Is Psychology a Science?
Saul Mcleod, PhD
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester
Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Learn about our Editorial Process
Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc
Associate Editor for Simply Psychology
BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education
Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.
Psychology is a science because it employs systematic methods of observation, experimentation, and data analysis to understand and predict behavior and mental processes, grounded in empirical evidence and subjected to peer review.
Science uses an empirical approach. Empiricism (founded by John Locke) states that the only source of knowledge is our senses – e.g., sight, hearing, etc.
In psychology, empiricism refers to the belief that knowledge is derived from observable, measurable experiences and evidence, rather than from intuition or speculation.
This was in contrast to the existing view that knowledge could be gained solely through the powers of reason and logical argument (known as rationalism). Thus, empiricism is the view that all knowledge is based on or may come from experience.
Through gaining knowledge through experience, the empirical approach quickly became scientific and greatly influenced the development of physics and chemistry in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The idea that knowledge should be gained through experience, i.e., empirically, turned into a method of inquiry that used careful observation and experiments to gather facts and evidence.
The nature of scientific inquiry may be thought of at two levels:
1. That to do with theory and the foundation of hypotheses. 2. And actual empirical methods of inquiry (i.e. experiments, observations)
The prime empirical method of inquiry in science is the experiment.
The key features of the experiment are control over variables ( independent, dependent , and extraneous ), careful, objective measurement, and establishing cause and effect relationships.
Table of Contents
Features of Science
- Refers to data being collected through direct observation or experiment.
- Empirical evidence does not rely on argument or belief.
- Instead, experiments and observations are carried out carefully and reported in detail so that other investigators can repeat and attempt to verify the work.
- Researchers should remain value-free when studying; they should try to remain unbiased in their investigations. I.e., Researchers are not influenced by personal feelings and experiences.
- Objectivity means that all sources of bias are minimized and that personal or subjective ideas are eliminated. The pursuit of science implies that the facts will speak for themselves, even if they differ from what the investigator hoped.
- All extraneous variables need to be controlled in order to be able to establish the cause (IV) and effect (DV).
- E.g., a statement made at the beginning of an investigation that serves as a prediction and is derived from a theory. There are different types of hypotheses (null and alternative), which need to be stated in a form that can be tested (i.e., operationalized and unambiguous).
- This refers to whether a particular method and finding can be repeated with different/same people and/or on different occasions to see if the results are similar.
- If a dramatic discovery is reported, but other scientists cannot replicate it, it will not be accepted.
- If we get the same results repeatedly under the same conditions, we can be sure of their accuracy beyond a reasonable doubt.
- This gives us confidence that the results are reliable and can be used to build up a body of knowledge or a theory: which is vital in establishing a scientific theory.
- We should aim to be able to predict future behavior from the findings of our research.
The Scientific Process
Before the twentieth century, science largely used induction principles – making discoveries about the world through accurate observations, and formulating theories based on the regularities observed.
Newton’s Laws are an example of this. He observed the behavior of physical objects (e.g., apples) and produced laws that made sense of what he observed.
The scientific process is now based on the hypothetico-deductive model proposed by Karl Popper (1935). Popper suggested that theories/laws about the world should come first, and these should be used to generate expectations/hypotheses, which observations and experiments can falsify.
As Popper pointed out, falsification is the only way to be certain: ‘No amount of observations of white swans can allow the conclusion that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.
Darwin’s theory of evolution is an example of this. He formulated a theory and tested its propositions by observing animals in nature. He specifically sought to collect data to prove his theory / disprove it.
Thomas Kuhn argued that science does not evolve gradually towards truth, science has a paradigm that remains constant before going through a paradigm shift when current theories can’t explain some phenomenon, and someone proposes a new theory. Science tends to go through these shifts; therefore, psychology is not a science as it has no agreed paradigm.
There are many conflicting approaches, and the subject matter of Psychology is so diverse; therefore, researchers in different fields have little in common.
Psychology is really a very new science, with most advances happening over the past 150 years or so. However, it can be traced back to ancient Greece, 400 – 500 years BC. The emphasis was a philosophical one, with great thinkers such as Socrates influencing Plato, who in turn influenced Aristotle.
Plato argued that there was a clear distinction between body and soul, believed very strongly in the influence of individual differences on behavior, and played a key role in developing the notion of “mental health,” believing that the mind needed stimulation from the arts to keep it alive.
Aristotle firmly believed in the idea that the body strongly affected the mind – you might say he was an early biopsychologist.
