Is Psychology a Science?

In order to answer this question it is important to understand the definitions of both psychology and science. The word ‘psychology’ comes from the Greek ‘psyche’ (or soul) and ‘logos’ (or study), which came to be known as the ‘study of the soul’. The American Heritage Dictionary defines psychology as: 1. the science dealing with the mind and with mental and emotional processes 2. the science of human and animal behavior. In its pure definition the dictionary has provided us with a clue to the answer, it describes science as:

1. systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, etc. 2. ranch of knowledge, esp. one that systematizes facts, principles, and methods 3. skill or technique In order to prove this claim we have to look at whether or not psychology can fill this definition above. Scientific study is a valid way of coming to an understanding of life, and can be very useful in every area of life. Science develops theories based on what is observed. It examines each theory with rigorous and scrupulous tests to see if it describes reality. The scientific method works well in observing and recording physical data and in reaching conclusions which either confirm or nullify a theory.

During the mid-19th century, scholars (although at that time probably termed philosophers) wanted to study human nature with the aim of applying the scientific method to observe, record, and treat human behavior that was deemed as unnatural. They believed that if people could be studied in a scientific manner, there would be a greater accuracy in understanding present behavior, in predicting future behavior, and, most controversially, in altering behavior through scientific intervention. There are many areas of psychology, each attempting to explain behavior from slightly different perspectives;

Social psychology is concerned with the effects of social situations on human behavior. Personality theorists study individual behavior. Comparative psychologists study animal behaviors across the range of species Physiological psychologists are concerned with the biological basis of behavior. Developmental psychologists study principles and processes responsible for change throughout life. Cognitive psychologists investigate memory, thought, problem solving, and the psychological aspects of learning.

Analysis of behavior studies the conditions under which a behavior can be learned and the ituations that cause that behavior to occur. Learning is an area of psychology exploring how new behaviors are learned and maintained. Clinical psychologists study ways to help individuals and groups of individuals change their behavior. Industrial and organizational psychologists are concerned with the physical and social aspects of people’s work environments as they affect work output. Community psychologists use scientific methods to study and solve social problems.

As Western describes, the psychological paradigm is a collection of assumptions used to make sense of a subject area or xperience, this can be applied to psychology itself. Psychology lacks one unified paradigm but has four perspectives that search for its understanding; The pyschodynamic perspective believes that behavior is a result of unconscious processes, personal motivation and early childhood experiences. It’s most famous advocate was Sigmund Freud. Its method of data collection rely heavily on interpreting discussion, dreams and fantasies, actions, case studies and a limited amount of experimentation.

The behaviorist perspective believes that behavior is learned and selected by environmental consequences. Its method of data collection relies heavily on experimentation conducted in the scientific laboratory where the factors studied can be controlled; or it may take place in a real life setting where more natural behavior is studied and far more variables exist. The cognitive perspective believes that behavior is a result of information processing, storage in the brain, transformation and the retrieval of information.

The methods of data collection used are again experimentation but with much use of computer modeling. The evolutionary perspective believes that psychological rocesses echo the evolutionary processes of natural selection. Its method of data collection includes the deduction of explanations for behavior, and comparisons between species and cultures. It also involves a limited amount of experimentation. Of these four perspectives all lend common similarities to the traditional sciences. All have elements of controlled experimentation, as does physics or chemistry.

Cognitive perspectives use computer modeling, as does mathematics. There are similarities, but there are also differences to any other sciences, such as the study of dreams and fantasies. The methods of experimentation and research in psychology is completed on a scientific basis. Psychological experimental research would involve the manipulation of a situation to examine the way in which the subjects of an experiment react, in order to observe cause and effect. The experimenter manipulates independent variables and the subjects responses would prove the dependant variables.

