Is Psychology really science? Why, yes it is!

18 April 2014 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in General Science, Psychology

The following is a guest blog post by Tanya Karam, @PsychAllDay on Twitter. In my own research in science and environmental communication, I've recently discovered the importance of human psychology in understanding human processing of scientific information and human behaviors toward the environment. So I asked Tanya to write a blog post about the science of psychology... Enjoy!

Tanya Karam Bio Pic

Tanya Karam Bio Pic

On the first day of the first psychology class I ever taught, before I was able to get through the syllabus, a student raised his hand and asked me the following question: is psychology really science? He was a physics major and clearly skeptical of the scientific nature of our work. I am an experimental psychologist – a scientist. So I was understandably taken aback and offended by my student’s question. Luckily, I was prepared. Just weeks prior I had the fortune of sitting in a voir dire intended to question the need of a psychologist’s expert testimony in a trial. This psychologist has an established career of solid psychological research and has testified in over 50 trials as an expert witness. During the voir dire, the judge asked the psychologist if psychology is in fact a science. Clearly this uncertainty regarding the scientific merit of psychology is common among many people. In my experience, this uncertainty comes from two misunderstandings: that “hard” science has facts whereas psychology only has theory; and that psychology is common sense.

Hard science has facts and psychology has theory.

First and foremost, there are no “facts” in science. The scientific method is designed in such a way that one can never prove anything, we can only disprove something. That is what allows us to keep searching, never stopping at our understanding of the way the world works. That is why it’s the theory of gravity and the theory of evolution. A scientifically sound theory is falsifiable. So no, it is not the case that “hard” science has “facts” and psychology has theories; we all only have theories. In every way, psychological science adheres to the scientific method as much as any other science. We abide by the same rules and methodologies. We even quantify psychological phenomena to the best of our ability. We use computations and statistics and even model human behavior mathematically just like any other science. We test our theories for reliability and validity, and we test the parameters of our theories. There are however 2 differences between our science and other sciences that have nothing to do with how we practice science, but rather what we study: we are a much newer science, and what we study is more complex.

The first psychological laboratory was founded by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879, and you can imagine how primitive the equipment would have been back then. While this might seem like a long time ago, remember that Galileo built his first telescope in 1609…imagine how much bigger a leg up astronomy has had on us. Cognitive psychology wasn’t a study topic until at earliest the 1950’s during the cognitive revolution (and the demise of Behaviourism), but not officially until Ulric Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology book was published in 1967. We have had roughly 50 years of studying human cognition…50 years!!! The study of human cognition covers processes related to: sensation, attention, perception, learning and memory, language, intelligence, problem-solving, decision-making…imagine the scope of phenomena and behaviors all that includes. Can you appreciate what a short amount of time that is for such a complicated study of topic?!?! And that’s just cognitive psychology…psychology as a whole studies every aspect of the human experience, including social, child, personality, neuro, and abnormal psychology. Ok not to get too far into the vast areas of research psychology scientifically conducts, but I hope I have made myself clear regarding just how young this science really is.

Aside from our young age as a science, our topic of study is significantly more complex than most other sciences. Specifically regarding the factors that affect our behavior. Consider the following scientific questions.

First, let’s consider a “hard” science question: if someone pricks you, will you bleed? Well, to answer that question we would need to know a number of factors that could affect the outcome.

  • How big was the needle?
  • How deep did it enter the skin?
  • Which part of the body was pricked?
  • Do you have a blood disorder?

Now consider a psychology question: if someone pricks you, will you retaliate? Again, we would need to know factors that could affect the outcome.

  • Did you experience pain?
  • Who is the person pricking you; a stranger, a nurse, a tattoo artist?
  • What is your perception of the motivation behind the pricking?
  • Who else is there?
  • How does your culture view retaliation? Your family?
  • What is your religion?
  • What is your age? Gender?
  • Have you eaten?
  • Have you slept well?
  • Have you been drinking? Doing drugs? If so, what kind?
  • What was your mood previous to the pricking?
  • What is your personality type?
  • Do you have any mental health issues?
  • Have you been a victim of violence before?
  • Have you retaliated before? If so, what was the consequence? …Ok ok…I think I have made my point.

Not only are there many factors that affect human behavior that are themselves in turn enormously complicated, but those factors can interact with each other, and some overwrite others. We are still understanding the complexity of all the factors that affect human behavior AND our science is still in its infancy, so it will be a while before we have reliable “laws” and predictions of human behavior. But attempts are already being made and we are certainly on our way.

Psychology is common sense.

One issue a judge considers when deciding whether an expert witness will be allowed to testify is whether the information they provide is something the jurors do not already know. Erroneously, people think that a lot of our research is common sense and obvious. People think that they know everything about psychology because they are human and engage in human behavior and interactions. That fallacy in logic is equal to me thinking I understand how electricity works to the same extent as say, an electrical engineer just because I use it constantly. I also digest food throughout the day but I can’t say I understand how metabolism works as much as a gastroenterologist. So why do people think they understand psychology through intuition as much as someone who has studied it scientifically? We see the complicated equations of theoretical physics and never claim to understand them as much as those who study them (if at all). But there is something unique about the human experience.

