Whether you want to self-study psychology to learn how to manipulate your roommate into doing their dishes or to develop a deeper understanding of the human mind, in all its glory and strangeness, then you’ve come to the right place.
Teaching yourself psychology is completely doable as long as you have sufficient curiosity and a plan of attack.
I can’t give you the curiosity, but I can give you a 8-step roadmap to follow to learn the basics of psychology from scratch, without going to school.
Below is a systematic, academically-inspired process for learning psychology on your own. It’s meant to be followed sequentially, but you’ll still get a great self-education if you jump around. Your curiosity should have veto power over anything I, or anyone else, say.
1. Read 2-3 Popular Modern Psychology Books
Let’s start by fanning the flame that brought you here. Commercially successful psychology books written in the last few decades are great for nurturing your beginner’s curiosity in the subject — much better in general than textbooks or academic lectures.
Though academically respected, these books are written for the layperson with no background in psychology and usually cover topics that are fascinating and/or useful to the public at large, not just psychologists. Fast-paced and free of technical jargon, these books are a great place to start.
Here are some popular psychology books to read, including three of my favorites:
- Man’s Search for Meaning: One of my favorites, this classic explores suffering at its worst (the Holocaust) and offers a unique psychological approach to manage grief.
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion: Marketers, salespeople, grifters, and anyone else who wants to persuade people to comply with their requests love this book.
- The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Learn about abnormal psychology with neurologist Oliver Sacks as he takes you through his case history.
- The Coddling of the American Mind: Read this work of social psychology to learn the origins of cancel culture and related events on college campuses. It blew my mind.
Here is a list of some other popular psychology books that Oxford’s team thinks everyone should read. After reading 2 or 3 you should have a sufficient level of interest to progress onto more academic psychology writing and topics without much risk of losing steam.
On the other hand, you might’ve realized psychology isn’t for you and decided to try your hand at another self-education roadmap. That’s okay too.
For those who want to start self learning psychology like someone in an undergraduate college program, you’ll love the rest of this article.
First, I like to recommend Audible to people who want to read more but can’t seem to find the time. I like to use it at night my eyes are shutting but my mind still works.
They offer a 30-day free trial for their Premium plan (you get 1 free audiobook, 2 if you’re an Amazon Prime member).
Now, to step 2 of self-learning Psychology.
2. Get an Introduction to Psychology
Your curiosity piqued, it’s time to give yourself an overview of the entire field of psychology as it’s taught in universities.
This step is about getting a strong footing in the basics of the subject so that you can move forward and self-study more difficult material.
An introductory online course, textbook, or a combination of both will give you the language, research methods, and history of psychology that you’ll need later on.
One of the best ways to find credible introductory courses and textbooks is to peruse syllabuses from top universities.
Below I’ve listed some of the best online courses and textbooks for self-learning psychology as a beginner.
Note: The online course uses the textbook I recommend, so you can do both together if you’d like. That’s likely to be the best option for most autodidacts.
Online Course: Yale’s Introduction to Psychology
Yale’s Introduction to Psychology is a free, self-paced online course with lectures, required readings, and even exams.
It covers the basics of psychology for new students, exploring topics like dreams, decision-making, memory, and emotions.
Here are just 7 of the 20 lectures you’ll watch throughout the course:
I watched the lectures a few years back and found the lecturer engaging and insightful. Open Yale Courses is my favorite place to find online courses because the lectures are real recordings from a classroom and the syllabi provide you with bulky reading lists.
I think it’d be a fun mission for someone to try and tackle all 41 courses they offer. It’d be an interesting way to give yourself a well-rounded undergraduate education without going to, or back to school.
If for some reason you just can’t stand Yale or this lecturer, MIT published their lectures from their intro to psychology course on YouTube.
Textbook: Psychology by Peter Gray
Psychology is an introductory psychology textbook written by Peter Gray. It teaches you the basics of psychology, focusing on the interactions between behavior and biological science.
It also surveys the history of psychology so you can learn all the major breakthroughs, theorems, and experiments in the field. Many readers say it’s conversational, engaging, and written in a way that makes hard concepts easy to digest.
Yale’s online course above uses it to teach the class. But if you don’t have time to listen to lecturers and just want to read the book, that’s fine too.
I’ve been there, skipping far too many classes in college knowing I could just do the reading and learn the subject matter on my own.
In sum, read the textbook, take the course, or do some mixture of the both and you’ll have given yourself a solid introduction to psychology. You might even uncover the sources of your own special madness.
3. Take Some Other Beginner PSYCH Courses
So, you took PSYCH 101. Now try your brain at some other psychology courses designed for beginners in the subject. You can find plenty online from top universities.
Here are a few free popular entry-level psychology courses I found on the web:
- Introduction to Social Psychology: Learn about why people behave in certain ways in social settings with this self-paced course by University of Queensland.
- The Psychology, Biology, and Politics of Food: This Yale course will teach you about our relationship with food, taste preferences, eating as social ritual, and more.
