Is psychology a science? Well, what exactly a science?

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Science is defined as the “systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. Therefore, the scientific method employs a number of different measures. These include:

Paradigm – a set of theoretical rules and assumptions that are agreed upon by scientists (guiding principles/ general laws), to classify and standardise scientific knowledge.

Though it is argued that psychology’s many approaches (Biological, Social Learning, Cognitive, Behaviourist, Psychodynamic and Humanistic) all have unique aspects which cannot be disregarded, meaning that psychology does not have a paradigm, the emergence of a paradigm in modern psychology has been seen. The Cognitive approach’s computer analogy has seen a combination of cognition (software) and biological psychology (hardware). They are both complementary and so psychology has its paradigm.

Objectivity – a separation between the scientist and what they are studying, to allow the collection of data that is valid and reliable.

This is one of the trickiest to argue. Studies have shown that humans studying humans is ultimately subjective: Rosenthal found that participants’ performance of a task was altered by the physical characteristics of the observer. Similarly, psychology’s rushing into quantification means that many measures used today are self-report, the ultimate subjective tool. However, psychologists have an awareness of these influences so they can be reduced using inter-observer and inter-rater reliability. Coupled with a large sample size and other methodological strengths, subjectivity can be overpowered.

Empiricism – the exclusive collection of data that can be detected by the senses, so that it is objective and less open to interpretation.

Psychodynamic psychologists were the only people who ever collected data that wasn’t empirical. Today, empirical data is collected as standard. Though Coggies measure interal processes, this is done in a scientific way through structured interviews and observations used to create models that infer mental processes.

Falsifiability – theories are created which are capable of being proven wrong, and are challenged by hypothesis testing. Unfalsifiable theories like those of the Psychodynamic approach allow no progress to be made as nothing can be challenged so there is no opportunity for stronger, more refined theories to emerge.

Over time, the Social Learning Theory integrated into it more cognitive mediating factors. As their existence was proven using empirical inquiry, the SLT was scrapped and the Cognitive approach was born. Cognitive theory takes the environment into heavy consideration alongside its emphasis on internal mental structures. Therefore it seems that, on the basis of falsifiability, psychology is a science.

Quality control – the quality of findings is challenged by peer review and open discussion which may lead to replication. This means that work is looked at by other experts in the field who can check that findings really are valid. If not, they are challenged with replication, possibly using a different methodology, to see if the initial trend found remains.

Psychological research is published in major journals such as Science, Perception and British Journal of Psychology. All of these professional names are peer-reviewed so a leading expert in the field assesses the methodology and quality of the written report before deciding to publish it or reject it for publication. This means that nonsense like NLP, which makes large claims about its effectiveness but cannot provide any data, is not published as it is not eligible for peer review. The power of replication has also been seen within psychology: in 2008 a challenge to the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ was made, testing pop music and classical music on 8000 children. And surprise, surprise, the commonly-believed effect had been fabricated: though classical music does have a small, short-term enhancement in children, pop music is more effective.

Generalisation – the application of the findings of a study or a theory to the wider society or environment. This allows progress as general laws of commonalities can be made.

General laws are made all the time in psychology. The biological approach believes that everyone’s criminal behaviour is caused by the inheritance of traits which make us more likely to commit crime. Christiansen’s study of criminality in MZ and DZ twins was generalised not only to all twins, but the idea of genetic concordance was generalised to us all. Behaviourists even generalise the findings of animal studies to us. Freud generalised Hans’ oedipus complex to all 5 year old males. SLTs think that all children attend to models of perceived similarity and attractiveness. Generalisations are clearly made a lot.

Reductionism – the experimental method, whereby an IV is manipulated whilst a DV is measured and all other variables are standardised, requires the reduction of study to just an IV and DV. This allow cause-effect relationships to be established so that trends can be found. Theoretical reductionism can too be used by cutting through the complexity of the chosen subject to a few fundamental principles, allowing a simple and easily understood account to be gained.

Just like generalisations, pretty much everyone reduces us into our component parts because it is needed to conduct experiments, which pretty much everyone also does. Biological reductionism cuts through our complexity to study just evolution, genes and our Nervous System (put very simply). Machine reductionism is what Cogs use to portray our information processing systems that are the mind and brain. And environmental reductionism is the reduction of the causes of behaviour to exclusively external factors like our peers and the media. Whether or not such reductionism encompasses the complexity of us humans (that’s another debate entirely), it is consistent with science.

