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Psychology: a Science Or not

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 “Like all science, psychology is knowledge; and like science again, it is knowledge of a definite thing, the mind.” (James Mark Baldwin, 1913).

The debate regarding the classification of psychology as a science has been around as long as psychology itself and will be explored within this essay, to conclude the argument. Primarily though, the concepts must be made clear so that the debate can be discussed with a clear focus on what is meant by ‘psychology’ and ‘science’; The British Psychological Society (2014) defines psychology as “the scientific study of the mind and how it dictates and influences our behaviour”, clearly demonstrating a link with science, which is defined by Morris (1992) as “the systematic observation of natural events and conditions to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts”.

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The role of science in psychology has grown more prominent as psychology has evolved. Supporting the idea that psychology is developing to become more scientific, Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner and Hood (2016) discuss that before the 19th century- as no attempt to generate or produce testable hypotheses had been made- psychology could not have possibly been considered a science, linking to the scientific model explained by Gauch Jr (2003) and the need for a presupposition, empirical evidence and a logical conclusion for research to be classified as scientific. Although a lack of hypothesis this was the case pre-19th century, psychology has continued to develop, with a key step towards being classed as science being taken with the adoption of the hypothetical-deductivism, a scientific method described by Haig (2005) to have been adopted in the way that psychologists emphasize testing hypotheses using statistical analysis and tests of significance. This clearly demonstrates that as psychological research progresses it is making use of scientific methods, and so should be classed as a science in its own right.

There are many different approaches within psychology, from the cognitive approach to the humanistic approach. Although the biological approach and the cognitive approach are quite scientific, a key approach in the development of psychology as a science is the behaviourist approach, which focuses on the analysis of observable behaviours as opposed to internal, unconscious, immeasurable processes (Moore, 2011). Behaviourists strongly believe in the idea of psychology as a science, with prominent behaviourist Skinner (1971, p160.) stating: “it is science or nothing”. Much

However, psychology is a broad topic and many of the approaches within it can differ greatly, often leading to contradictions between research. For example, Freud (1909) studied phobias in a young boy using a psychoanalytical approach, which has a strong focus on unconscious mental processes, drives and forces, and how these can influence our basic human functioning. Within his research, Freud claimed that the young boy, known as ‘Little Hans’ had developed a phobia of horses through the Oedipus complex, in which his unconscious anxiety and fear towards his father had been displaced onto the horse. Bowlby (1998), a social learning theory researcher, argued otherwise, directly suggesting that the fear ‘Little Hans’ felt for the horse was caused by separation anxiety. In contrast, behaviourists such as Watson and Rayner (1920) argued that phobias are caused through classical conditioning, in which a phobic stimulus is learned to be associated with a traumatic stressor… There are many, many more explanations of phobias, which have been researched in multitudes by psychologists, many of which are explored by Saul (2001), but no specific cause has yet to be unanimously agreed upon. Science, on the other hand, can come to a firm agreement in the cause and explanation of a vast majority of what it researches – and so, as psychology is unable to do this it proposes the suggestion that psychology is simply too messy and contradictory to be considered purely scientific.

It can therefore be argued that psychology is a science, but, as Uttal (2007) discussed, it is not a science in the way that chemistry and physics areas the complexity of mind and behaviour cannot be reduced to the simplicity of scientific data. Similarly, as Morris (1992) discusses, there are multiple disciplines within science, including natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. Psychology would be best classified as social science, a science that studies human behaviour and society, not only because psychology directly relates to the study of human behaviour (BPS, 2014), but because the social sciences rely on less harsh and strict guidelines than the other sciences do, enabling the use of qualitative and interpretive data. To conclude, much like there are many different areas and interpretations of psychology, there are different types and extremities of science, meaning that since psychology often relies on scientific methods and approaches, with many growing similarities in method and analysis, it can be classified as one.


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