Psychology as a science took a “back seat” until Descartes (1596 – 1650) wrote in the 17th century. He believed strongly in the concept of consciousness, maintaining that it was that that separated us from animals.
He did, however, believe that our bodies could influence our consciousness and that the beginnings of these interactions were in the pineal gland – we know now that this is probably NOT the case!
From this influential work came other important philosophies about psychology, including the work by Spinoza (1632 – 1677) and Leibnitz (1646 – 1716). But there still was no single, scientific, unified psychology as a separate discipline (you could certainly argue that there still isn’t”t!).
When asked, “Who is the parent of psychology?” many people answer, “Freud.” Whether this is the case or not is open to debate, but if we were to ask who the parent of experimental psychology is, few would likely respond similarly. So, where did modern experimental psychology come from, and why?
Psychology took so long to emerge as a scientific discipline because it needed time to consolidate. Understanding behavior, thoughts, and feelings are not easy, which may explain why it was largely ignored between ancient Greek times and the 16th century.
But tired of years of speculation, theory, and argument, and bearing in mind Aristotle’s plea for scientific investigation to support the theory, psychology as a scientific discipline began to emerge in the late 1800s.
Wilheim Wundt developed the first psychology lab in 1879. Introspection was used, but systematically (i.e., methodologically). It was really a place from which to start thinking about how to employ scientific methods to investigate behavior.
The classic movement in psychology to adopt these strategies was the behaviorists, who were renowned for relying on controlled laboratory experiments and rejecting any unseen or subconscious forces as causes of behavior.
And later, cognitive psychologists adopted this rigorous (i.e., careful), scientific, lab-based approach.
Psychoanalysis has great explanatory power and understanding of behavior. Still, it has been accused of only explaining behavior after the event, not predicting what will happen in advance, and being unfalsifiable.
Some have argued that psychoanalysis has approached the status more of a religion than a science. Still, it is not alone in being accused of being unfalsifiable (evolutionary theory has, too – why is anything the way it is? Because it has evolved that way!), and like theories that are difficult to refute – the possibility exists that it is actually right.
Kline (1984) argues that psychoanalytic theory can be broken down into testable hypotheses and tested scientifically. For example, Scodel (1957) postulated that orally dependent men would prefer larger breasts (a positive correlation) but, in fact, found the opposite (a negative correlation).
Although Freudian theory could be used to explain this finding (through reaction formation – the subject showing exactly the opposite of their unconscious impulses!), Kline has nevertheless pointed out that no significant correlation would have refuted theory.
Behaviorism has parsimonious (i.e., economic / cost-cutting) theories of learning, using a few simple principles (reinforcement, behavior shaping, generalization, etc.) to explain a wide variety of behavior from language acquisition to moral development.
It advanced bold, precise, and refutable hypotheses (such as Thorndike’s law of effect ) and possessed a hard core of central assumptions such as determinism from the environment (it was only when this assumption faced overwhelming criticism by the cognitive and ethological theorists that the behaviorist paradigm/model was overthrown).
Behaviorists firmly believed in the scientific principles of determinism and orderliness. They thus came up with fairly consistent predictions about when an animal was likely to respond (although they admitted that perfect prediction for any individual was impossible).
The behaviorists used their predictions to control the behavior of both animals (pigeons trained to detect life jackets) and humans (behavioral therapies), and indeed Skinner , in his book Walden Two (1948), described a society controlled according to behaviorist principles.
Cognitive psychology – adopts a scientific approach to unobservable mental processes by advancing precise models and conducting experiments on behavior to confirm or refute them.
Full understanding, prediction, and control in psychology are probably unobtainable due to the huge complexity of environmental, mental, and biological influences upon even the simplest behavior (i.e., all extraneous variables cannot be controlled).
You will see, therefore, that there is no easy answer to the question, “is psychology a science?”. But many approaches of psychology do meet the accepted requirements of the scientific method, whilst others appear to be more doubtful in this respect.
However, some psychologists argue that psychology should not be a science. There are alternatives to empiricism, such as rational research, argument, and belief.
The humanistic approach (another alternative) values private, subjective conscious experience and argues for the rejection of science.
The humanistic approach argues that objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and subjective understanding of the world. Because of this, Carl Rogers and Maslow placed little value on scientific psychology, especially using the scientific laboratory to investigate human and other animal behavior.
A person’s subjective experience of the world is an important and influential factor in their behavior. Only by seeing the world from the individual’s point of view can we really understand why they act the way they do. This is what the humanistic approach aims to do.
