Is Psychology a science?

Here’s another question I might get in my exam… I’m killing two birds with one stone; revision and blogging 😛

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When considering whether Psychology is a science it is imperative to take in to account which factors constitute a science. I will take these factors to be, whether it uses a scientific method, whether it is objective, whether it is falsifiable, whether it takes a nomothetic approach, and finally I will consider Kuhn’s theory of a science and whether or not Psychology has developed a paradigm.

Laboratory experiments could be said to be the only true experimental method; they are the only method which manipulates an independent variable (IV) and measures it’s effect on the dependent variable (DV), whilst controlling confounding variables, and gathering empirical data. Most Psychologists, to a certain extent, use a scientific method as they all try to gather evidence which will support their theories; this is unlike philosophers or theorists who purely develop theories. However, of course certain approaches within psychology use a more scientific method than others. For example, the behaviourists, cognitive and physiological psychologists all use pure scientific methods such as laboratory experiments and brain scans which produce empirical, numerical and scientific data. Other methods such as the correlational techniques (e.g. twin studies), field experiments and natural experiments all haven elements of a scientific method but fall down in other areas such as controlling confounding variables and manipulating an IV. The Psychodynamic approach probably uses the least scientific methods; its theory is based wholly on interviews, case studies and analysis. It is important to remember though that none of these approaches are purely hypothetical, even the Humanistic approach which prides itself on being idiographic has carried out experiments such as those by Coopersmith into self-esteem in children. Therefore, in terms of using a scientific method only certain Psychological approaches can be labelled truly scientific, although all do maintain elements.

If Psychology was completely objective this would mean that it did not involve any feelings or personal biases, i.e. it is the complete opposite of being subjective. Perhaps the most objective approach to Psychology is that taken by the behaviourists. They decided to focus on purely observable behaviour and not focus on what was in the ‘black box’ or the inner depths of the mind. The cognitive and physiological approach could be said to be slightly less objective as they do not concern themselves solely with observable behaviour, but look into inner cognitive processes, the role of genes and the nervous system. However, they do this using experimental methods which greatly reduces this element of subjectivity. On the other hand, the Psychodynamic approach is almost completely subjective; it is the role of the individual observer or therapist to analyse the unconscious of the patient and the symbols in their dreams. This is obviously going to be largely affected by the therapists own feelings and biases, therefore there is a large degree of subjectivity. However, Popper has proposed an argument as to how subjective any science or observation can be. He states that nobody ever observes without some idea, or hypothesis, of what they are looking for; therefore, there is always a certain amount of subjectivity. In Psychology, it is once again apparent that some approaches are more scientific and objective than others, even if nothing can ever be purely objective.

A large element of science is falsifiability; it has been argued by Popper that this, the ability to prove something wrong, is what sets science apart from pseudo-sciences and religion. Most theories developed in Psychology are falsifiable, in that evidence could be produced which would counteract a theory. For example, Koluchova’s case of the ‘Czech twins’ falsified Bowlby’s maternal deprivation hypothesis and proved that the effects of maternal privation could be reversed. There is, however, one main psychological theory which can not be disproved no matter what the evidence; that is Freud’s theories of defence mechanisms. If somebody answered yes to a question it could be said this was genuinely what they meant, however, if this answer contrasted with one of his theories it could be said that this personal is in denial and using a defence mechanism to say yes, when really they meant no. So once again it can be seen that some psychological approaches are more scientific than others, however, the majority of theories are falsifiable.

Another factor separating a science from a non-science is whether or not it develops a nomothetic approach. This means whether or not it aims to establish general laws of behaviour which can be used to predict and control future situations. Most of the approaches in Psychology do have a nomothetic approach, after all Psychology is the study of behaviour and mental process; it would be impossible to study everyone in the entire world, therefore, it can be assumed that most approaches aim to generalise their findings to the general population. The humanistic approach which aims to focus on the individual and believes that every individual is different even maintains elements of a nomothetic approach. For example Roger’s theory of depressions states a general law of depression being that a person has a gap between their ideal self and their actual self. Therefore it can be seen that most of the psychological approaches do hold a nomothetic approach.

Thomas Kuhn stated the most important factor in defining a science is having a paradigm; this means “a general theoretical orientation that is accepted by most scientists in the discipline”. Considering Psychology is split up in to many different approaches, which use different research methods and develop different theories it is clear that Psychology has not yet developed a full paradigm. According to Kuhn this therefore means that Psychology is a pre-science, and I would agree with this.

Soon to come… should Psychology be a science!

Watch this space 😛