Why is Psychology a Science? Part 2: A Scientific Attitude

Last updated on August 28th, 2020 at 11:05 am

Beyond the research, the test tubes and standardised procedures, science is a practice which is conducted by individuals. When individual scientists guide their work in accordance with the attitudes and values of science, their collective work becomes founded on the same fundamental principles. This creates a science with a consistent set of assumptions. It unites like-minded people to pursue a common goal; gaining a true understanding of the world. The Latin translation of the word ‘science’ is ‘knowledge’.  Today we are going to explore six attitudes of science and how psychology utilises these to gain knowledge of human behaviour.

As one of the most influential figures in psychology, Skinner stated that “Science is first of all a set of attitudes” (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2014 – p24).

Attitudes of a Science

  1. Determinism

This is the assumption that the phenomena that we are studying occur in ordered and lawful ways. Events happen directly as a result of other phenomena. A toddler throws a tantrum and gets the snack they wanted.  A university student cleans their room to avoid doing work.  A child uses language for the first time after instruction. The world is filled with strings of never-ending cause and effect relationships. These forces could be internal (biological) or external (environment). Our job as scientists is to disentangle these variables using experiments. This allows us to understand the behaviour being studied. We can then affect change and help to improve people’s lives.

It is important to take a deterministic view when studying psychology, as other belief systems can affect our judgement. For instance, if you believe that all events in life are predetermined by fate, then this can make scientific study problematic. After all, if all behaviour is ‘meant to be’, then why should we bother creating psychological methods to help people to alter their actions? Scientists should be able to control and predict their pneumonia of study. Behaviour under the guise of fate is given a mysterious quality that scientific investigation cannot touch.

When I was younger and I first heard this assumption, I questioned whether I could actually study psychology. I felt a pang of guilt knowing that my belief system did sometimes align with fate. After all, when you have tried your best but not quite made it, “it just wasn’t meant to be” is a comforting phrase to hear.  We are all human. I am not suggesting that you cannot hold a belief about fate and become a psychologist. But, you must be able to wear different hats. Keep your own belief system separate from your work. When you are studying psychology as a science, you need to adopt a deterministic attitude.

2) Empiricism and Objectivity

This assumption states that scientific study must be pursued in an objective way. Objective means that we must set aside our own personal views and opinions so that they do not influence our scientific interpretation of the data we have. For example, you might believe that giving praise to children for getting correct answers is not going to help them learn. But if your research discovers that this finding is actually the case, then it is your duty as a scientist to be objective and report the data you have found.

Empirical is “a method of gaining knowledge which relies on direct observation or testing, not hearsay or rational argument” (Flanagan & Cardwell, 2016, p343). In other words, empiricism means that we cannot rely solely on our instincts and institution when it comes to psychology. Our intuition can often be incorrect. Take Milgram’s shocking study (pardon the pun!).  Researchers assumed that ordinary people would not willing to administer electric shocks to strangers, up to 450 volts, just because an authoritative man in a lab coat told them to. They were wrong! We can only know the true facts when we test something directly.

Expectation vs Reality
You might expect the ice cream you buy to look as beautiful as the advertised picture. However, your real-life order in-store does not live up to your expectations! (Flanagan & Cardwell, 2016 – adapted analogy from p20).

Naturally, as people, we all develop our own opinions. We might even have our own ideas about what affects behaviour. Psychologists go beyond this by studying behaviour carefully and reporting the findings honestly.

Talking point
Is it easy to be objective? No! Even psychology journals which publish scientific psychology research can be biased! Journals sometimes publish studies with attention-grabbing titles or only positive results to prevent a well-established theory from being discredited All we can do is hold each other to high standards and hope that a decision is made with a scientific attitude.

3) Experimentation

Burt was concerned by some data that he saw online. He found a link between the amount of cheese eaten per person and the number of people who died by getting tangled up in their bedsheets. There was even a graph that showed this trend. Does this mean that eating lots of cheese will increase your risk of having a fatal tangling in your bed? No! All this graph demonstrates is a link between cheese eating and death by bedsheets.  In technical terms, it shows a correlation (a relationship between two variables), but it does not show causation (one variable causes the other to happen).

