or not food had arrived. While a dog salivating at the presence of food in its mouth is what Pavlov called an "unconditioned response" -- a natural reflex built into an animal's psyche -- his experiment was a "conditioned response." A trigger as simple as a buzzer highlighted the process of learning behavior, which were "a long chain of conditioned reflexes" built into the mind over time.

One of the most commonly known forms of psychotechnology is the standardized test. Most people know about intelligence quotient, or IQ, tests, which give theoretical scores that measure a person's memory and language, spatial and mathematical abilities. High school students looking to get accepted into a university are most likely familiar with the SAT, or the Standard Aptitude Test. While these tests are typically used by educational institutions to gather data on intelligence and compare scores, business and industry organizations often use standardized testing to survey employees or analyze performance.

Of course, electronics and gadgets still have their place in psychological testing. For example, psychiatric professors at Oxford University used cell phones and text messaging to study and help patients with bipolar disorder. Again, the professors devised a simple method for monitoring patient's moods -- staff members at the mental health center sent text messages once a week to patients, asking them to respond with a report on how they're feeling. If someone is experiencing difficulties, according to the staff, text messaging notifies the staff quicker and reduces the anxiety of planning appointments [source: Grohol]. Video games and virtual reality are also an important part of psychotechnology -- combat games that simulate battle conditions help soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and let psychologists record important reactions.

There are several practical uses of psychotechnology, but when does it present problems? To read about the potential misuses of psychotechnology, see the next page.


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