I recently co-authored a chapter regarding the layperson’s understanding of how memory works. Throughout our research we found that people are in fact largely inaccurate about how memory works. And I have certainly found this to be true in my own research; people are not very good at gauging their own memories. For example, people think they remember every aspect and detail surrounding momentous event (flashbulb memory), such as 9/11, however research shows that people do not better remember those events than mundane events. But they think they do. We believe that memories of highly confident people are accurate, when in most cases there is no relationship between confidence and accuracy (especially for emotionally arousing memories). People also think they are perceiving everything in their visual field, but in fact we don’t, and we miss many changes to the environment even when it is in our scope of attention (i.e. change blindness). Part of why we aren’t experts in ourselves is because the majority of our psychological experiences occur automatically and without our awareness. If we really did understand our own psychology fully then we wouldn’t make errors. We would be aware of our faults and appreciate them for what they are. We would ace tests because we would know how to study well and to retrieve information. We would be able to solve problems effectively and make sound decisions. We wouldn’t make silly errors like getting in car accidents or adhering to stereotypes. We would be able to have wonderful relationships with all the people in our lives. The reason none of these scenarios reflect reality is because of how little the average person actually knows about themselves.

Psychology is not common sense. Psychologists are not simply philosophers debating about the human experience just to hear ourselves talk akin to gossiping teens at a coffee shop. We are scientists. We do not make any claims that aren’t substantiated by scientific data. We are studying a very new science that is vastly complicated and it is important for everyone to understand and appreciate that. Because when the general population doesn’t understand that psychology operates from a scientific perspective they run the risk of disallowing real scientific experts from testifying in court cases, leaving jurors to their own naïve devices about how people work. That is how errors are made; jurors believe the very confident eyewitness and ignore the very important contextual information surrounding the event, putting innocent people behind bars (The Innocence Project estimates that 75% of wrongfully convicted people in prison are a result of witness misidentification).

All of these significant applications of psychology as a ‘real’ science are important to human functioning, adding to our knowledge base, and adding to the scientific literature. But most importantly it’s imperative for my students to know that psychology is in fact a science, and they will be making history with their contributions to our understanding of human behavior the same way Galileo did 400 years ago when astrology was in its infancy. The same way all scientists have before them.

I have always been fascinated by the human mind and I have dedicated my life to understanding it. I got my Bachelor’s in Psychology from the University of Waterloo, my Master’s in Cognitive and Social Psychology from Ball State University, and I just completed my Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Louisiana State University. Most of my research has involved memory processes and factors that affect them, such as emotional arousal. I love to teach and research and hope to do continue to do so as I enter the “real world”, back in my hometown of Toronto, Canada. I love studying psychology because it’s in everything we do – you can’t find more applicable material!

Feel free to follow me on twitter @PsychAllDay

(WhoDat?!)


2 Responses to “Is Psychology really science? Why, yes it is!”

  1. Gary Riccio Reply | Permalink

    Thank you, Tanya, for a really great post on a complicated topic of common interest!

    The misunderstanding of psychology's value is pervasive and persistent. This is one place where science communicators can have an impact. Your examples from the judicial system are helpful in this regard. They show that this is not an esoteric issue. Our misunderstandings about psychology literally can be a matter of life and death! In this regard, it also is useful to point out that all science struggles with credibility in the courtroom, not just psychology (see e.g., http://bit.ly/Science-at-the-Bar).

    For the most part, we a not a scientifically-literate society. This has important consequences, sometimes that are irrevocable. The lack of reflection on the nature of scientific knowledge and scientific inquiry outside of narrow scientific fiefdoms contributes to the problem insofar as most scientists are not able to understand and communicate science beyond the values and practices of their own discipline. The implication is that science communicators can help scientists as much as the general public with respect to a general understanding of science.

    The misunderstandings of science, and psychology in particular, arose recently in an article on stress in the Harvard Business Review (http://bit.ly/HBR-stress). A few commenters wondered about the value of scientific observations that seemed obvious. Here is my reply that I believe echoes your thoughts:

    It is commonly the case that the most relevant psychological research yields results and recommendations that seem obvious. It would be quite odd if that were not the case. Unlike other branches of science, psychology joins all of us in confronting and making sense of the world at the level of conscious experience and commonly observable behavior. See e.g., http://bit.ly/1hk53jN

    The value of psychology as a science is that it helps us separate truth from *fallacies that seem equally obvious* to those who have not subjected their assumptions, biases, and implicit theories to empirical tests, visibly and collaboratively, within a diverse community of practice. See e.g., http://bit.ly/Kahneman-HBR

    It also is the case that psychology can help us translate our beliefs about what we do or should do into actual verifiable action. It can help us determine whether we do what we say and whether we say what we mean. It can identify the gaps and help us align our thought and action with our beliefs. And it may even help us refine our beliefs. See e.g., http://bit.ly/1nkZMkv

    As with most "science in the wild" (i.e., outside the laboratory), psychology also can learn from the experiences and untested theories of nonscientists. Science is iterative and progressive. Nonscientists can participate in the balancing act between internal validity and external validity. Psychologists can change their minds and refine their understanding but it will always be based visibly on data and verifiable learning from replicable experiments. See e.g., http://bit.ly/Kelly-McGonigal-...

  2. Yaron Rosenstein Reply | Permalink

    Not true, science has falsifiable theories.
    Name one theory in psychology that is falsifiable.
    Name your observables.
    Name your laws.

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