Science and Psychology

In terms of Edexcel Specification (Unit 4):

- Describe the debate over what is science and how far psychology fits the definition, 

- Evaluate whether psychoogy should be called a science. 

- Compare the five psychological approaches from AS (Cognitive, Social, Psychodynamic, Biological, Learning)  to how scientific their content is. 

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  • Created by: Issy H
  • Created on: 14-06-12 11:07

Psychology... A scientific subject matter?

There are two ways of analysing whether psychology is a science.

  • Either by looking at the subject matter
  • Or by looking at the processes involved (e.g. methodology) 

The subject matter involves concepts, theories ideas, e,g. schizophrenia, Oedipus complex, social learning theory, hormones.

- The most scientific areas of psychology are:

- Biological



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Psychology... Doing Science?

Is psychology done in what is considered as a scientific way? Is scientific methodology important? What parts of psychology are done more scientifically than others? In there any form of value in non scientific research?

Key Words in relation to scientific psychology:

  • Hypothesis- A testable statement. 
  • Empirical testing- Testing the idea to show that is is write. 
  • Falsification- Trying to prove a hypothesis is false. 
  • Reductionism- To make something measurable, you may have to condense it down into individual small parts. (e.g. scientific approaches)
  • Avoiding Bias (controls)- To ensure validity. Make sure what we are measuring is actually what we are measuring. Linked to establishing a relationship between two variables. 

Karl Popper: You have a theory. You write a hypothesis to test the theory. You ensure the results are unfalsifiable. You then decide whether to change the theory or not. 

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Psychology... reasons for not doing science?


  • Study human behaviour as whole. Looking at all aspects to why they behave that way, not just one aspect. E.g. don't just look at how the brain works but also, how the relationship with the environment affects the brain. 


  • Considering individuals for their human needs- no theories or testing. (Maslow and Rogers)


  • Controls may produce reliable data, but it may also produce behaviour which is not true to real life. (Issues with demand characteristics for example in Loftus and Palmer's study)

Qualitative Data

  • Not easy to study in a scientific way as there isn't an easy way to record opinions, stories and attitudes. 
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Psychology... social constructionism

Must of what is studied in science is a social construction. Although we agree universally that water boils at 100 degrees, a lot of things we consider universal may not be so. 

Most of what is studied (in psychology in particular) is constructed by society. 

Social constructionism is against the idea that we should look for things that are universal. Instead we should look at constructs that have ethnocentric bias and tell has more about real life for all, in different cultures and social settings. 

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Social Approach

  • In terms of subject matter, the social approach is non scientific. 
  • However, the suggestion that society evolves (linked to agency theory) is scientific. 
  • In terms of methodlogy- a lot of psychology is scientific (Milgram- Lab Experiment)
  • Field experiments such as holfinf are also considered as scientific. 
  • Surveys gain quantitative data that can be dealth with in a scientfic way. 
  • There are hypothesis is social psychology. 
  • There is empherical testing in social psychology. 
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Cognitive Approach

  • Cognitive psycholgoy contains biological principles. It is considered scientific in that respect. 
  • Brain scanning is used, which is involved with neuroscience. 
  • Information processing and strogae and retrieval are all areas of pscyhology which are considered scientfic. 
  • In terms of methodology, the cognitive approach used scientific methods like brain scanning and lab experiments (craik and tulving).
  • Feild exeperiments are used at times too (godden and baddeley) and use strict controls with standardised prcedures. 
  •  There are statistical tests used.
  • Hypotheses are tested in cognitive psychology. 
  • There is empherical testing. 
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Psychodynamic Approach

  • Psychodynamic is concerned with the unconcious mind. This is nearly impossible to test scienfitically. We cant empherically measure this. 
  • However, Freud mentions energies and instics which could be considered scientific concepts. 
  • In terms of methodology, the psychodynamic approach is the least scientific. Case studies, free association and dream analysis are used to collect data. 
  • Qualilative data is collected which is subjective. 
  • There are no controls
  • There are no hypotheses. 
  • There is no empherical data. 
  • Data drives the analysis. 
  • The Oedipus compled, the ed, ego and super ego, the unconsius mind are all non scientific explanations, but it does not make them wrong. 
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Biological Approach

  • Content is clearly scientfic. 
  • Uses measurable things like hormones, brain lateralisation, synaptic functioning, genes. 
  • Metholgoy is scientific as it used lab experiments, PET scans, MRI scans, EEG measurments. 
  • Hypotheses are rigouriously set up. 
  • Clear operationalised variables. 
  • Empherical testing occurs. 
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Learning Approach

  • Part of the nurture debate- considered uncientific. 
  • Elements are scienfic though as behaviour is observed. 
  • Scienfitic elemts are classical and operant conditioning. Reflec resposes and stimulus learning has been tested and can be considered as scientific. 
  • Research can be done using animals, so can be considered scientific, as variables can be isolated. 
  • Initially lab experiments were used to test concepts within the learning approach. However, Bandura's social learning theory shifted this. 
  • Bandura began to realise that our thoughts and feelings controbuted significantly to our behaviour too as well as process. 
  • Research methods and concepts are now considered less scientific. 
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Is Psychology a Science?

  • Cognitive, Biological approach are considered as scientific.
  • The other three- psychdynamic, social and learning approach are in debate however. 
  • Apart from psychodynamic approach, all the other approaches use scientific method where possible. 
  • Hypothesis are tested and empherical testing takes place. 
  • Findings go through statistics test to see if results are due to chance. 
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