Psychology as a Science

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Features of a Science

Subject matter

  • There must be a defined or agreed upon subject matter or paradigm
  • Paradigm- a collective set of theoretical assumptions about a subject and its methods of enquiry, these form the generally accepted perspective of a particular subject at a point in time

Theory Construction

  • Derived from the paradigm, theories provide an understanding by organismsing facts, finding regularities and patterns and condensing these to a short list of general principles

Hypothesis Testing

  • Hypotheses are deduced from theories and are used to test the validity of the theory, the result will determine whether the theory is stengthened or reconsidered

Empirical Methods

  • Data collection used to provide evidence of whether a hypothesis should be rejected or accepted
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T.S Kuhn

  • Believes that a subject can only be called a science if the majority of its workers agree with an work within a common global theory/ paradigm
  • Describes three stages in the development of a science: Pre science--> the subject has not paradigm, a perspective or theory must still be proposed, Normal science--> a paradigm has been established which scientists research, Revolution--> so much evidence conflicts the paradigm that it is rejected, a new theory is the proposed returning it to a normal science= paradigm shift
  • Believes that psychology is not as present characterised by a paradigm due to there being too many conflicting approaches, it is still a pre science


  • Argues that psychology has aready gone through several paradigm shifts: Structuralism--> emphasis on identifying the elements of conscious thoughts and feelings, to Behaviourism--> emphasis on behaviour, to Cognitive psychology--> replaced behaviour with the mind
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The Role of a Theory


  • Explains observable behaviours and evernts using an intergrated set of general principles and predicts observations
  • E.g. One theory of depression is that low self esteem contributes to its cause, this accounts for countless observations that those with depression describe themselves, their past, present and future in gloomy terms and summarises a long list of facts about depressed people
  • Popper believed that a theory should be falsifiable and subjected to attempts at refutation- the researcher should be able to imagine some occurance that would contradict it
  • E.g. The behaviourist approach is falsifiable due to it being very scientific and it only researching observed behaviour, the psychoanalytic approach on the other hand is not falsifiable due to its emphasis on the unconscious which is not testable
  • A theory should be based on observed data, a source of new hypotheses and testable and falsifiable  
  • It should be parsimonious- it should account for all the known facts in as economical a way as possible and not go beyond the available evidence
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Hypothesis Testing

  • The use of statistics to determoine the probability that given hypothesis is true
  • A number of hypotheses are put forward to support a theory, the process of deriving from he theory is known as deduction. Deducing a testable hypotheses from a theory is known as the hypothetico-deductive method
  • The hypothesis is tested using the empirical method, usually the experiment
  • If the hypothesis is accepted, the theory it was deduced from is strengthed in credibility
  • If the hypothesis is rejected, the theory must be reconsidered to account for the results found
  • Just because one hypothsis is rejected/accepted, does not mean all future hypotheses will be rejected/accepted
  • Hypotheses allow for progression within the scientific discipline
  • Should also have practical implications such as solving problems and improving the human condition
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Empirical Methods and Replication

  • The scientific method is empirical- it is based on the collection of data through direct sensory experience
  • The experiment is the main empirical method used as it attempts to control vairables, be objective and produce replicable data

Replicability is important because:

  • Confidence in results is increased when investigations can be replicated
  • If similar results are found, a theory is strengthened
  • Replication confirms the validity of a finding
  • It is not possible to generalise from the findings of one study only, participant variables such as culture may bias the findings
  • Replicable findings improve the practical value of theories

Replication is harder to achieve in psychology due to the unique subject matter of humans

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  • The ability of the researcher to make a justified extension of their conclusions, applying them to other members of the target popualtion and other situation
  • For the findings to be generalisable, the sample must be representative of the target population
  • Linked to the replication of findings as studies must be repeated several times and in a range of different cultures in order for them to be accurately generalised

Problems with generalisation

  • The use of volunteers used in psychological research means that a certain demographic is often only used, Ora described this group as being insecure, dependent, easily influenced, aggressive and introvert. Therefore it would not be legitimate to generalise results from a volunteer sample to a wider population
  • Ecological validity- the degree to which the results of an investigation can be generalised beyond the immediate setting to other settings. Experiments use artificial conditions and so the data collected, lacks ecological validity questionning whether it can be accurately generalised to everday life and scenarios
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Overt Behaviour and Subjective Private Experience