Humanism is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the study of the whole person. Humanistic psychologists look at human behavior not only through the eyes of the observer but through the eyes of the person doing the behavior. Humanistic psychologists believe that an individual’s behavior is connected to his inner feelings and self-image.
The humanistic approach in psychology deliberately steps away from a scientific viewpoint, rejecting determinism in favor of free will, aiming to arrive at a unique and in-depth understanding. The humanistic approach does not have an orderly set of theories (although it does have some core assumptions).
It is not interested in predicting and controlling people’s behavior – the individuals themselves are the only ones who can and should do that.
Miller (1969), in “Psychology as a Means of Promoting Human Welfare,” criticizes the controlling view of psychology, suggesting that understanding should be the main goal of the subject as a science since he asks who will do the controlling and whose interests will be served by it?
Humanistic psychologists rejected a rigorous scientific approach to psychology because they saw it as dehumanizing and unable to capture the richness of conscious experience.
In many ways, the rejection of scientific psychology in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was a backlash to the dominance of the behaviorist approach in North American psychology.
Common Sense Views of Behavior
In certain ways, everyone is a psychologist. This does not mean that everyone has been formally trained to study and be trained in psychology. People have common sense views of the world, of other people, and of themselves. These common-sense views may come from personal experience, from our upbringing as a child, and through culture, etc.
People have common-sense views about the causes of their own and other people’s behavior, personality characteristics they and others possess, what other people should do, how to bring up your children, and many more aspects of psychology.
Informal psychologists acquire common-sense knowledge in a rather subjective (i.e., unreliable) and anecdotal way. Common-sense views about people are rarely based on systematic (i.e., logical) evidence and are sometimes based on a single experience or observation.
Racial or religious prejudices may reflect what seems like common sense within a group of people. However, prejudicial beliefs rarely stand up to what is actually the case.
Common sense, then, is something that everybody uses in their day-to-day lives, guides decisions and influences how we interact with one another.
However, because it is not based on systematic evidence or derived from scientific inquiry, it may be misleading and lead to one group of people treating others unfairly and in a discriminatory way.
Limitations of Scientific Psychology
Despite having a scientific methodology worked out (we think), some further problems and arguments doubt psychology is ever a science.
Limitations may refer to the subject matter (e.g., overt behavior versus subjective, private experience), objectivity, generality, testability, ecological validity, ethical issues, and philosophical debates, etc.
Science assumes that there are laws of human behavior that apply to each person. Therefore, science takes both a deterministic and reductionist approach.
Science studies overt behavior because overt behavior is objectively observable and can be measured, allowing different psychologists to record behavior and agree on what has been observed. This means that evidence can be collected to test a theory about people.
Scientific laws are generalizable, but psychological explanations are often restricted to specific times and places. Because psychology studies (mostly) people, it studies (indirectly) the effects of social and cultural changes on behavior.
Psychology does not go on in a social vacuum. Behavior changes over time and in different situations. These factors, and individual differences, make research findings reliable for a limited time only.
Are traditional scientific methods appropriate for studying human behavior? When psychologists operationalize their IV, it is highly likely that this is reductionist, mechanistic, subjective, or just wrong.
Operationalizing variables refers to how you will define and measure a specific variable as it is used in your study. For example, a biopsychologist may operationalize stress as an increased heart rate. Still, it may be that in doing this, we are removed from the human experience of what we are studying. The same goes for causality.
Experiments are keen to establish that X causes Y, but taking this deterministic view means that we ignore extraneous variables and the fact that at a different time, in a different place, we probably would not be influenced by X. There are so many variables that influence human behavior that it is impossible to control them effectively. The issue of ecological validity ties in really nicely here.
Objectivity is impossible. It is a huge problem in psychology, as it involves humans studying humans, and it is very difficult to study people’s behavior in an unbiased fashion.
Moreover, in terms of a general philosophy of science, we find it hard to be objective because a theoretical standpoint influences us (Freud is a good example). The observer and the observed are members of the same species are this creates problems of reflectivity.
A behaviorist would never examine a phobia and think in terms of unconscious conflict as a cause, just like Freud would never explain it as a behavior acquired through operant conditioning.
This particular viewpoint that a scientist has is called a paradigm (Kuhn, 1970). Kuhn argues that most scientific disciplines have one predominant paradigm that the vast majority of scientists subscribe to.
