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


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…

Small though: what are the consequences of regarding crime as a disease?


  • Criminals are labelled, making it easier for treatment to be given
  • It provides criminals with an explanation for their behaviour
  • This may promote more funding to be directed towards treatments for offenders which, with success, could lead to lower offending rates in the long term
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy: false beliefs are put into the minds of the criminals, leading to psychological distress and a rise in criminal activity
  • It implies determinism but the criminal justice system is based on the idea of free will: a losing situation

Free will or determinism?

The early 19th century’s Galvanism claims that humans are no more than machines, were the first to oppose widely held beliefts of the importance of the soul. Psychologists have since picked up the scientists-Romantics argument, and has presented some interesting claims…


  • Biological determinism, which comes from behaviour built into genes which persist into the genome due to evolutionary fitness – high IQ has been related to the IGF2R gene (Chorney et al 1998). This can also contribute to variation in brain structures – schizophrenic patients have been found to have ventricular enlargement and hypofrontality (Gazer et al 2000, Molina et al 2005).
  • Bandura (1961) supports the idea of environmental determinism – children who watch violent models imitate their behaviour
  • All behavious is under stimulus control, according to behavioural psychologists such as Skinner. He believed hat actions are goverened by certain universal scientific laws, so that each action is caused by a specific prior cause, and human action is no exception. Therefore all of behaviourism’s research supports determinism.
  • However, psychologists cannot fully predict behaviour 100% of the time due to the complex interaction of variables which can influence behaviour
  • The view of determinism is supported by the presence of mental illnesses: it is nobody’s choice to lose contact with reality or all sense of happiness in their everyday lives

Free will:

  • is the idea that we make our own choices all of the time, and is supported mainly by the Humanistic approach
  • This approach has had much criticism, including its lack of scientific rigour and use of bias-prone methods such as interviews
  • Cognitive psychologists are also inclined to attribute importance to free will as they only support a soft determinist view
  • The ethical argument also supports free will. In order to expect moral responsibility, one must accept the concept of free will. If an individual’s behaviour is determined by forces beyond an individual’s control then the individual cannot be held responsible for their actions. However our laws insist that adults do have individual responsibility for their actions and so implicitly society supports free will.

Overall? – the idea of determinism is a more accepted one today, with advancing neuroscientific research of high scientific rigour. While this side of the argument is more dominant, we cannot doubt that free will does play a significant, albeit minor, role in bheaviour which subtly underpins major decisions.


McLeod (2013) Freewill and Determinism in Psychology. Retrieved from

Should brain scans be used in the courtroom?


Roughly 5% of murder trials in the USA now involve some aspect of neuroscience in the process of coming to an overall verdict. As technology advances, we are increasingly able to provide and incorporate it into the process of meaningful societal decisions. But should brain scans be used in the courtroom?


  • The authors of the Royal Society panel, including Nicholas Mackintosh of the University of Cambridge, flag up research suggesting that the brains of psychopaths are fundamentally different to the brains of non-psychopaths. Therefore, brain scans would be crucial to determining whether or not a suspect is guilty of committing crime due to free will, as a psychopath’s disorder and subsequent altered brain structure would account for their lack of control in committing the crime. 
  • Similarly, recent research into brain development suggests that crucial brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, which is important in decision making and impulse control, don’t actually finish maturing until the age of around 20.  
  • Brain scans provide sound methodology due to their empirical nature and objective rigour. This is seen as a desirable step forward in the courtroom as it improves accuracy of convictions by the implementation of science. The gradual removal of dependence upon subjective decisions, which are left open to the possibility of biased interpretation and subsequent inaccurate conviction, are thus seen as a good thing.


  • Lie detection research is often based on students telling lies that are unlikely to have any impact on their lives. This provides a situation that’s difficult to compare to a criminal who might be lying for his life, not to mention that of a cunningly deceptive psychopath. The lack of generalisability is arguably too great an issue to risk in serious decisions such as murder trials. Additionally, most fMRI studies are small, unreplicated and compare differences in the average brain activity of groups, rather than individuals, making it difficult to interpret for single cases. It is rarely used in diagnosis. Moreover, a recent scan, say some critics, wouldn’t necessarily indicate a criminal’s mental state when he committed his crimes, weeks, months or ever years before the scan is taken.
  • Criminals may simply learn how to trick the system. The scientific brain scans rely on physiology to generate decisions but criminals may possess biofeedback control, allowing them to manipulate their physiology. The evidence calls them innocent but they’re just playing science.
  • The easy manipulation of brain scans is confirmed by the results of one experiment, in which the success rate for distinguishing truth from lies dropped from 100% to a third when participants used countermeasures. The researchers of this study concluded that, “for the foreseeable future reliable fMRI lie detection is not a realistic prospect.”

Conclusion?:There is no harm in slowly bringing more brain scan use into the courtroom, as long as their scientific label does not cause them to be mistaken for a perfect machine of criminal judgement. They should be used with caution and not overly relied on, as a useful tool and step towards more accurate verdicts of cases involving brain injury litigation or questions of impaired ability. Their use will be a win for those who believe in biological determinism, which may fire up the old nature-nurture debate once more.