So then, is psychology a science? It seems so, yes. It may not be all lab coats and test tubes but the study of humans is rather more complex than all that, because cells and atoms don’t have conscious thought which detects demand characteristics! So, by breaking science apart into its fundamental method, we can see that psychology is a science. And a good job, too! If it wasn’t we’d all still be stuck in the post-Freudian era analysing inkblots…

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The effect of hormones of human behaviour

hormones

  • Testosterone – a sex hormone found primarily in males – They are released by glands and are responsible for development both before and after birth. At 6 weeks, they are released to form the male sex organ and in teenage years produce secondary sex characteristics such as increased bodily hair and a deeper voice. The brain of a male thus develops differently to that of a female, with superior visual spatial and maths skills. Many studies have shown that testosterone contributes to increased aggressive traits: in a double blind trial Tricker et al (1996) gave two sets of participants 600mg of either testostorone or a placebo and found that those who has been given the hormone scored as more aggressive on a questionnaire. Similarly, Dabbs et al studied prisoners and in his large sample of 700 found that those who possessed higher testosterone levels commited more crimes (mainly of a sexual and violent nature) and broke more rules than the other, who engaged in other types of crime such as theft.
  • Estrogen – a sex hormone found primarily in females – During puberty they are released by the ovaries, providing a suitable environment for the embryo. They increase motor skills (Hampson and Kimura 1988) and during the secondary response at puberty it makes skin softer and hair finer. Whether or not it causes anxiety, depression and irritability is debatable and studies support either side of the argument – self report studies have found that a woman’s mood increases after menopause but Golombok and Fivush (1994) state that there is no consistent evidence as their more methodologically sound daily self report records diminished the typically used retrospective records
  • Oxytocin – the ‘love’ chemical – found in the hypothalamus’ pituitary gland, it is secreted at intimate moments and solidifies an attachment bond following sexual intercourse. It increases contraction of the uterus during child birth, along with an inducement of parental behaviour, and secretion of milk during breast feeding. Klaver et al (2009) gave participants a nasal spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo and found that those who had the oxytocin nasal spray remembered a greater number of faces after one day than the other group, suggesting an increased attachment.
  • Melatonin – causes drowsiness and lowers body temperature to allow sleep. It also increases REM sleep and thus vivid dreaming. It improves sleep in people with intellectual disorders such as autism.  Low melatonin levels have been found to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. It aids learning and memory and is effective in relieving cluster headaches, migraines and some mood disorders,
  • Thyroxin – increases the rate of reflex actions. Motor and cognitive functions of offspring are impaired following a thyroxin deficiency in mothers.
  • Dopamine – In the brain, it acts as a neurotransmitter to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine systems, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior (rewards include food, sex and any neural stimuli that becomes associated); most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain. In addition to being rewarding, dopamine is also arousing — it produces a general increase in movement of all sorts. Despite strong evidence suggesting that dopamine is related to rewards, dopamine release can be caused by events that do not seem to have anything to do with reward, most notably pain. One of the most popular alternatives to the reward theory is the incentive salience theory, which argues that the function of dopamine is to increase the effects of motivators of all sorts, both positive and negative. It has also been found to elevate higher cognitive functions. Abnormally high dopaminergic transmission has been linked to psychosis and schizophrenia.

Parkinson’s disease is a disorder characterized by stiffness of the body, slowing of movement, and trembling of limbs when they are not in use. In advanced stages it progresses to dementia and eventually death. The main symptoms are caused by massive loss of dopamine-secreting cells in the substantia nigra. These dopamine cells are especially vulnerable to damage. Dopamine has also been demonstrated to play a role in pain processing in multiple levels of the CNS including the spinal cord, cingulate cortex. Accordingly, decreased levels of dopamine have been associated with painful symptoms that frequently occur in Parkinson’s disease.

  • Endorphins – hormones that work with the endocrine system and released in our bodies. Endorphins can be found in the nervous system, the pituitary gland, or throughout other parts of the brain. Endorphins are hormones that allow the body to feel calm and relaxed. It is the body’s natural medication, which relieves tension and helps you sleep better. They are usually produced as a response to pain, fear or stress. Low endorphins level causes people to be anxious and more aware of pain. High endorphins level helps to diminish pain and have lesser effects towards stress, which is why foods such as chocolate produce a good feeling – they release endorphins.

Sources:

  • Wikipedia pages for each bullet pointed hormone
  • Ahmad, H. R., & Brown, S. M. (2006). Serotonin. The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 163(1), pp. 12.
  • Malick, J. B., & Bell, R. M. (1982). Endorphins: chemistry, physiology, pharmacology, and clinical relevance. New York.