Is Psychology a Science?
In order to answer this question it is important to understand the
definitions of both psychology and science. The word 'psychology' comes
from the Greek 'psyche' (or soul) and 'logos' (or study), which came to be
known as the 'study of the soul'. The American Heritage Dictionary defines
1. the science dealing with the mind and with mental and emotional
2. the science of human and animal behavior.
In its pure definition the dictionary has provided us with a clue to the
answer, it describes science as:
1. systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, etc.
2. a branch of knowledge, esp. one that systematizes facts, principles, and
3. skill or technique
In order to prove this claim we have to look at whether or not psychology
can fill this definition above.
Scientific study is a valid way of coming to an understanding of life, and
can be very useful in every area of life. Science develops theories based
on what is observed. It examines each theory with rigorous and scrupulous
tests to see if it describes reality. The scientific method works well in
observing and recording physical data and in reaching conclusions which
either confirm or nullify a theory.
During the mid-19th century, scholars (although at that time probably
termed philosophers) wanted to study human nature with the aim of applying
the scientific method to observe, record, and treat human behavior that was
deemed as unnatural. They believed that if people could be studied in a
scientific manner, there would be a greater accuracy in understanding
present behavior, in predicting future behavior, and, most controversially,
in altering behavior through scientific intervention.
There are many areas of psychology, each attempting to explain behavior
from slightly different perspectives;
Social psychology is concerned with the effects of social situations on
Personality theorists study individual behavior.
Comparative psychologists study animal behaviors across the range of
Physiological psychologists are concerned with the biological basis of
Developmental psychologists study principles and processes responsible for
change throughout life.
Cognitive psychologists investigate memory, thought, problem solving, and
the psychological aspects of learning.
Analysis of behavior studies the conditions under which a behavior can be
learned and the situations that cause that behavior to occur.
Learning is an area of psychology exploring how new behaviors are learned
Clinical psychologists study ways to help individuals and groups of
individuals change their behavior.
Industrial and organizational psychologists are concerned with the physical
and social aspects of people's work environments as they affect work
Community psychologists use scientific methods to study and solve social
As Western describes, the psychological paradigm is a collection of
assumptions used to make sense of a subject area or experience, this can be
applied to psychology itself. Psychology lacks one unified paradigm but
has four perspectives that search for its understanding;
The pyschodynamic perspective believes that behavior is a result of
unconscious processes, personal motivation and early childhood experiences.
It's most famous advocate was Sigmund Freud. Its method of data
collection rely heavily on interpreting discussion, dreams and fantasies,
actions, case studies and a limited amount of experimentation.
The behaviorist perspective believes that behavior is learned and selected
by environmental consequences. Its method of data collection relies
heavily on experimentation conducted in the scientific laboratory where the
factors studied can be controlled; or it may take place in a real life
setting where more natural behavior is studied and far more variables
The cognitive perspective believes that behavior is a result of information
processing, storage in the brain, transformation and the retrieval of
information. The methods of data collection used are again experimentation
but with much use of computer modeling.
The evolutionary perspective believes that psychological processes echo the
evolutionary processes of natural selection. Its method of data collection
includes the deduction of explanations for behavior, and comparisons
between species and cultures. It also involves a limited amount of
Of these four perspectives all lend common similarities to the traditional
sciences. All have elements of controlled experimentation, as does physics
or chemistry. Cognitive perspectives use computer modeling, as does
mathematics. There are similarities, but there are also differences to any
other sciences, such as the study of dreams and fantasies.
The methods of experimentation and research in psychology is completed on a
scientific basis. Psychological experimental research would involve the
manipulation of a situation to examine the way in which the subjects of an
experiment react, in order to observe cause and effect. The experimenter
manipulates independent variables and the subjects responses would prove
the dependant variables. By measuring the subjects responses, the
experimenter can tell if the manipulation has had an effect.
Psychological hypotheses are sought to operationalise - to turn an abstract
concept into a concrete argument. This process is scientific in its
element. The hypothesis is framed, variables are operationalised
separately, a standard procedure is developed that is maintained throughout
the experiment, subjects are scientifically selected, results are tested
and conclusions drawn.
