Critically evaluate the statement
‘psychology is a science’
Psychology is usually characterized as
‘scientific’ study of human behaviour and cognitive processes. Any science must
have theories, and indeed test them. This includes making specific predictions
about behaviour under certain specified conditions, for instance, predicting
that by combining the sight of a rat with the sound of an iron bar banging
behind his head, a small child will learn to fear the rat, as is the case of
Little Albert (Fridlund AJ, 2012). Also, empirical
methods are used in scientific fields to collect data, relevant to the theories
being tested, as is the case in many psychological experiments, for example the
use of brain scanning in Dement and Kleitman’s 1957 study (Dement, 1957).
Science is intended to be objective and
fair. It ought to be free of qualities and find the certainties about what it
is considering. Objective, value-free study is not easy, because the scientist
has views and biases, and social or different issues are maybe critical
elements. Some say that a truly objective study is not possible, and that a
scientific approach to the study of people is not desirable.
Definitions of psychology have changed
during its lifetime, largely reflecting the influence and contributions of its
major theoretical approaches or orientations. Kline argued that the different
approaches within the field of psychology should be seen as self-contained
disciplines, as well as different facets of the same discipline. He argued that
a field of study can only be legitimately considered a science if a majority of
its workers subscribe to a common, global perspective or ‘paradigm’ (Kline, 1998).
According to Kuhn, a philosopher of science,
this means that psychology is ‘pre-paradigmatic’, it lacks a paradigm, without
which it is still in a state of ‘pre-science’. Whether psychology has, or ever
had, paradigm is hotly debated. Others believe that psychology has already
undergone two revolutions, and is now in a stage of normal science, with
cognitive psychology the current paradigm. A third view, which represents a
blend of the first two, is that psychology currently, and simultaneously, has a
number of paradigms.
The issue of psychology as a science is
cloudy. On the one hand, psychology is a science. The subject matter is
behaviour, including mental aspects of behaviour such as memory, and the
subject matter is divided up for study. Variables are measured, and carefully
controlled to a point. Laboratories are often used in an effort to improve
controls – controls are as thorough as possible, so that general laws about
behaviour can be built.
On the other hand, psychology can be
viewed not as a science, as it does not aim at scientific principles to measure
the whole world. In many areas of psychology there is no attempt to generalise
from some human behaviour to all human behaviour. The social
representation theory focuses on interactions, and the humanistic theory focuses
on self-actualisation and the individual’s experiences and actions. Where there
is focus on interactions between people, and on the individual’s experiences,
scientific methods are not useful. Non-scientific methods include case-studies
and unstructured interviews. If a method in not scientific, it aims for good
validity, in-depth material about someone or a small group, qualitative data
and a richness of data that is not found by isolating variables, as in many
Psychology as a separate field of study
grew out of several other disciplines, both scientific (such as physiology) and
non-scientific (in particular philosophy). For much of its life as an
independent discipline, and through what some call revolutions and paradigm
shifts, it has taken the natural sciences as its model. Ultimately, whatever a
particular science may claim to have discovered about the phenomena it studies,
scientific activity remains just one aspect of human behaviour. I feel that
psychology should be viewed as a science, even if it does not concur with
traditional scientific specifications.
Is Psychology a Science?
argues that psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a
field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology,
quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility
and, finally, predictability and testability (Berezow, 2012).
believes psychology in its current sense should be abandoned
to four reasons: 1. Irreversibility (every experience changes a person). 2.Infinite
number of determinants (a behaviour can have many influences). 3. Pseudo-empiricism
(psychology tests obvious hypotheses). 4. Social interactivity (individual
differences are ignored to focus on the average) (J., 2016).
are some researchers in other fields that insist psychology is not a
despite following the hypothetico-deductive model (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). They argue that
psychology should give up pretending it is a science and just
on what is available to study.
When Wundt, a physiologist by training,
took the position that the centuries-long philosophical disputes about the
nature of mind needed to be set aside and replaced by the approaches favoured
by the natural sciences, he asked: Why can’t the study of mind be based on observation?
Just as physics observes the events of the physical world, why shouldn’t
psychology observe the events of the mental world (Wundt, 1897)?
These were good questions and the
emphasis on observation was a positive step, but Wundt and his followers were
handicapped by the methodology they chose to use and by their lack of
appreciation of the whole of science. They were right about the importance of
observation and could have moved mental science forward if they had not been
stymied by their reliance on the technique of introspection, a form of
disciplined, self-observation aimed at looking at mental activity (Silverman, 2011).
Wundt and his student E. B. Titchener
(at Cornell University) were interested in analysing mental experiences into
their elemental components as well as in finding out how these elements
combine, they did not have a well-ordered, systematic position in which their
observations tended to produce hypotheses or call up new questions. Even if
introspection provided data, they needed something more to give their findings
the kind of structure that had the potential to lead to more knowledge (Silverman, 2011).
Immanuel Kant argued in 1781 that
the human mind imposes order on the sensations it receives, so did the
triumvirate of Gestalt psychology. Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and Wolfgang
Köhler take the position that the brain organizes incoming stimuli into wholes,
or “gestalts” (Wertheimer, 1950). With this
preconception as their guide, they set out to find ways to demonstrate how the
principle of organization affects perception. While they did perform something like
experiments, the observations they sought to make were primarily designed to demonstrate
the worth of their ideas. It was not science, but it did keep alive a viewpoint
about what the mind does that would provide a basis for the development a few
decades later of cognitive psychology.
The quest to understand the mysteries
of the mind continued in Europe and it extended beyond the research
laboratories. It found its way into the clinical setting where, in 1895, Sigmund
Freud set out to develop the elaborate theory of psychoanalysis (Breuer, 1895).
Although Freud was a clinician, he had been
well trained in the principles of scientific research and knew the value of
observation. However, he also felt that standard observation would not suffice;
he could not limit his inquiries to the kind of evidence
appropriate for physics or chemistry, or
for that matter to laboratory psychology. And, unlike Wundt, he did not focus
on objectivity. Instead, he sought to find ways to analyse subjective material (Silverman, 2011). To accomplish this
goal, Freud made the therapy setting his laboratory by seeing to it that the
situation was unstructured as possible. He encouraged his patients to say any
and all things that came to mind without attempting to restrain or censor their
thoughts. The reliance on this “free-association” technique, combined
with his idea that dreams could also be very revealing, gave Freud the special tools
he felt he needed (Silverman, 2011).
The fact that the information provided
by free-association and dream interpretation was not constrained by the
standards of observation used in natural science did not bother Freud. As he
saw it, he was delving into the mysteries of the unconscious and he felt free
to interpret this material rather than taking it at face value. If others would
not accept this approach, that was their problem, not his (Silverman, 2011).
Psychology is complicated. There are
many influences behind people’s behaviour. There are arguments on either side
for whether psychology is a science or not. Regardless of this argument,
psychology has produced insights into important problems and will be able to
offer solutions to important problems in the future. Psychology is still
relatively young and human behaviour is complex.
Even as the dangers of mind’s many
meanings are still present and the temptations to invent ad hoc explanatory
concepts lie in waiting, we can acknowledge that Wundt’s original goal is
becoming more reachable. It now appears that the increasing cooperation between
neuroscience and psychology is leading toward the moment when psychologists and
neuroscientists (as partners) should be able to observe mental events. As this
begins to happen, there will be no further need to worry about the role of
science in psychology (Silverman, 2011).