By measuring the subjects responses, the experimenter can tell if the manipulation has had an effect. Psychological hypotheses are sought to operationalise – to turn an abstract concept into a concrete argument. This process is scientific in its element. The hypothesis is framed, variables are operationalised separately, a standard procedure is developed that is maintained throughout the experiment, subjects are scientifically selected, results are tested and conclusions drawn. Control groups are often used, similar in essence to control chemicals used in chemistry.

These control groups are not exposed to the manipulation but instead to neutral conditions, providing a standards to compare results. In some cases researchers carry out blind studies where subjects are kept unaware of the aspects of the study. Double blind studies have been used in the past where the researchers are kept blind too. A scientific subject knows its own limitations. Psychology attempts to study complex phenomena in laboratory and field situations where validity is called into question. Results contrast with differing personal understandings of researchers which will always differ to some extent.

In a physical science a variance of error may be intolerable above 2%, in psychology 50% may be an acceptable level. Every psychological experiment and theory is evaluated with the same level of criticality as that of the traditional sciences. Questions are asked over the theoretical framework, the results validity and its relationship with the hypothesis, the quality and range of sample and if it is representative, the conclusions that can be drawn form the data and broader conclusions that may be apparent.

Finally the studies are questioned on their meanings and ethics to operationalise the original hypothesis. Psychology has adopted the scientific mode. However, from a strictly scientific point of view, it has not been able to meet the requirements of true science. In attempting to evaluate the status of psychology as a cientific study, the American Psychological Association appointed Sigmund Koch to conduct a study, employing over eighty noted scholars in assessing the facts, hypotheses, and methods of psychology. In 1983, the results were published in a series entitled ‘Psychology: A Study of Science’.

Koch describes what he believes to be the delusion in thinking of psychology as a science: The truth is that psychological statements which describe human behavior or which report results from tested research can be scientific. However, when there is a move from describing human ehavior to explaining it there is also a move from science to opinion. Here it is important to make the distinction between psychology and psychiatry. Academic psychology is a scientific project, initiated by Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig at around 1885.

His work was the study of the average adult human mind, and the scientific method used was introspection. His approaches have long since been abandoned, as have many of his ideals, but not the basic idea of understanding and describing human functioning within a scientific context. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is no more a science than that f civil engineering. Ideally, scientifically investigated therapeutic techniques and methods are used together with ethical and philosophical principles in order to achieve a desired outcome. Psychotherapy, then, is a mixture of a craft and an art and may not be called a science.

Psychology breeds many conflicting explanations of man and his behavior. Psychologist Roger Mills, in his 1980 article, “Psychology Goes Insane, Botches Role as Science,” says: “The field of psychiatry today is literally a mess. There are as many techniques, methods and theories around as there are researchers and therapists. I have personally seen therapists convince their clients that all of their problems come from their mothers, the stars, their biochemical make-up, their diet, their lifestyle and even the “karma” from their past lives. These opinions are describing psychotherapy and not psychology in its core. Remembering that psychology is the scientific study of the behavior of humans and animals, we should look at their methods of study. As we have seen, psychologists use scientific methods in an attempt to understand and predict behavior, to develop procedures for changing behavior, and to evaluate treatment strategies. Mitchell and Jolley discuss the question of whether psychology is a science in the first chapter of their text ‘Research Design Explained’ (3rd Edition).

Their conclusions support the claim that psychology is a science. They discuss the facts that psychology produces objective evidence that can be replicated (replicated with the same success as physics and chemistry experiments). That it unearths observable, objective evidence that either supports or refutes existing beliefs and creates new knowledge. And that psychology is open- minded about claims, even those that go against common sense and ceptical about ideas that, even though they make sense, have not been supported by any research evidence.

If we can define a science using subjective methods then Psychology is definitely a science. Psychology represents an empirical science, its methods demanding empirical testing of hypotheses. Many empirical results of psychology are subject to personal interpretation and intense dispute. This can be seen as a function of the phenomena that is psychology. But the key to resolving these disputes is to turn back to the empirical methods and pit alternative interpretations against each other.


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