Psychology as a Science

Even in modern times many people are skeptical that psychology is really a science. To some degree this doubt stems from the fact that many psychological phenomena such as depression, intelligence, and prejudice do not seem to be directly observable in the same way that we can observe the changes in ocean tides or the speed of light. Because thoughts and feelings are invisible many early psychological researchers chose to focus on behavior. You might have noticed that some people act in a friendly and outgoing way while others appear to be shy and withdrawn. If you have made these types of observations then you are acting just like early psychologists who used behavior to draw inferences about various types of personality. By using behavioral measures and rating scales it is possible to measure thoughts and feelings. This is similar to how other researchers explore “invisible” phenomena such as the way that educators measure academic performance or economists measure quality of life.

One important pioneering researcher was Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who lived in England during the late 1800s. Galton used patches of color to test people’s ability to distinguish between them. He also invented the self-report questionnaire, in which people offered their own expressed judgments or opinions on various matters. Galton was able to use self-reports to examine—among other things—people’s differing ability to accurately judge distances. Although he lacked a modern understanding of genetics Galton also had the idea that scientists could look at the behaviors of identical and fraternal twins to estimate the degree to which genetic and social factors contribute to personality; a puzzling issue we currently refer to as the “nature-nurture question.”


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In 1875 Francis Galton did pioneering studies of twins to determine how much the similarities and differences in twins were affected by their life experiences. In the course of this work he coined the phrase “Nature versus Nurture”. In modern times psychology has become more sophisticated. Researchers now use better measures, more sophisticated study designs and better statistical analyses to explore human nature. Simply take the example of studying the emotion of happiness. How would you go about studying happiness? One straight­ forward method is to simply ask people about their happiness and to have them use a numbered scale to indicate their feelings. There are, of course, several problems with this. People might lie about their happiness, might not be able to accurately report on their own happiness, or might not use the numerical scale in the same way. With these limitations in mind modern psychologists employ a wide range of methods to assess happiness. They use, for instance, “peer report measures” in which they ask close friends and family members about the happiness of a target individual. Researchers can then compare these ratings to the self-report ratings and check for discrepancies. Researchers also use memory measures, with the idea that dispositionally positive people have an easier time recalling pleasant events and negative people have an easier time recalling unpleasant events. Modern psychologists even use biological measures such as saliva cortisol samples (cortisol is a stress related hormone) or fMRI images of brain activation (the left pre-frontal cortex is one area of brain activity associated with good moods).

Despite our various methodological advances it is true that psychology is still a very young science. While physics and chemistry are hundreds of years old psychology is barely a hundred and fifty years old and most of our major findings have occurred only in the last 60 years. There are legitimate limits to psychological science but it is a science nonetheless.


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