What is Folk Psychology?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
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  • Last Modified Date: 21 October 2019
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Folk psychology is a difficult term to explain though there are theorists who suggest we are all expert in its practice. The term is a little confusing at first because it’s not a theory of how to practice psychology. Instead, it is described by some as knowledge each person possesses that helps them interpret things like personal emotions, desires, and also allows them to interpret the emotions, desires, and possibly behavior of other people. In this view, everyone is a folk or naïve psychologist that is constantly reading or interpreting their own feelings, and trying to figure out what anyone else is feeling or planning to do; according to this view everyone possesses the ability to do this, though there can be variations in a person’s facility to understand self or others.

Given that definition, it would seem that folk psychology would be quite an easy thing to understand, but the matter gets more complicated. Over time, many philosophers have attempted to answer questions regarding whether folk psychology as explained above is really true, or if it’s absolute nonsense. Certainly, many studies in cognitive psychology and in neuroscience have shown that a lot of things the average person thought he or she knew about human emotions aren’t true.


For instance, understanding the chemical nature of depression has led to relief for many. In true depression a person is not just sad, he is deprived of several useful neurotransmitters. Relying on folk explanations that attribute the person’s depression to other things, a job loss, a pet dying, etc, may not be useful constructs and fly in the face of how a society might interpret, predict or define sadness. These things may surely exist, but they say nothing about what is happening with brain neurotransmitters and could be less useful from a diagnostic perspective.

This has led some groups like elimitavists to question the nature of folk psychology and term it as a bad theory that ought to be thrown out completely. Yet, while philosophers or sometimes psychologists determine what to do with the issue of naïve psychology and how much it is relevant or useful, most people are less aware that they are practicing it, however it is described or whenever it is actually practiced. Whether people each possess an overwhelming folk psychology theory, which informs their actions, or whether they scrutinize others’ behaviors to make determinations, all are wrapped up in reading the self, reading others and trying to relate to each other. For the average person it may matter much less, how people are able to relate to each other, and it could be more important that people relate to each other, and how to find better ways to do this as they progress through life.

The philosopher interested in this psychology as theory may be more interested in defining whether folk psychology serves or doesn’t serve humans. Since this psychology is often called the basis for all other forms of psychology, interest in whether theories about it are correct can be high. If everything most people in the world think they know abut human behavior and how it is perceived is incorrect, this would have interesting ramifications for the world of psychology and human behavior. Thus far, arguments between different philosophers are nowhere near being concluded and have formed a rich source of debate that is likely to continue for a very long time.


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Post 2

I took psychology in college, and never heard about folk psychology. I think that all students in this field should ask their professors about it, because I think that people in some parts of the world believe strongly in this theory of the mind.

Post 1

It sounds like folk psychology is not necessarily a professional field of psychology but a practice of people who don't really believe in psychology. I think this type of understanding is good for those who want to help themselves without seeking advice of a psychologist. Not everyone believes in therapy, or can afford it, so folk remedies may be the answer for those people.

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