Anything with several paradigms (e.g., models – theories) is a pre-science until it becomes more unified. With a myriad of paradigms within psychology, it is not the case that we have any universal laws of human behavior. Kuhn would most definitely argue that psychology is not a science.
Verification (i.e., proof) may be impossible. We can never truly prove a hypothesis; we may find results to support it until the end of time, but we will never be 100% confident that it is true.
It could be disproved at any moment. The main driving force behind this particular grumble is Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science and advocator of falsificationism.
Take the famous Popperian example hypothesis: “All swans are white.” How do we know for sure that we will not see a black, green, or hot pink swan in the future? So even if there has never been a sighting of a non-white swan, we still haven’t really proven our hypothesis.
Popper argues that the best hypotheses are those which we can falsify – disprove. If we know something is not true, then we know something for sure.
Testability: much of the subject matter in psychology is unobservable (e.g., memory) and, therefore, cannot be accurately measured. The fact that there are so many variables that influence human behavior that it is impossible to control the variables effectively.
So, are we any closer to understanding a) what science is and b) if psychology is a science? Unlikely. There is no definitive philosophy of science and no flawless scientific methodology.
When people use the term “Scientific,” we all have a general schema of what they mean, but when we break it down in the way that we just have done, the picture is less certain. What is science? It depends on your philosophy. Is psychology a science? It depends on your definition. So – why bother, and how do we conclude all this?
Slife and Williams (1995) have tried to answer these two questions:
1) We must at least strive for scientific methods because we need a rigorous discipline. If we abandon our search for unified methods, we’ll lose a sense of what psychology is (if we knew it in the first place).
2) We need to keep trying to develop scientific methods that are suitable for studying human behavior – it may be that the methods adopted by the natural sciences are not appropriate for us.
- Psychology as a Science (PDF)
- SAVE ARTICLE
Want to create or adapt books like this? Learn more about how Pressbooks supports open publishing practices.
1.1 Psychology as a Science
- Explain why using our intuition about everyday behavior is insufficient for a complete understanding of the causes of behavior.
- Describe the difference between values and facts and explain how the scientific method is used to differentiate between the two.
Despite the differences in their interests, areas of study, and approaches, all psychologists have one thing in common: They rely on scientific methods. Research psychologists use scientific methods to create new knowledge about the causes of behavior, whereas psychologist-practitioners , such as clinical, counseling, industrial-organizational, and school psychologists, use existing research to enhance the everyday life of others. The science of psychology is important for both researchers and practitioners.
In a sense all humans are scientists. We all have an interest in asking and answering questions about our world. We want to know why things happen, when and if they are likely to happen again, and how to reproduce or change them. Such knowledge enables us to predict our own behavior and that of others. We may even collect data (i.e., any information collected through formal observation or measurement ) to aid us in this undertaking. It has been argued that people are “everyday scientists” who conduct research projects to answer questions about behavior (Nisbett & Ross, 1980). When we perform poorly on an important test, we try to understand what caused our failure to remember or understand the material and what might help us do better the next time. When our good friends Monisha and Charlie break up, despite the fact that they appeared to have a relationship made in heaven, we try to determine what happened. When we contemplate the rise of terrorist acts around the world, we try to investigate the causes of this problem by looking at the terrorists themselves, the situation around them, and others’ responses to them.
The Problem of Intuition
The results of these “everyday” research projects can teach us many principles of human behavior. We learn through experience that if we give someone bad news, he or she may blame us even though the news was not our fault. We learn that people may become depressed after they fail at an important task. We see that aggressive behavior occurs frequently in our society, and we develop theories to explain why this is so. These insights are part of everyday social life. In fact, much research in psychology involves the scientific study of everyday behavior (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967).
The problem, however, with the way people collect and interpret data in their everyday lives is that they are not always particularly thorough. Often, when one explanation for an event seems “right,” we adopt that explanation as the truth even when other explanations are possible and potentially more accurate. For example, eyewitnesses to violent crimes are often extremely confident in their identifications of the perpetrators of these crimes. But research finds that eyewitnesses are no less confident in their identifications when they are incorrect than when they are correct (Cutler & Wells, 2009; Wells & Hasel, 2008). People may also become convinced of the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP), or the predictive value of astrology, when there is no evidence for either (Gilovich, 1993). Furthermore, psychologists have also found that there are a variety of cognitive and motivational biases that frequently influence our perceptions and lead us to draw erroneous conclusions (Fiske & Taylor, 2007; Hsee & Hastie, 2006). In summary, accepting explanations for events without testing them thoroughly may lead us to think that we know the causes of things when we really do not.
