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Why is psychology considered a science?

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • Psychology refers to the study of the mind and human behavior.
  • The psychological discipline depends on the scientific method and scientific processes to draw conclusions about human behavior.
  • Psychology consists of many disciplines, including industrial-organizational psychology.
  • University of Phoenix offers two degree programs in psychology focused on understanding social and cultural actions in a professional setting.

Individuals interested in the origins of human consciousness, behavior and personality have likely read up on psychology at one time or another. Defined as the study of the mind and human behavior by the American Psychological Association, psychology encompasses a number of disciplines and concentrations.

Those considering further study into the topic might wonder, however, whether psychology is a science. After all, questions in chemistry or physics may be tested in a lab and proved mathematically.

Psychology, on the other hand, lacks those elements associated with science. Yet it, too, involves formal practices and methodologies, such as research and experimentation.

So, is psychology a science? Let’s take a closer look.

Is psychology a science?

The main question to consider while we unpack whether psychology is a science is this: Does psychology use primarily scientific methods and philosophy to draw conclusions?

It’s important here to see science chiefly as a method to deduce useful information from observation. There are certainly methods of deduction outside the realm of science, and they can produce useful information. One’s personal experience, for example, may provide helpful information at times.

What makes science unique among other methods of deduction is just how formal its methods are. The scientific method prescribes certain criteria for any discipline of study to be considered scientific. Generally speaking, these principles are:

  • Formulation of a hypothesis
  • Deduction of evidence of hypotheses in experiments
  • Reproducibility of experimental conclusions
  • Reporting of conclusions for further analysis and observations

This inquiry is conducted empirically, meaning that scientists are to draw conclusions only from data produced without personal bias.

So, to answer the question at hand: Is psychology a science? Well, that answer relies on yet more questions: Do psychologists perform experiments that can be repeated, peer-reviewed and verified? Are insights drawn from such research and compared with those derived from prior research to form useful theories?

The short answer is yes. But the story of how psychology became a formal science is worth looking into, too.

A brief history of psychology as a science

The word psychology comes to us from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul or spirit, and logos, meaning explanation. In fact, the history of psychology as a science is rooted in ancient Greece.

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle conducted philosophical inquiries into the nature of the human soul. In his book The Republic, Plato put forth his theory that experience could not affect essential aspects of human nature. Aristotle, on the other hand, placed the origins of human behavior on lived experiences.

Though these philosophers never went as far as producing a scientific discipline out of these theories, their work provided a philosophical blueprint to establish psychology as a science down the line. Philosophers like René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke also laid much of the philosophical groundwork that would be formalized into psychology as science.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, theories of the mind and human behavior began to formalize into a real scientific discipline. The German physicist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz, for instance, explored how hearing and vision are interconnected and how senses can be deceived. By creating experiments to prove the fallibility of human senses, Helmholtz helped develop the discipline of psychophysics, a precursor of psychology as a science.

Throughout the century, psychologists worked to formalize the discipline and introduce scientific methodology. Formal education in the subject was developed, along with textbooks and experimental research. Experiments were performed on things like senses, reaction times and perceptions. These produced data that could be experimentally reproduced, published and analyzed.

Though many psychologists disagreed on the exact origins of human behavior, and though many subdisciplines and theories moved in and out of prominence, it was during this time that psychology was formalized as a science.

Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, many psychological theories were attested, evaluated, proved, disproved and revised. In all, the scientific method has been used to produce theories that are useful and widely applicable.

Why is psychology considered a social science?

What makes psychology a social science as opposed to a natural science is that it does not solely deal with the makeup of the physical world. Though much of psychology is based on the physical makeup of the brain, it also takes into account personal and sociological influences.

While two electrons may be exactly alike, and any experimental insights drawn from one will certainly apply to the other, the same can’t be said of two people. At the same time, there are enough commonalities between those two people to draw objective insights.

In this way, psychology is distinctly not a natural science. Yet the centrality of research, and the scientific method in that research, classifies it as a social science.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor John Gabrieli, “Most psychologists work in research laboratories, hospitals and other field settings where they study the behavior of humans and animals.” Some contemporary branches of research are:

  • Biological
  • Cognitive
  • Life-span developmental
  • Personality
  • Social

So, how do psychologists use science in their work? Let’s look at the various research methods that exist in psychology.

Research methods in psychology

Any science has two main types of research: basic research and applied research.

Basic research

Basic research is all about finding facts. It’s not research toward a particular application in everyday life. An  Gabrieli provides an example of a biopsychologist using electric impulses to study the nervous system. Another example would be a cognitive psychologist looking into different studying techniques and seeing how each influences memory.

In each example, the research is not being used toward any particular application. It is performed to find useful information, which may have applications down the line.

Applied research

Applied research, on the other hand, focuses on how research can solve a problem in everyday life. Trying to develop insights on depression while attempting to treat test subjects for their depression would be an example of applied research.

Many psychologists perform both basic and applied research, and insights found in one type of research can and do affect those found in the other. Both are performed within the bounds of the scientific method and produce results empirically.

What types of psychology degree programs are available online?

Individuals exploring careers in psychology might want to know where and how they can pursue their passion in an educational setting. Psychologists work in a range of industries, from schools and hospitals to mental health centers and consulting firms. Many of these positions focus on the mental well-being of a single individual, whereas other roles focus on the health of an entire organization. These latter professionals play a vital role in organizational success and workplace wellness.

Here are some of the main types of industry-focused psychology programs.

Industrial-organizational psychology

This discipline is built around the applications of psychology in the workplace. In this type of program, you’ll likely see the following topics:

  • Group dynamics
  • Organizational cultures
  • Leadership
  • Social psychology

Earning a degree in organizational psychology can help prepare you for several career paths. Careers in industrial-organizational psychology involve applying “principles of psychology to human resources, administration, management, sales and marketing problems,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Psychologists in business organizations may assist in developing hiring methods, for instance, that accurately assess candidates’ skills and strengths.

The salary range for industrial-organizational psychologists was $57,440 to $192,800 in May 2020, according to BLS.

The salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

University of Phoenix offers a bachelor's degree in industrial-organizational psychology. Click here to learn more!

Applied psychology

Applied psychology is exactly what it sounds like: psychology that is applied to everyday problems. It uses past findings and new research to help solve problems of human behavior. Applied psychology includes a number of concentrations, including child advocacy, forensic psychology, media and technology, and clinical psychology.

An example of a program in applied psychology would be University of Phoenix’s Bachelor of Science in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Media and Technology. In this program, students learn how to apply psychological theories within a variety of industries and gain skills to solve complex business issues that involve technology.

Because of the breadth of rigorous research, evaluation and analysis involved, it’s clear why psychology is a science. Rooted in philosophies related to the central aspects of human consciousness, and developed over centuries, psychology promises to provide useful insights now and into the future.

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