Many people doubt that psychology is a branch of science. Of course, within the subject, there are non-scientific methods of research. However, psychology as a whole, is in fact a science; or more specifically, a social science. This statement is proven by the fact that during psychological research, many different methodologies are relied upon. These methodologies will be examined in the following pages of this essay.
In order to aid in my explanation, I have located the most suitable definition of the term ‘science’. According to the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, 1979, science may be defined as: “the (pursuit or principles of) systematic and formulated knowledge; branch of knowledge; organised body of knowledge”. The purpose of including this definition is to provide more clarity on the criteria required for a subject to be considered a science.
There are many ways in which to identify psychology as a legitimate branch of science. One of the major ways, however, is to check whether or not any psychological study follows the very specific steps in the scientific process.
The scientific process is a set of seven steps by whose guidelines scientific studies are conducted. The first step in the scientific process is to carry out an initial observation. This is simply the question which prompted the study in the first place. The second step is the formulation of an initial hypothesis. Here, the researcher gathers all information available in advance of the commencement of the study, in order to form an initial hypothesis. What a hypothesis is can be explained quite simply as an educated guess based on any factors which are already known to the researcher. Once this initial hypothesis has been formed, it must be tested to ensure its feasibility, usually by altering certain variables. If the hypothesis is adequate, it will withstand further extensive examination, and prove to be realistic. Once this hypothesis has proven to make sense, the information must then be even further analysed, and a basic conclusion drawn. Following this, the findings should be reported to the scientific community in general, through the medium of scientific or medical journals, depending on the subject matter or nature of the research. The next step, if the scientific community reacts favourably to this newly published material, is to conduct further studies in order to glean as much information as possible, so that a theory may be formulated. This theory is a more solid bank of knowledge than the aforementioned initial hypothesis. The final step in the scientific process, is where this new theory is even further tested and analysed so that multiple new hypotheses may eventually be formed (Passer et al., 2009).
In order to show that psychology is a scientific subject, we can see how psychological research complies perfectly with each step in the scientific process. We will now examine an event which is now referred to as the Kitty Genovese incident (Darley and Latané, 1968). Kitty Genovese was a 28 year old woman, who in March 1964, was brutally murdered on the streets of New York, at around 3 a.m., on her way home from work. She was stabbed multiple times by her attacker, and the whole horrifying event lasted a considerable length of time; about 30 minutes. During this time, she shouted for help, which unfortunately was not forthcoming. According to records, the murder was witnessed by at least 38 people. Taking this information into account, the level of apparent unfeeling was shocking. At the time, ‘bystander apathy’ was blamed for the lack of help which could have saved this woman’s life. However, two psychologists were sceptical of the ‘bystander apathy’ theory.
John Darley and Bibb Latané didn’t understand how so many people could have the same level of indifference about what was happening to Kitty Genovese. Together, they decided to further investigate the incident in order to to find out the true reason why no-one helped her as she was attacked. In formulating their research, they followed the structure of the scientific process. Darley and Latané, (1968) formed their initial hypothesis based on what they already knew.
They then tested this hypothesis by creating and altering variables, such as the number of bystanders present, etc. By the end of their research, they had found that the real reason that no-one helped during the incident, was not due to ‘bystander apathy’ as it was first thought. Instead, Darley and Latané found that since so many people had witnessed the event, that each person decided not to call the police as they had assumed that the responsibility would be taken up by one of the other witnesses. Unfortunately, each of the witnesses thought exactly the same, and as a result, she was left alone. Despite the sad realisation at the end of the study that Kitty Genovese could have been saved, the research conducted by Darley and Latané was a success, and is an excellent example of how psychological studies are conducted in a scientific manner. (Passer et al, 2009).
There are also a wide variety of research methods carried out scientifically in order to aid the use of the scientific method, and which help to prepare any new findings for experimentation. The case study is one of these research methods, by which information is compiled through meticulous observation of the test subject, and the conditions under which the test subject is placed.
A good example of a case study is one which was carried out by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, a French medical student who studied ‘Victor, the Wild-Child of Aveyron’. Victor was a boy who had apparently been living alone in the wilderness. He had been spotted on numerous occasions in the woods by locals. In 1797, he was captured, but after a short time, he escaped. In 1800, however, he was captured again, and sent to a local biologist in order to be examined. He was unable to speak, and of unknown age; though from his appearance, he was estimated to be around 12 years old. When the biologist had done all the research he could, Victor was sent to the house of Gaspard for further examination. At the beginning of his research, Gaspard ensured that Victor was not deaf, by monitoring his responses to different sounds. Once this had been proven, Gaspard set about formulating a theory that Victor would eventually be capable of showing human capabilities beyond those of an animal. Gaspard intended to prove this by teaching Victor to speak. Over time, Victor improved, developing a small, very basic vocabulary. Eventually, Gaspard’s theory was proven, albeit by accident. Victor did in fact show human capabilities, though not as expected. One day, Victor attempted to console Gaspard’s housekeeper following the loss of her husband, and in doing so, he displayed one of the most innately human traits, therefore making Gaspard’s theory a success. This was quite a unique case study, but also one which was extremely interesting (Passer et al., 2009).
However, the findings which are uncovered as a result of these scientific studies, are relatively ineffective unless they are reported to the scientific community. Therefore, once a study has reached a certain level of completion, it should be published in a scientific journal, as previously mentioned. Even though this is a part of the scientific process, it is of appropriate importance to warrant a separate, more detailed explanation. Publication in these scientific journals is a big step for the researchers who carried out the study. This is because the potential profitability of any future research essentially hinges on whether or not the findings are accepted by the scientific community. In some cases, a psychologist whose research has become successfully published may achieve great recognition and rise to the top of his/her specific field, sometimes becoming a source of consultation for other future or supplementary studies.
These are all very strong points to prove that psychology is a science. The final form of proof to be discussed here, is an altogether more simple method; by contrasting scientific approaches to psychology against more popular, or common sense approaches to psychology. Common sense approaches to psychology are methods of research which are carried out without the use of scientific methods. Examples of these non-scientific approaches include questionnaires, and focus groups or correlational studies. While these methods are useful for some elements of research, they do not provide the level of information needed for a study or experiment. That is yet another reason for the use of scientific research methods in most psychological studies.
Psychologist John B. Watson made an excellent point in his article; ‘Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It’ (1913). In this article, Watson writes solely from the perspective of a behavioural psychologist, yet his reasoning can apply to any area of psychology. He says: “psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science.” This quote perfectly embodies the spirit of this essay, and supports the point which I set out to prove; that psychology is indeed a science, largely due to the methodologies adopted during psychological research.
Sykes, J.B. (6th Ed.) (1979) The Pocket Oxford Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Passer et al. (2009) Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (European Ed.).
Darley, J. & Latané, B. (1968) Bystander Intervention in Emergencies: Diffusion of Responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 8, Issue 4, Part 1, April 1968, Pages 377-383. [Electronic Version]. Science Direct.
Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviourist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.