Research Focus: Unconscious Preferences for the Letters of Our Own Name
A study reported in the Journal of Consumer Research (Brendl, Chattopadhyay, Pelham, & Carvallo, 2005) demonstrates the extent to which people can be unaware of the causes of their own behavior. The research demonstrated that, at least under certain conditions (and although they do not know it), people frequently prefer brand names that contain the letters of their own name to brand names that do not contain the letters of their own name.
The research participants were recruited in pairs and were told that the research was a taste test of different types of tea. For each pair of participants, the experimenter created two teas and named them by adding the word stem “oki” to the first three letters of each participant’s first name. For example, for Jonathan and Elisabeth, the names of the teas would have been Jonoki and Elioki.
The participants were then shown 20 packets of tea that were supposedly being tested. Eighteen packets were labeled with made-up Japanese names (e.g., “Mataku” or “Somuta”), and two were labeled with the brand names constructed from the participants’ names. The experimenter explained that each participant would taste only two teas and would be allowed to choose one packet of these two to take home.
One of the two participants was asked to draw slips of paper to select the two brands that would be tasted at this session. However, the drawing was rigged so that the two brands containing the participants’ name stems were always chosen for tasting. Then, while the teas were being brewed, the participants completed a task designed to heighten their needs for self-esteem, and that was expected to increase their desire to choose a brand that had the letters of their own name. Specifically, the participants all wrote about an aspect of themselves that they would like to change.
After the teas were ready, the participants tasted them and then chose to take a packet of one of the teas home with them. After they made their choice, the participants were asked why they chose the tea they had chosen, and then the true purpose of the study was explained to them.
The results of this study found that participants chose the tea that included the first three letters of their own name significantly more frequently (64% of the time) than they chose the tea that included the first three letters of their partner’s name (only 36% of the time). Furthermore, the decisions were made unconsciously; the participants did not know why they chose the tea they chose. When they were asked, more than 90% of the participants thought that they had chosen on the basis of taste, whereas only 5% of them mentioned the real cause—that the brand name contained the letters of their name.
Once we learn about the outcome of a given event (e.g., when we read about the results of a research project), we frequently believe that we would have been able to predict the outcome ahead of time. For instance, if half of a class of students is told that research concerning attraction between people has demonstrated that “opposites attract” and the other half is told that research has demonstrated that “birds of a feather flock together,” most of the students will report believing that the outcome that they just read about is true, and that they would have predicted the outcome before they had read about it. Of course, both of these contradictory outcomes cannot be true. (In fact, psychological research finds that “birds of a feather flock together” is generally the case.) The problem is that just reading a description of research findings leads us to think of the many cases we know that support the findings, and thus makes them seem believable. The tendency to think that we could have predicted something that has already occurred that we probably would not have been able to predict is called the hindsight bias , or the tendency to think that we could have predicted something that has already occurred that we probably would not have been able to predict.
Why Psychologists Rely on Empirical Methods
All scientists, whether they are physicists, chemists, biologists, sociologists, or psychologists, use empirical methods to study the topics that interest them. Empirical methods include the processes of collecting and organizing data and drawing conclusions about those data. The empirical methods used by scientists have developed over many years and provide a basis for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data within a common framework in which information can be shared. We can label the scientific method as the set of assumptions, rules, and procedures that scientists use to conduct empirical research .
Psychologists use a variety of techniques to measure and understand human behavior.
Tim Sheerman-Chase – “Volunteer Duty” Psychology Testing – CC BY 2.0 CAFNR – CC BY-NC 2.0
Although scientific research is an important method of studying human behavior, not all questions can be answered using scientific approaches. Statements that cannot be objectively measured or objectively determined to be true or false are not within the domain of scientific inquiry. Scientists therefore draw a distinction between values and facts. Values are personal statements such as “Abortion should not be permitted in this country,” “I will go to heaven when I die,” or “It is important to study psychology.” Facts are objective statements determined to be accurate through empirical study. Examples are “There were more than 21,000 homicides in the United States in 2009,” or “Research demonstrates that individuals who are exposed to highly stressful situations over long periods of time develop more health problems than those who are not.”