Credit : Spurious Correlations

How do we find out which variables in our world has an effect on us? Psychologists, like the majority of other scientists, use experiments.

An experiment is the “carefully controlled comparison of some measure of the phenomena of interest (dependent variable, or DV) under two or more different conditions in which only one factor at a time (independent valuable, or IV) differs from one condition to another ” (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2014 – p26). More simply put, an experiment is a way to observe if what we are measuring (the DV) is affected by what we deliberately change in the study (IV).

In the case of the cheese and the bedsheets example, you could conduct an experiment to change a person’s cheese consumption (IV) to see if it would have a measurable effect on the number of bedsheet incidents (DV). You could compare groups of people who are asked to eat set amounts of the solid dairy snack each day. Such as, group 1 eats 20 grams and group two eats 50 grams. These results would be compared to a control group,  a group of people who did not consume any cheese during the study. Everyone taking part would be asked to keep a diary to monitor their sleep and to record any near misses if they have woken to find themselves tangled in the sheets. (Bear in mind that this study would NOT be conducted if there was ANY true suspected risk of harm in eating cheese to the people involved, it is purely a hypothetical example!)

To sum up, experiments are necessary for a psychologist to demonstrate what the cause of certain behaviour is. Without experiments, a lot more guesswork is involved.

4) Replication

One study might be brilliantly designed, with clear and impressive findings, but if it stands alone, then its results will “never be sufficient to earn an accepted place among the scientific knowledge base of any field” (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2014 – p26).  By replicating research and obtaining similar results to the original study, findings become more respected as true. After all, you probably wouldn’t trust a pilot to take you on holiday safely if they had only flown a plane once!

5) Parsimony

Science unofficially adopts the KISS method when choosing between two different explanations of behaviour. Keep it Simple (Stupid)!

The scientific principle of parsimony comes from the Latin phrase ‘parcere’ meaning ‘be sparing’.

People usually behave in the simplest and most economical way possible. Therefore, “Simple, logical explanations must be ruled out before more complex or abstract explanations are considered.” (Cooper, Heron and Heward, 2014).

Science is practical, not pedantic. Even though scientific subjects might be difficult to understand, especially if you are not an expert in the field (I’m looking at you periodic table!), science should not choose a complex theory to explain behaviour unless it is necessary.

6) Philosophical doubt

The final attitude of science is philosophical doubt. This means that scientists are not complacent when it comes to accepting scientific knowledge. Scientists develop a healthy level of scepticism and will be open to questioning other people’s research as well as their own.

I never let my students get away with stating “this theory proves X concept” when I marked their essays, because of this exact reason. There really is no such thing as absolute proof.

After all, today we question how smoking could have been promoted by doctors in the 1950s when we know now how harmful this habit is. Who knows what kind of behaviours we accept now, could be found to be detrimental to our health as technology and knowledge advances in the future?

It used to be believed that a person’s facial features were linked to whether they would become a criminal. But psychology is constantly developing the knowledge-base of its field.  Over time, there have been advancements in forensic psychology which allow researchers to consider factors like genetics which would not have been possible fifty years ago. Being open-minded and adaptable to change are key attitudes of a psychology researcher.


Through my studies and discussions with people in the field I have learned that psychology is a science. It investigates human behaviour in a way that is consistent with scientific methods and the attitudes of science.

So the next time someone rolls their eyes at you for pairing ‘psychology’ and ‘science’ together in the same sentence, you can prepare a good answer for what I am sure will be an excellent debate!

What are your thoughts on the ‘is psychology a science’ debate? 

Let me know in the comments section below!

I will leave you with the “Mahna Mahnam” song, because it is impossible to write ‘phenomena’ so much without this track being stuck in my head. Happy listening!

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