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Why is psychology a science? Or isn’t it?

The origins of the study of psychology date back to the latter half of the 19th century, when, in 1879, Wilhelm Wundt opened his laboratory, the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany. This was the first of its kind, which is why people generally regard this as the beginning of the academic discipline which we call psychology.

The word ‘psychology’ comes from Greek and is in fact formed from two words, ‘psyche’ and ‘logia’. Psyche is usually translated as ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, and ‘logia’ as ‘the study’. Psychology should not be confused with psychiatry, which, in its original form means ‘healing the soul.’ Again, it derives from the Greek for soul, psyche and ‘iatreia’ which means ‘healing’. So psychology, because it is studied, can be seen as a science.

The word ‘psychology’ seems to have been first used in the 16th century, by the German reformer and educationalist, Philip(p) Melanchthon (1497 - 1560). The word he actually used was psychologia, the Greek and Latin word (Latin borrowed the word from the Greek.). These days, broadly speaking, we can define the word ‘psychology’ as meaning ‘the study of the human behaviour and mental processes’. Psychologists study people’s emotions, thought processes and behaviour. They are concerned with how development and behaviour are influenced by both physiological and biological processes.

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There are two types of psychologist, the clinical psychologists who attempt to diagnose and treat mental illness and research psychologists. Clinical psychologists work with patients and use a variety of treatments in their attempts to heal them. Research psychologists, on the other hand, use scientific processes to explore people’s mental health and their behaviour.

It is important to note that while psychologists don’t give clients medication, psychiatrists can and often do.

Within the field of psychology there are social, behavioural, and cognitive scientists. Behavioural scientists investigate people’s actions. Behavioural scientists can be:

  • sociologists
  • anthropologists
  • psychologists
  • biologists
  • economists
  • geographers
  • psychiatrists and
  • political scientists

Social scientists are concerned with how people behave, particularly as regards their socio-cultural behaviour. Generally, the social sciences are:

  • sociology
  • anthropology
  • psychology
  • economics and
  • political science

Cognitive scientists study the mind and the nature of intelligence. They include:

  • philosophers
  • psychologists
  • those who study linguistics
  • neuroscientists
  • anthropologists and
  • those who study artificial intelligence (AI)

Most people would not dispute that such people are scientists, so why is it that they choose to ask is psychology a science?

On 12th July 2012 the psychologist, Timothy D. Wilson, proclaimed to the world, in his op-ed piece in The Los Angeles Times, that in his considered opinion as a professor of the University of Virginia, psychology is certainly a science. He continued to write that he resented the fact that other scientists denigrate it and say that it is not a science. He pointed out that many scientists classed both sociology and psychology as ‘soft’ sciences. He went on to admit that because we, as humans are complex, so are our behaviours, and this makes it impossible to conduct an experiment that would enable all aspects of human behaviour to be studied. How can a researcher find out precisely what people do and why they do it? It would be an impossible task to undertake.

The problem is that when people are being studied, it is virtually impossible to do randomized controlled experiments. Generally, such studies cannot be replicated, which means that their validity is called into question by other scientists who require that results can be verified, and so validated by other experiments and researchers. These are partly the reasons why other scientists don’t believe that psychology is a real science. However, psychologists employ scientific methods when they conduct their studies. They use empirical methods to hypothesise or formulate a research question, then conduct experiments to test their hypothesis, just as other scientists do. They also construct theories in an attempt to explain why people behave as they do. These can be tested in various ways and can be proven or not after rigorous experiments have been carried out.

However, it cannot be denied that many people benefit from the research done by psychologists, psychiatrists and others, for example, sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who suffer from depression can also be helped by psychotherapists, psychologists and even psychiatrists, so the research done by the ‘soft’ scientists can help many people.

To begin with, psychologists often work as health care providers, who carry out assessments of people’s behaviour, well-being and cognitive functions. Educational psychologists work to help children and teenagers who have learning difficulties and they also help those who are involved in educating children by explaining how children remember, think and process their thoughts and so on. They can make assessments so that teachers can try out different ways of helping their students. This work can benefit children who are highly intelligent as well as those who are slow to learn.

Psychologists work with communities, various organisations and as well as diagnosing and treating people, they also study how we actually relate to each other and they are also engaged in teaching psychologists of the future. They do all these things as well as doing intelligence and personality testing.

Some psychologists work with the police, for example, forensic psychologists and criminal psychologists.

Forensic psychologists

Forensic psychologists deal with legal matters. They work in the legal system, in academia, the private sector and the public sector. They deal with various legal matters, including, but not limited to: -

  • assessing a prisoner’s mental health and advising whether or not a person is fit to stand trial.
  • child custody cases and family law
  • risk assessments of potentially violent people
  • personal injury cases (civil law)
  • selection of jurors
  • explaining to a jury the intricacies of scholarly topics such as memory research (social science research)
  • they can arbitrate to resolve disputes and mediate

Forensic psychologist might work on child abuse cases, or on threat assessment, which is a new field that is just emerging. In this field, a forensic psychologist tries to predict which people might commit an act of violence.