Because values cannot be considered to be either true or false, science cannot prove or disprove them. Nevertheless, as shown in Table 1.1 “Examples of Values and Facts in Scientific Research” , research can sometimes provide facts that can help people develop their values. For instance, science may be able to objectively measure the impact of unwanted children on a society or the psychological trauma suffered by women who have abortions. The effect of capital punishment on the crime rate in the United States may also be determinable. This factual information can and should be made available to help people formulate their values about abortion and capital punishment, as well as to enable governments to articulate appropriate policies. Values also frequently come into play in determining what research is appropriate or important to conduct. For instance, the U.S. government has recently supported and provided funding for research on HIV, AIDS, and terrorism, while denying funding for research using human stem cells.
Although scientists use research to help establish facts, the distinction between values and facts is not always clear-cut. Sometimes statements that scientists consider to be factual later, on the basis of further research, turn out to be partially or even entirely incorrect. Although scientific procedures do not necessarily guarantee that the answers to questions will be objective and unbiased, science is still the best method for drawing objective conclusions about the world around us. When old facts are discarded, they are replaced with new facts based on newer and more correct data. Although science is not perfect, the requirements of empiricism and objectivity result in a much greater chance of producing an accurate understanding of human behavior than is available through other approaches.
Levels of Explanation in Psychology
The study of psychology spans many different topics at many different levels of explanation which are the perspectives that are used to understand behavior . Lower levels of explanation are more closely tied to biological influences, such as genes, neurons, neurotransmitters, and hormones, whereas the middle levels of explanation refer to the abilities and characteristics of individual people, and the highest levels of explanation relate to social groups, organizations, and cultures (Cacioppo, Berntson, Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000).
The same topic can be studied within psychology at different levels of explanation, as shown in Figure 1.3 “Levels of Explanation” . For instance, the psychological disorder known as depression affects millions of people worldwide and is known to be caused by biological, social, and cultural factors. Studying and helping alleviate depression can be accomplished at low levels of explanation by investigating how chemicals in the brain influence the experience of depression. This approach has allowed psychologists to develop and prescribe drugs, such as Prozac, which may decrease depression in many individuals (Williams, Simpson, Simpson, & Nahas, 2009). At the middle levels of explanation, psychological therapy is directed at helping individuals cope with negative life experiences that may cause depression. And at the highest level, psychologists study differences in the prevalence of depression between men and women and across cultures. The occurrence of psychological disorders, including depression, is substantially higher for women than for men, and it is also higher in Western cultures, such as in the United States, Canada, and Europe, than in Eastern cultures, such as in India, China, and Japan (Chen, Wang, Poland, & Lin, 2009; Seedat et al., 2009). These sex and cultural differences provide insight into the factors that cause depression. The study of depression in psychology helps remind us that no one level of explanation can explain everything. All levels of explanation, from biological to personal to cultural, are essential for a better understanding of human behavior.
Figure 1.3 Levels of Explanation
The Challenges of Studying Psychology
Understanding and attempting to alleviate the costs of psychological disorders such as depression is not easy, because psychological experiences are extremely complex. The questions psychologists pose are as difficult as those posed by doctors, biologists, chemists, physicists, and other scientists, if not more so (Wilson, 1998).
A major goal of psychology is to predict behavior by understanding its causes. Making predictions is difficult in part because people vary and respond differently in different situations. Individual differences are the variations among people on physical or psychological dimensions. For instance, although many people experience at least some symptoms of depression at some times in their lives, the experience varies dramatically among people. Some people experience major negative events, such as severe physical injuries or the loss of significant others, without experiencing much depression, whereas other people experience severe depression for no apparent reason. Other important individual differences that we will discuss in the chapters to come include differences in extraversion, intelligence, self-esteem, anxiety, aggression, and conformity.
Because of the many individual difference variables that influence behavior, we cannot always predict who will become aggressive or who will perform best in graduate school or on the job. The predictions made by psychologists (and most other scientists) are only probabilistic. We can say, for instance, that people who score higher on an intelligence test will, on average, do better than people who score lower on the same test, but we cannot make very accurate predictions about exactly how any one person will perform.
Another reason that it is difficult to predict behavior is that almost all behavior is multiply determined , or produced by many factors. And these factors occur at different levels of explanation. We have seen, for instance, that depression is caused by lower-level genetic factors, by medium-level personal factors, and by higher-level social and cultural factors. You should always be skeptical about people who attempt to explain important human behaviors, such as violence, child abuse, poverty, anxiety, or depression, in terms of a single cause.