  • Behaviour: External, overt and amenable to scientific enquiry
  • Experience: Internal, subjective and not open to scientific equiry
  • These destinctions can be said to be misleading E.g. Biologists study internal events using scientific techniques such as EEG recordings and can be clasified as behavioural E.g. Cognitive psychologists attempt to investigate thought processes, memory, perception and attention, all of which are internal and private experiences and yet are amenable to scientific enquiry
  • Private subjective experience: personal subjective phenomena and unique to the individual. Not easily investigated by scientific procedures
  • Looking at accessibility, behaviour can be directly observed by the researcher or at least inferred using empirical methods, whereas private subjective experiences cannot
  • William James explained the private subjective experience as a stream of consciousness that is always present and is private to the individual, people are aware of external events but a second by second awareness cannot be fully verbalised as it is fleeting and there is too much to report. Threfore the private subjective experience cannot be fully assessed or replicated as james pointed out that once something has been experienced it can never be experienced again in the exact same way
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Overt Behaviour and Subjective Private Experience


  • Developed the first branch of scientific psychology which ironically concentrated on experience
  • Trained participants in structured introspection to turn inwards into their world or mental experience and what report what went through their mind whilst carrying out an action
  • Despite the laboratory setting, it was nor considered to be scientific due the reports being subjective and unverifiable
  • Later Watson rejected value of introspection in providing a valid interpretation of the consciousness
  • A large part of recent psychology is characterised by phenomenology--> the study of an individual's subjective and contemporary experience
  • This illustrates the movement of psychology back to the subjective experience
  • This view however fits much less comfortably with the scientific approach than the previous deterministic behaviourist approach. Psychologists argued however that this caused psychology to turn away from the subject's true subject matter- mental life
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The Role of Peer Review in Validating Research

  • Plays a crucial role in validating the quality and relevence of ideas and evaluation proposals to funding bodies for financial support for future work
  • When work is submitted for publication, peer review involves specialists in the relevant field reading the article or book and assessing the quality of the work
  • Ensures appropriate methodology was used, this includes the statistical tests used to analyse it
  • Comments are fed back to the authors which may lead to minor revisions of the work before it is accepted for publication
  • Reviewers may also suggest that a piece of writing is innapropriate for publication, this may be due experimental design, hypothesis, or a poorly written manuscript
  • It is important that the psychologists reviewing the work are objective and are unknown to the author
  • If the psychologist is applying for financial aid in a piece of work, a similar process will be used but will be supervised by the grant awarding scheme as opposed to the publication house
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Strengths of the Scientific Approach in Psychology

  • Scientific status- By using the scientific method, credibility is added to the discipline as without the rigour of the scientific approach, people may believe the data to be false
  • The approach is objective and provides accurate, reliable and generalisable results
  • Involves theories that provide hypotheses that can be testsed allowing psychology to progress as a science and provide general law of behaviour fulfilling the aims of science- understanding, prediction and control
  • Its ability to predict behaviour means that its general laws have many applications which improve people live's and solve problems
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Limitations of the Scientific Approach in Psycholo

  • Unique subject matter- due to humans being the subject of psychology this presents many issues when trying to apply empirical methods of equiry as participants and researchers often exert their influence on the findings without being aware
  • Demand characteristics- subtle cues within a study that result in the participants a;tering theor behaviour as they now know what is expected of them E.g. in an experiment conducted by Orne and Evans, it was found 15/18 participants were prepared to pick up a poisonous snake and throuw acid in the face of the experimenter. This is unlikely to be the case in a natural setting suggesting participants knew what was expected of them
  • Experimenter bias- Rosenthal found that the physical characteristics of the experimenter such as age, sex and psychosocial factors, could result in differing outcomes E.g. Rosenthal and Jacobean found that if a teacher was told their class will do well, they perform better on intelligence tests
  • Same species argument- researchers and participants are part of the same species making it difficult for researchers to keep a distanced perspective and remain objective
  • Ethical issues- the study of humans makes ethics a more prominent issue, as a result studies that cause emotional distress are often abanodoned. For this reason, animals are often used instead however this raises the issue of extrapolation due to a human's ability to carry out higher order thought processes 
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Limitations of the Scientific Approach in Psycholo

  • Space and time argument- scientific laws are generalisable across time and space, however psychological explanations are often resticted to particular places and times E.g. participants of the Gamson study knew of the Milgram experiment and changed their behaviour accordingly E.g. if the Asch study had been carrie out in the McCarthian era, conformity would be expected to be higher
  • Unobservable- much of the subject matter in psychology is unobservable due to it being centered around the mind and causes behind behaviour, both of which don't have a physical presence. Asa result it cannot be accurately measured and is inferential
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  • The question of whether psychology should adopt the scientific approach can be said to inappropiate as you can't apply all the principles of science to the unique subject matter of human beings
  • Feyerabend- states that an eclectic approach should be used instead, he argues that mini paradigms can not only coexist but can also enrich our knowledge by providing alternative perspectives on problems
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