Under the Influence

How power, status, and social hierarchy shape us.

The Psychology of the "Psychology Isn't a Science" Argument

Psychology is a science even though some psychologists aren't scientists.

Every so often the internet is set ablaze with opinion pieces on a familiar question: Are "soft" sciences, like psychology, actually science? Most of the time the argument against psychology as a science comes from people from the so-called harder sciences (you know, people who don't know ish about psychology). Of course, every once in a while we throw ourselves under the bus by declaring that for our softer sciences to be taken seriously, we must be more like the real sciences. You're still reading this so most likely you are interested in my opinion on this topic. With a quick nod to others who have covered this topic hereherehere, and here, let's review some of the arguments for and against psychology as a science in what follows.

I. Psychologists do unscientific things

Whenever I read a story about how psychology isn't a real science it is usually accompanied by mentions of some psychologists (and I use the term loosely here) engaging in unscientific things. This includes the stacks and stacks of pseudo scientific self-help books that claim to reveal the science of X, the mere existence of celebrity psychologists like Dr. Drew or Dr. Phil, and the fraudulent research of now disgraced psychologists like Dirk Smeesters or Marc Hauser.

It is true that psychology has its fair share of pseudo science, I mean the entire diagnostic manual of mental disorders has continued to resist integration with research findings (see here). However, there is real science happening here in psychology--that is, our scientific journals are packed with research summaries where psychological scientists have used the scientific method to test a specific hypothesis.

The argument that a field is not a science just because some of its members aren't scientists doesn't really hold water. Take the case of fraud as an example: Have you been to retraction watch recently? If you go there you will find that scientific fraud is not the domain of just the soft sciences. Fraud effects the sciences, from hard to soft.

II. Psychology doesn't define its terminology well enough to be considered a science

Some people (usually who know little about psychology) argue that psychologists don't define their terms clearly enough to be considered a science. In one example of this, a physicist named Alex Berezow (using a bunch of sciency terms that my poor psychologist brain struggled to understand) argued that happiness research is a perfect example of a failure to define terms. He states that "the meaning of the word differs from person to person and especially between cultures."

Setting aside the point of cultural variability for a second, I actually think that happiness research is a very bad example of poor definitions in psychology. People who study subjective well-being have spent decades arriving at a definition of the construct that is comprised of three parts--subjective cognitive assessments of one's life as meaningful, positive affect, and negative affect. Importantly, they didn't just come to a definition by writing a random opinion piece in the LA times about a field they know nothing about. Instead, researchers arrived at this definition based on decades of evidence gathered based on thousands (possibly millions by now) of people reflecting on their happiness (go here for the source of this effort). This hardly seems like a deficit in terminology.

III. Psychology relies too heavily on subjective experience

Much of what bothers people about psychology is the sheer subjectivity of it all. That is, how we perceive any number of social phenomena is likely to vary a great deal from person to person. This problem is at the very core of psychology research, and many people feel that, to be science, psychologists must uncover universal human psychological processes.

The problem with this logic is that the search for human universals, with very few exceptions, is likely to be a fool's errand. Studying the human experience means asking people how they feel, and those feelings are likely to vary from person to person, situation to situation, and culture to culture. The inherent messiness is the challenge that each psychologist faces in his/her research (and the fun). That psychological phenomena are often culturally or situationally bound is not evidence of lack of scientific rigor, but rather, acknowledgement of the power of cultures and situations to influence how we perceive and respond to our social environments.

Of course, some psychologists think the subjective isn't sciency enough, and so they operationalize their variables in ways that are far less bound to the meaning messiness of questionnaire measures. In the realm of happiness, if a researcher is unsatisfied with subjective ratings, he or she might measure the length of telomeres (a marker of cell aging) or the levels of glucocorticoid hormones in the blood stream. Psychologists do this too, and this sort of work is much closer to what even a physicist or chemist might consider science.

Of course, whether a psychologists uses subjective self-reports or biological measures (or mathematical models that "precisely" quantify the golden ratio of positive affect) does not make them any more of a scientist. All biological measures really do is make psychologists look more like "hard" scientists to other "hard" scientists.  

IV. Psychology isn't falsifiable

This criticism comes from within our own field as well as from the outside: Psychologists too often publish positive findings--that is findings that support rather than contradict hypotheses. Publication of primarily positive findings suggests that psychologists are more interested in supporting their own beliefs about human experience than in finding truth about that experience. It is because of this trend that one of my colleagues suggested that our field contains more lawyers than scientists (here).  

This criticism is actually a fair one in my book--psychologists are often likely to bury data that does not support their theories about the world (even famous psychologists like Stanley Milgram are guilty of this). This practice strikes me as unscientific because it renders hypotheses more difficult to falsify. However, the good news is that efforts are underway to pay more attention to negative findings (see here).

What is the psychology behind the "Psychology isn't a Science" argument?

I think there are several basic psychological principles that help explain why this argument strikes a nerve with so many people. I tend to think of it in terms of social comparison. Psychologists like to weigh in on the psychology is a science perspective because we are engaging in upward social comparison--We want a seat at the table with the hard sciences, we want to be published in the most prestigious science journals, and we want a larger share of the grant funding from our government. In contrast, the harder sciences engage in downward social comparison with psychology--Hard sciences seek to maintain their elevated position in the science hierarchy, and sometimes they accomplish this by disparaging the softer sciences.

To close, I would just like to point out that psychology is a very young science, and so to expect it to have the same prestige and admiration as other sciences that have been around for centuries is a little far-fetched. Just like it takes a person time to build respect and prestige amongst his or her co-workers, psychology is going to have to be around for a bit longer before it starts earning the respect and admiration of other sciences. I'm okay with this and if you want to talk with me more about this issue I'll be here: Doing science.

This post appeared on Psych-Your-Mind.

Fanelli, D. (2010). Positive Results increase down the hierarchy of the sciences PLOS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010068

Fredrickson BL, & Losada MF (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. The American psychologist, 60 (7), 678-86 PMID: 16221001

Taylor SE, & Lobel M (1989). Social comparison activity under threat: downward evaluation and upward contacts. Psychological review, 96 (4), 569-75 PMID: 2678204

Michael W. Kraus is Assistant Professor of Social-Personality Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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