Furthermore, these multiple causes are not independent of one another; they are associated such that when one cause is present other causes tend to be present as well. This overlap makes it difficult to pinpoint which cause or causes are operating. For instance, some people may be depressed because of biological imbalances in neurotransmitters in their brain. The resulting depression may lead them to act more negatively toward other people around them, which then leads those other people to respond more negatively to them, which then increases their depression. As a result, the biological determinants of depression become intertwined with the social responses of other people, making it difficult to disentangle the effects of each cause.
Another difficulty in studying psychology is that much human behavior is caused by factors that are outside our conscious awareness, making it impossible for us, as individuals, to really understand them. The role of unconscious processes was emphasized in the theorizing of the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who argued that many psychological disorders were caused by memories that we have repressed and thus remain outside our consciousness. Unconscious processes will be an important part of our study of psychology, and we will see that current research has supported many of Freud’s ideas about the importance of the unconscious in guiding behavior.
- Psychology is the scientific study of mind and behavior.
- Though it is easy to think that everyday situations have commonsense answers, scientific studies have found that people are not always as good at predicting outcomes as they think they are.
- The hindsight bias leads us to think that we could have predicted events that we actually could not have predicted.
- People are frequently unaware of the causes of their own behaviors.
- Psychologists use the scientific method to collect, analyze, and interpret evidence.
- Employing the scientific method allows the scientist to collect empirical data objectively, which adds to the accumulation of scientific knowledge.
- Psychological phenomena are complex, and making predictions about them is difficult because of individual differences and because they are multiply determined at different levels of explanation.
Exercises and Critical Thinking
- Can you think of a time when you used your intuition to analyze an outcome, only to be surprised later to find that your explanation was completely incorrect? Did this surprise help you understand how intuition may sometimes lead us astray?
- Describe the scientific method in a way that someone who knows nothing about science could understand it.
- Consider a behavior that you find to be important and think about its potential causes at different levels of explanation. How do you think psychologists would study this behavior?
Brendl, C. M., Chattopadhyay, A., Pelham, B. W., & Carvallo, M. (2005). Name letter branding: Valence transfers when product specific needs are active. Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (3), 405–415.
Cacioppo, J. T., Berntson, G. G., Sheridan, J. F., & McClintock, M. K. (2000). Multilevel integrative analyses of human behavior: Social neuroscience and the complementing nature of social and biological approaches. Psychological Bulletin, 126 (6), 829–843.
Chen, P.-Y., Wang, S.-C., Poland, R. E., & Lin, K.-M. (2009). Biological variations in depression and anxiety between East and West. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 15 (3), 283–294.
Cutler, B. L., & Wells, G. L. (2009). Expert testimony regarding eyewitness identification. In J. L. Skeem, S. O. Lilienfeld, & K. S. Douglas (Eds.), Psychological science in the courtroom: Consensus and controversy (pp. 100–123). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Fiske, S. T., & Taylor, S. E. (2007). Social cognition: From brains to culture . New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reason in everyday life . New York, NY: Free Press.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations . Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hsee, C. K., & Hastie, R. (2006). Decision and experience: Why don’t we choose what makes us happy? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10 (1), 31–37.
Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation (Vol. 15, pp. 192–240). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Seedat, S., Scott, K. M., Angermeyer, M. C., Berglund, P., Bromet, E. J., Brugha, T. S.,…Kessler, R. C. (2009). Cross-national associations between gender and mental disorders in the World Health Organization World Mental Health Surveys. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66 (7), 785–795.
Wells, G. L., & Hasel, L. E. (2008). Eyewitness identification: Issues in common knowledge and generalization. In E. Borgida & S. T. Fiske (Eds.), Beyond common sense: Psychological science in the courtroom (pp. 159–176). Malden, NJ: Blackwell.
Williams, N., Simpson, A. N., Simpson, K., & Nahas, Z. (2009). Relapse rates with long-term antidepressant drug therapy: A meta-analysis. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 24 (5), 401–408.
Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge . New York, NY: Vintage Books
Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
Academic Degrees , Health Science News
How Is Psychology a Science: What You Should Know
There’s been a long debate about the question: “Is psychology a science?” By defining what psychology is and looking at the ways in which academics have defined science, we can come to see how psychology is classified as a science.
To get to this endpoint, let’s explore the details about psychology and science.
What is Psychology?
The term psychology can be broken down into its root words that are Greek. Psyche means “mind” or “soul.” Logos means “the study of.” Psychology is the study of mental processes and human behavior.
Psychology consists of the following scientific steps:
- Collecting facts
- Developing theories and hypotheses to explain the facts
- Testing the theories
What Makes Psychology a Science?