- Personality and Its Transformations: Professor and Clinical Psychologist Jordan Peterson helps you see personality through many different lenses — Freudian, Jungian, behaviorist — so you can better understand yourself. Lectures are found on YouTube.
If you take these three courses along with PSYCH 101, you’ll give yourself an education nearly equivalent to that of undergraduate majors after their first year at school.
4. Regularly Listen to Psychology Podcasts
Now, we’ve spent some time in academia, perhaps too much time. You can also learn psychology through more accessible on-the-go mediums, such as podcasts.
Psychology podcasts can supplement your book learning and make your chores, walks, or drives more enlightening.
Podcasts also tend to be a great way to learn about current developments and findings in the field, as they usually involve conversations with practicing research or clinical psychologists.
Here are two of the best podcasts for people learning psychology on their own:
Popcorn Psychology is three therapists analyzing psychological behaviors and issues in popular movies, making it the perfect podcast for movie lovers with an interest in psychology.
For example, in one episode they break down Coraline and discuss some heavy topics like the negative effects neglectful parents have on children.
Another is about Lord of the RIngs: The Two Towers (one of my favorite movies) and individuation, ecological grief, and internal family systems.
Speaking of Psychology
Speaking of Psychology features PHD psychologists talking about the most relevant and interesting psychological research being done today.
For people teaching themselves psychology, it’s perfect because it allows you to connect what you’re reading about in courses with modern life. That can be both motivating and fascinating.
For example, one of the more recent and incredibly on-topic episodes dives into the science of studying. It teaches you how to use psychological tricks to learn more effectively. A listen to this one would allow you to get ultra meta and learn psychology using psychological tactics.
5. Read The Norton Anthology of Psychology
Constructed for beginners and intermediates, The Norton Anthology of Psychology is a collection of some of the most impactful essays and articles in the history of psychology.
The essays are divided into various sections:
- Evolution and genes
- Memory and Cognition
- And more
Inside, you’ll find writings from early pioneers like William James and Sigmeund Freud as well as articles from more contemporary psychologists like Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky.
You can use this book to supplement your other studies, read it all the way through, or select essays that seem interesting to you. My strategy for consuming anthologies is to read one essay/article per night.
If you’ve read any of my other self education roadmaps, you might’ve come across Norton Anthologies before. I often include them because they’re perfect for surveying a field or literary form, be it psychology or English poetry.
They’re also commonly found in college curriculums. For example, that Yale psych professor from step 2 assigns this Norton psychology anthology to his class.
Pro Tip: Some of the vocabulary will be slightly new to you, even if you’ve done some prior psychology reading. I had to look up numerous scientific words when I read through it. So keep a dictionary close by.
6. Start Reading the PSYCH Section of Scientific American
Whenever I feel like I’ve spent too much time under a rock and need to check in on scientific advancements or see if we’ve discovered aliens yet I head over to Scientific American, a print and digital magazine covering the latest findings across psychology, health, tech, space, and environmental science.
Consider reading one article from here per day from the Mind and Body section, where you’ll find clear and fascinating science writing on relevant topics like the following:
Aside from being interesting, this will help you become conversant in modern psychology and give you a sense for what modern psychologists are asking and investigating.
7. Explore Each Major Branch of Psychology
The field of Psychology consists of five major branches, each exploring a unique set of psychological topics. At this point, it’s smart to pick one and do a deep dive into it, as a graduate student would. It’s often smart to go wide first so you can find where you want to go deep.
Below are the five major branches of psychology along with their subfields:
You might already have a sense of what interests you most. Even then, it’s best to do some further exploration of each branch before committing to one for a 2-6 month period.
If you want to give each branch a serious look, and develop a strong interdisciplinary understanding of psychology, you could get a textbook on each branch and study it before selecting one as a focus.
Here are five textbooks for teaching yourself the five overarching branches of psychology:
- Biological Psychology
- Cognitive Psychology
- Developmental Psychology
- Social Psychology
- Mental Health Psychology
As you read, take notes and answer the questions as they’ll help you remember what you’ve read and improve your overall comprehension of the text.
8. Follow Your Curiosity
At this point, you can start to narrow your focus to a specific branch of psychology, or even a subtopic within a branch, like drug and alcohol addiction within mental health psychology. Let curiosity be your guide and continue reading as much as possible.
If you’re fanatical about psychology and think you might want to become a counselor, psychology, therapist, or researcher, consider going back to school to get the training and certifications you need.
If you need a break but want to continue engaging in self-education, try self-learning a tangential field like philosophy.
Numerous philosophers asked questions related to psychology, like what makes a happy life and what is human nature? Self-studying philosophy will therefore give you a unique perspective on psychological issues.
Bottom Line: Self-Learning Psychology
Self-studying psychology outside of school is an admirable mission and completely feasible, provided that you have the drive and passion. Schedule at least thirty minutes into every day to read your books or watch your lectures.
If you follow this for a year, you’ll be amazed at how informed you are about psychological theories, experiments, and past and modern research. Plus, you’ll be better equipped mentally with more powerful critical thinking and reasoning to tackle other subjects that interest you.