Control groups are often used, similar in essence to control chemicals used
in chemistry. These control groups are not exposed to the manipulation but
instead to neutral conditions, providing a standards to compare results.
In some cases researchers carry out blind studies where subjects are kept
unaware of the aspects of the study. Double blind studies have been used
in the past where the researchers are kept blind too.
A scientific subject knows its own limitations. Psychology attempts to
study complex phenomena in laboratory and field situations where validity
is called into question. Results contrast with differing personal
understandings of researchers which will always differ to some extent. In
a physical science a variance of error may be intolerable above 2%, in
psychology 50% may be an acceptable level.
Every psychological experiment and theory is evaluated with the same level
of criticality as that of the traditional sciences. Questions are asked
over the theoretical framework, the results validity and its relationship
with the hypothesis, the quality and range of sample and if it is
representative, the conclusions that can be drawn form the data and broader
conclusions that may be apparent. Finally the studies are questioned on
their meanings and ethics to operationalise the original hypothesis.
Psychology has adopted the scientific mode. However, from a strictly
scientific point of view, it has not been able to meet the requirements of
In attempting to evaluate the status of psychology as a scientific study,
the American Psychological Association appointed Sigmund Koch to conduct a
study, employing over eighty noted scholars in assessing the facts,
hypotheses, and methods of psychology. In 1983, the results were published
in a series entitled 'Psychology: A Study of Science'. Koch describes what
he believes to be the delusion in thinking of psychology as a science:
The truth is that psychological statements which describe human behavior or
which report results from tested research can be scientific. However, when
there is a move from describing human behavior to explaining it there is
also a move from science to opinion.
Here it is important to make the distinction between psychology and
psychiatry. Academic psychology is a scientific project, initiated by
Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig at around 1885. His work was the
study of the average adult human mind, and the scientific method used was
introspection. His approaches have long since been abandoned, as have many
of his ideals, but not the basic idea of understanding and describing human
functioning within a scientific context.
Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is no more a science than that of civil
engineering. Ideally, scientifically investigated therapeutic techniques
and methods are used together with ethical and philosophical principles in
order to achieve a desired outcome. Psychotherapy, then, is a mixture of a
craft and an art and may not be called a science.
Psychology breeds many conflicting explanations of man and his behavior.
Psychologist Roger Mills, in his 1980 article, "Psychology Goes Insane,
Botches Role as Science," says:
"The field of psychiatry today is literally a mess. There are as many
techniques, methods and theories around as there are researchers and
therapists. I have personally seen therapists convince their clients that
all of their problems come from their mothers, the stars, their biochemical
make-up, their diet, their lifestyle and even the "karma" from their past
These opinions are describing psychotherapy and not psychology in its core.
Remembering that psychology is the scientific study of the behavior of
humans and animals, we should look at their methods of study. As we have
seen, psychologists use scientific methods in an attempt to understand and
predict behavior, to develop procedures for changing behavior, and to
evaluate treatment strategies.
Mitchell and Jolley discuss the question of whether psychology is a science
in the first chapter of their text 'Research Design Explained' (3rd
Edition). Their conclusions support the claim that psychology is a
science. They discuss the facts that psychology produces objective
evidence that can be replicated (replicated with the same success as
physics and chemistry experiments). That it unearths observable, objective
evidence that either supports or refutes existing beliefs and creates new
knowledge. And that psychology is open-minded about claims, even those
that go against common sense and sceptical about ideas that, even though
they make sense, have not been supported by any research evidence.
If we can define a science using subjective methods then Psychology is
definitely a science. Psychology represents an empirical science, its
methods demanding empirical testing of hypotheses.
Many empirical results of psychology are subject to personal interpretation
and intense dispute. This can be seen as a function of the phenomena that
is psychology. But the key to resolving these disputes is to turn back to
the empirical methods and pit alternative interpretations against each
The American Heritage Dictionary, 1996
Western, Psychology - Mind, Brain and Culture, 1997
Sigmund Koch, 'Psychology: A Study of Science', 1983 article
Roger Mills, 'Psychology Goes Insane, Botches Role as Science', 1980
Mitchell and Jolley, 'Research Design Explained' (3rd Edition), 1995