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Is psychology a science?

As a psychologist – I received my PhD in clinical psychology – I have long been concerned by the problematic reputation of psychology in the public eye. Our besieged public standing has made it difficult…

Critics contend that psychology amounts to scant more than “common sense”. h.koppdelaney

As a psychologist – I received my PhD in clinical psychology – I have long been concerned by the problematic reputation of psychology in the public eye.

Our besieged public standing has made it difficult for psychologists to obtain much-needed funding to carry out research, and it may make would-be mental health consumers less likely to approach us for help.

Psychology’s already embattled status as a science has taken several recent hits in the public eye – not least in the US, where I do my research.

Last year, US Senator Thomas Coburn released a report arguing we should strip social science funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and to eliminate NSF’s Social, Behavioral, and Economics Directorate.

The report read, in part, that:

The social sciences should not be the focus of our premier basic scientific research agency.

One of the prime fields of study that would be adversely affected by these draconian cuts is – you guessed it – psychology.

In July this year, prominent Science 2.0 blogger Hank Campbell insisted in a posting that psychology is “not a science".

He cited the recent musings of Washington Post blogger Charles Lane, who wrote that:

Though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences.

Such statements are troubling, because well-controlled studies demonstrate that certain psychotherapies, especially those that target problematic behaviours and irrational thoughts, can alleviate clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bulimia, insomnia, and other afflictions.

In all fairness, some of psychology’s wounds have been self-inflicted. In the United States and most other countries, psychology’s public face is represented not by psychological researchers, but by “pop” psychologists, such as Dr. Phil McGraw (“Dr. Phil”), whose claims are based much more on anecdotes and intuition than on science.

Indeed, on his award-winning television show, Dr. Phil has featured self-proclaimed psychics with nary a hint of criticism, and has advocated the use of the highly fallible polygraph test – popularly misnamed the “lie detector” – as a means of identifying which partner in a relationship is lying.

About 3,500 self-help books are published each year on such topics as love, addiction, grief, and narcissism. Yet fewer than 5% have received any scientific scrutiny, so there’s no way to know whether any help, or for that matter, harm.

Last year, psychology’s bona fides received a further blow with the publication of an article by Cornell University psychologist Daryl Bem in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which purported to find evidence for extrasensory perception (ESP).

Not long after the article’s publication, numerous critics identified serious flaws with the article’s methods, and others failed to replicate its results.

Adding insult to injury, over the last few years, several prominent psychologists, including Harvard University’s Marc Hauser and Tilburg University’s Diederik Stapel, were discovered to have either cooked or exaggerated their findings.

Tim Sheerman-Chase

Many other criticisms of psychology’s scientific status are largely misguided. Although surveys demonstrate that most laypeople doubt that psychology is useful in everyday life, psychology has made myriad contributions to society that most of us take for granted.

Psychologists have been on the forefront of advances in advertising, education, achievement testing, political polling, psychotherapy, animal training, airplane cockpit safety, and scores of other domains.

To take one example, psychological research has shown that lime-yellow objects are more easily detected in the dark than are red objects, leading to a gradual change in the colour of fire engines.

To take another, basic principles of operant conditioning (learning by reinforcement) discovered by psychologists have been immensely useful in teaching language to children with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities.

Other critics contend that psychology amounts to scant more than “common sense”; yet dozens of intuitive propositions, such as the beliefs that opposites attract in relationships, that we use only 10% of our brain power, that memory operates like a video camera or that we should always stick with our first answer on multiple choice tests have been roundly discredited by psychological research.

Moreover, although some critics question whether psychology uses scientific methods, much of modern psychology relies on well-honed and mathematically sophisticated safeguards against error.

Randomised controlled designs, which minimise a host of sources of subtle bias, are de rigueur in studies of psychological treatment.

Indeed, systematic controls against bias are often more routine in psychological research than in research in physics and chemistry, probably because psychologists must remain cognisant of the fact that their prime objects of study – human beings – are aware that they are being investigated.

Scott Beale

Others charge that psychology cannot generate accurate real-world predictions. Of course, psychology can rarely make “point predictions” – forecasts regarding the exact value of a statistic (e.g. “The number of people who will experience post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] following this earthquake is 25.6%”).

Yet such imprecision is to be expected, because virtually all psychological phenomena hinge on unknown contextual variables. The percentage of people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of a natural disaster depends on the severity of the disaster, the personality traits of the people afflicted, the level of social support in the event’s aftermath, and so on.

At the same time, studies demonstrate that psychology’s predictions in many domains are surprisingly robust.

Carefully measured personality traits such as conscientiousness are moderately good predictors of performance in just about every occupation; and pathological traits such as psychopathy (a constellation of features that comprises charm, guiltlessness, callousness, and poor impulse control) are consistent predictors of violence and criminal recidivism.

Admittedly, asking whether psychology is a science is a bit like asking whether movies are good, restaurants serve tasty food, or people are nice.

It is not one field, but a sprawling confederation of dozens of subdisciplines that examine mental processes.

Within its vast confines lie researchers who study brain functioning, thinking, memory, emotions, social influence, prejudice, romance, sleep, personality, athletic performance, work behaviour, psychopathology, psychotherapy, and a plethora of other topics.

Moreover, even within each of these domains, there is variability in rigor.

Yet the level of scientific precision within psychology continues to improve, and the everyday life pay-off in such diverse areas as eyewitness testimony, high-stakes cognitive testing, economic behaviour, work satisfaction, vehicular safety, and the treatment of mental illness is increasingly evident.