Regardless of how you view psychology, it’s either going to be placed into the social sciences or science category. To support psychology as a science, we turn to the idea of empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is able to be supported and verified by way of observation and experience, as opposed to simply relying on logic or theory.
Through empirical evidence, psychologists can understand human behavior because of observation. Since the mind cannot be directly observed, it is through actions that psychologists are able to better grasp what may be happening in the mind.
Going deeper, psychology leverages the following:
- Reasoning: Psychologists rely on scientific reasoning to interpret and design psychological research and interpret phenomena.
- Discipline: At the core of psychology sits the scientific method. Psychologists conduct studies and contribute to research based on verifiable evidence.
- Research: Like traditional science, psychologists make use of quantitative and qualitative research methods that are necessary for performing analysis and drawing conclusions.
- Application: To practice psychology in a practical setting, students must complete further education beyond a bachelor’s degree. In most instances, a psychologist will need to obtain a PhD. This advanced education will consist of research skills and robust knowledge and application of the scientific method.
Key Characteristics of a Science
To define any field as a science, it generally will cover these key elements:
When conducting any study, researchers must remain unbiased and objective. They cannot let their own emotions and feelings enter the process. Additionally, while it’s not always possible to fully remove bias, it is necessary to minimize it as much as possible. That’s a main tenet of science.
Evidence is collected through experiments and observations. Again, this negates the entry of belief. While data is being collected, the information is diligently recorded so that other researchers can review the validity and the process.
In order to deduce cause and effect (independent variables and dependent variables), variables must be controlled.
To start off the process, an observation is made. Then, scientists, academics, and researchers create their hypothesis, which is a prediction that’s rooted in theory. These hypotheses should be clearly stated and then tested through unbiased experiments.
Based on the findings of research, scientists should technically be able to forecast and predict the future.
When scientists develop experiments, they should be able to be replicated to test if the outcomes are the same given different variables. When the same results occur based on the same conditions, then that provides credibility and accuracy to the findings, which can give way to the creation of a scientific theory or discovery.
Social Science: A Definition
It’s clear to see how psychology maintains the elements of science. However, the argument exists because it also can fall into the category of a social science based on the definition.
A social science is any academic study or science that looks at human behavior in a social and cultural aspect. Such studies include: sociology, anthropology, economics, political science, and for some, psychology.
Psychology as a Social Science
When it comes to studying psychology in college, most institutions will classify psychology under social science. As a student, you’ll study social behaviors, human development, and emotions, which all include social science methods. However, depending on the speciality of psychology you can pursue, some align more closely with hard science and others with social science.
For example, neuropsychology and biological psychology are closer to physical sciences. Social psychology, as you probably guessed, is closely aligned to the social sciences.
What Do Psychologists Do?
The main goal of a psychologist is to understand humans’ emotions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In both the short term and long term, clinical psychologists work with patients to help them deal with and overcome their problems.
Psychologists have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and study various sub disciplines. For example, a psychologist can work as a clinical psychologist, child psychologist, career counselor, professor, or neuropsychologist, to name a few.
Psychologists can be found working in private practice, rehabilitation facilities, schools, hospitals, clinics, corporations, sports teams, and other settings.
How to Become a Psychologist
To practice as a psychologist, you must complete the licensure process. Before becoming licensed, you’ll need to earn a degree.
Here are the basics steps you’ll need to follow to work in this rewarding field:
- Undergraduate Studies: Begin by earning your bachelor’s degree. You can do so in psychology or a related field like education, communication, or sociology, for example.
- Graduate Studies: To specialize, you’ll continue your formal education with a master’s, doctor of psychology (PsyD), PhD in Psychology, or education specialist (EdS) in Psychology.
- Intern: Based on your level of study, you’ll have to fulfill a specified number of hours working under a licensed psychologist and learning from them while completing projects.
- Licensure: To legally call yourself a psychologist and work as a psychologist, you’ll have to obtain licensure . The steps to do so will vary by state and location. However, the general idea is that you will have to pass national exams and work under supervision of a licensed psychologist. Some states also may require an oral examination or jurisprudence examination to understand the legal issues concerning psychology.
The Bottom Line
No matter how you look at it, the answer is yes to the question, “Is psychology a science?” While some people will argue that psychology is a social science, others will view it as a hard science.
Regardless of how you categorize the area of study and career, there are a variety of subspecialties and career paths to choose within the realm.