This is valuable work which can truly benefit society.

Criminal psychologists

Thanks to TV series and films, there is a growing interest in both forensic and criminal psychology. A criminal psychologist is interested in studying and analysing why some people commit crimes. Sometimes they are asked to assess a criminal and give an opinion about whether he or she is likely to reoffend. Often a criminal psychologist is required to be an expert witness in a court case.

If you have watched TV programmes about criminal psychologists, you will know that they engage in criminal profiling. This can help the police catch a criminal as the psychologist can give a fairly accurate picture of the type of person the police should be looking for. The idea behind criminal profiling began during the Second World War, and the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI) regularly use criminal profiling to help law enforces to apprehend criminals.

Criminal psychologists can assess a criminal that has been detained in police custody in order to provide the police with a psychological assessment that may be used, if required, in the process of interviewing a suspect. They can give suggestions for the appropriate interview techniques and also suggest interview strategies.

Other jobs for criminal psychologists include work online, perhaps studying internet predators or helping police to investigate internet fraud.

Other branches of psychology include: -

  • Brain science and cognitive psychology
  • Counselling psychology
  • Climate and environmental psychology
  • Experimental psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Health psychology
  • Industrial and organizational psychology
  • Human factors and engineering psychology
  • The psychology of teaching and learning
  • Quantitative psychology
  • Social psychology
  • Rehabilitation psychology and
  • Sport and performance psychology

Brain science and cognitive psychology is a very popular area of psychology and in demand in all areas of industry, education and other fields. Everyone is interested in finding out how the brain works. Brain and cognitive psychologists have been trying to understand and treat Alzheimer’s disease and speech impediments, as well as the loss of memory (amnesia, for example) and difficulties with perception.

Such psychologists are also interested in attempting to understand how we learn languages as well as how we can create and understand it. Another area of interest for them is the connection between our emotions and our cognition.

Counselling psychology is almost the same as psychotherapy. Counselling psychologists investigate how such diverse factors, such as age, gender, race and sexual orientation affect our psychological well-being. Of course, they teach and perform scientific research s well as acting as counsellors.

Climate and environmental psychology is not, as you might think, primarily about stopping global warming and protecting the environment. Rather it is concerned with trying to comprehend how our behaviour affects the world we live in. They can concentrate on the ways the different environments we inhabit (home, office and cities for example) affect our world.

Climate and environmental psychologists might concentrate their research efforts on looking at how weather phenomena affect our mood. For example, the sun makes us happy, generally while rain and cold dark days might very well make us sad and depressed.

They study many other areas too, but space here is limited.

Experimental psychologists ask theoretical questions and then set out to prove or disprove their hypotheses by experimenting. They study a broad range of behavioural topics such as cognition, perception emotions and so on.

Developmental psychology investigates how we adapt to different situations, how we learn and how we mature. We go through various stages and changes as we grow older and it is how we cope with these that interest developmental psychologists.

Health psychologists basically investigate how our health and well-being (or lack of it) impacts our psychology. They might look at how, or if, we follow health practitioners’ instructions. In other words, they investigate the various factors that affect our life-style choices which have positive or negative impacts on our health

Industrial and organizational psychology is about how people identify and resolve problems in their workplaces as well as the dynamics affecting those who work in a given organization. This area of study is important for industrialists and bosses, who want to maximize their profits. After all everyone wants to make a very good profit when they are running a business. There is a need to investigate how workers react and interact with each other in order to find out what the best workplace practices are.

Human factors and engineering psychology is about working out how people react to having to come to terms with a new device. It’s with everyone’s interest to make this process as easy and comfortable as possible, so that productivity is not affected in the workplace, for example.

The psychology of teaching and learning is clearly about how we learn and remember what we have learned. These psychologists aim to improve the process of learning so that all students can be successful.

Quantitative psychology attempts to find techniques and measures that can accurately measure people’s behaviour and attitudes. A mathematical and statistical modelling our psychological processes is employed to do this. Quantitative psychologists are adept at designing both methodologies and studies that produce answers to their research questions. They might investigate such diverse topics as child development, and how we learn and remember languages.

Social psychology investigates how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world, and how our perceptions influence our behaviour ad beliefs. They are concerned with how we interact with others and work to improve our interactions and so our relationships with others.

Rehabilitation psychology is about health and how to support and help people with addictions, mental health issues, and chronic pain, for example.

Sport and performance psychology is about helping sports people to overcome any mental problems that might impede their performance. If an athlete is injured in an accident, thejm a sport an performance psychologist can help them regain their confidence so that they can continue their careers.

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