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…

Jane Goodall: an external contribution to psychology

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Jane Goodall (1934-)  is a British anthropologist and primatologist, best known for her 45-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park of Tanzania.

She began to study the Kasakela chimpanzee community in 1960. Goodall was able to observe what the strict scientific doctrines overlooked, having no collegiate training influencing her research. Instead of numbering the chimpanzees that she observed, she gave them personal names, and found that they had unique and individual personalities, unconventional as an idea at the time. She found that, “it isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought [and] emotions like joy and sorrow.” Similarly, she observed ‘human’ behaviours such as hugs, kisses, pats on the back, and tickling. Goodall insists that these gestures are evidence of “the close, supportive, affectionate bonds that develop between family members and other individuals within a community, which can persist throughout a life span of more than 50 years.” These results provide support for the idea that similarities between humans and chimpanzees have an influence greater than that of genetics, and it can be seen in emotion, intelligence, and family and social relationships.

Goodall’s research is best known to science for challenging two significant long-standing beliefs: that only humans could construct and use tools, and that chimpanzees were vegetarians. The chimps were observed to take twigs and strip off their leaves in order to make the twig more effective, a form of object modification which is the rudimentary beginnings of toolmaking. Humans had long distinguished ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom as “Man the Toolmaker”. In response to Goodall’s revolutionary findings, Louis Leakey wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human!”

Goodall also noted much aggressive behaviour. She observed that dominant females deliberately killed the younger females of the troop  to maintain dominance, sometimes resorting to cannibalism.  She says of this revelation, “During the first ten years of the study I had believed […] that the Gombe chimpanzees were, for the most part, rather nicer than human beings. […] Then suddenly we found that chimpanzees could be brutal—that they, like us, had a darker side to their nature.” 

Evaluation of Goodall’s work:

Numbering was an almost universal practice in research at the time, and perceived as essential in the removal of one’s self from the potential emotional attachment to the subject being studied, leading to bias and artificial data. Despite this, Goodall named her subjects and is thus criticised for the  loss of objectivity. This has her accused of “that of the worst of ethological sins”.

Some recent studies such as those by  Sanz in the Congo and Boesch in the Tai National Park have not shown the aggression observed in Goodall’s Gombe studies. However, not all primatologists agree that the studies are flawed; Jim Moore provides a critique of Margaret Powers’ assertions and some studies of other chimpanzee groups have shown similar aggression to Gombe even in the absence of feeding.

So what about all the female psychologists?: Sandra Bem

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Sandra Bem (1944-) is a contemporary psychologist best known for her contribution to the field of genderShe developed the Bem Sex Role inventory (BSRI), measuring how well a person fits into traditional gender roles, characterising masculinity, femininity and androgyny.

She suggested that androgynous people, who showed a mixture of masculine and feminine traits, were more psychologically healthier that people who only showed masculine or only feminine traits.

To develop the BSRI, 100 judges were asked to give ratings on a seven-point scale to 200 personality traits. The scale asked them to determine how desirable each trait was for either men or women. On the basis of these ratings, Bem chose 20 traits that the judges had rate as most desirable for males than for females, and 20 traits that they had rated as more desirable for females than for males. A further 20 neutral traits that had not been identified as particularly desirable for for one sex but not the other were also chosen for the scale.

Below are some examples of some of these characteristics:

Masculine: forceful; aggressive; independent.

Feminine: warm; affectionate; gentle.

Neutral: friendly; loyal; theatrical.

Evaluation:

  • Bem’s scale has been found to have good test-retest reliability, producing similar results if used on more than one occasion with the same sample.
  • Bem (1974) suggested that people with high androgyny scores are psychologically healthier than people who show more conventionally differentiated male or female traits. However, other researchers have suggested that it is the high masculinity score which is important for psychological well being (Whitely, 1983).
  • Reducing the concepts of masculinity and femininity to a single score may be an oversimplification.
  • The inventory is based on what American students assessed as desirable traits for men and women in the 1970s. Thus the BSRI, like nearly all significant psychological research, lacks temporal validity as well as limited generalisability in all societies and at all times. Despite this, other and more recent studies have found that gender is consistent across a range of cultures, such as the 37 different cultures investigated by Buss et al (1990).
  • Human biases such as social desirability may produce artificial or distorted data, though the inventory was completed confidentially and was tested on over 1,000 students so it is more likely to have high internal validity.

Other contributions to psychology:

  • Sandra and her husband formulated a revolutionary concept of egalitarian marriage. The husband-wife team became extremely demanded for as speakers on the negative impacts of sex role stereotypes on individuals and society. However, the lack of empirical evidence supporting their assertions limited their research as this was uncharted territory. Subsequently, Sandra became very interested and determined to gather data in support of the detrimental and limiting effects of traditional sex roles.

Social context of Bem’s work:

The 1960’s and 70’s, in which “sexism” was not a word that existed yet, and women were expected to follow the expectations of their gender – agreeable, kind, supportive, domestic, and setting aside everything for their husband. However, the beliefs were not only how it should be, but there was widespread opinion that these traditional sex roles were innate and unchangeable. Women admired the idea of equality, but Bem was told that she would be unable to uphold her ideal of egalitarianism once she had children. She challenged not only the norms of  her immediate life, but also the norms of the wider society. In addition, she was working in a university setting dominated by white men, far from a ring of liberal women bent on busting through patriarchy. This only makes Bem’s contribution more significant and illustrates the glass ceiling between women and an important voice heard in psychology.

Bem’s legacy:

  • Sandra Bem received many awards for her work. Her first award was the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career contribution to Psychology in 1976. In 1977 she was awarded the Distinguished Publication Award of the Association of Women in Psychology and in 1980 she received the Young Scholar Award of the American Association of University Women. In 1995, she was selected as an “Eminent Woman in Psychology” by the Divisions of General Psychology and History of Psychology of the American Psychological Association. Critics of Bem’s research broadly argued against the political nature of her theories and the objectivity of the material that she studied.

 

http://psychology.okstate.edu/museum/women/an-br.html – for a timeline of some of the other significant female voices in psychology.