Saturday, 29 December 2012

"Psychology" - The Struggling Science of Mental Life

Many of you may be old enough to remember George A. Miller’s book “Psychology: The Science of Mental Life”. As an undergraduate psychology student I was brought up with books with titles that variously contained the words science, psychology, behaviour and mind in them. These books had one main purpose – to persuade students of psychology that psychology was a legitimate scientific pursuit, using rigorous scientific methods to understand human behaviour and the human mind. All on a par with the more established sciences such as biology, physics and chemistry.

Even if you’re happy with the notion of psychology as a science, we then have the various debates about whether psychology is a biological science or a social science, and in the UK this isn’t just an issue about terminology, it is also a major issue about funding levels. Do psychologists need labs, do undergraduate psychology students need to do lab classes to learn to be psychologists? This almost became the tail wagging the dog, as funding bodies such as HEFCE (and its predecessor the University Funding Council) looked to save money by re-banding psychology as a half-breed science sitting somewhere between social science and biological science. I even seem to recall that some psychology departments were designated social psychology departments and given little or no lab funding. So were students in those Departments being taught science or not? What breed of psychology was it?

Just one more example before I get to the main point. A few years ago I had the good fortune to teach a small-group elective to second-year medical students. This was a 6-week course on cognitive models of psychopathology. I was fortunate to teach this group because it contained highly motivated and intelligent students. Now, I have never viewed myself as anything other than a scientist using scientific methods to understand human behaviour in general and psychopathology in particular. But these groups of highly able and highly trained medical students inevitably had difficulty with two particular aspects of the material I was teaching them: (1) how can we use science to study “cognitions” when we can’t see them, when we make up ‘arbitrary’ concepts to describe them, and we can’t physically dissect them? and (2) at the end of the day, cognitions will always boil down to biology, so it is biology – and not cognitions – that should be the object of scientific study.

What struck me most was that these students had already developed a conception of science that was not procedure based, but was content based. It was the subject matter that defined science for them, not particularly the methodology.

My argument here is that while psychology had been touted as a science now for a number of generations, psychologists over these generations have failed to convince significant others (scientists in other disciplines, funding organizations, etc.) that psychology is a science on a par with other established sciences. Challenges to psychology as a science come in many forms and from many different sources. Here are a few examples:

(1)      Funding bodies frequently attempt their own ‘redefining’ of psychology, especially when budgets are tight, and psychology is a soft target here, with its large numbers of students offering significant savings if science-related funding is downgraded.

(2)      Students, teachers and researchers in other science disciplines often have very esoteric views of what science is, and these views revolve around their own subject matter and the techniques they specially use to understand that subject matter. Psychologists have probably not been proactive or aggressive enough in broadcasting the ways in which psychology is science and how it uses scientific methodologies in a highly objective and rigorous way.

(3)      Members of other science disciplines frequently have a ‘mental block’ when it comes to categorizing psychology as a science (that’s probably the nicest way I can put it!). This reminds me of the time a few years ago when I was representing psychology on the UK Science Council. There was a long discussion about how to increase the number of women taking science degrees. During this discussion it was pointed out that psychology was extremely successful at recruiting female students, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too pessimistic about recruiting women into at least some branches of science. The discussion paused briefly, and then continued as if nothing of any relevance whatsoever had been said!

(4)      All branches of knowledge are open to allegations of fraud, and there has been some considerable discussion recently about fraud in science, fraud in psychology and the social sciences, and – most specifically – fraud in social psychology. Arguably, psychology is the science discipline most likely to be hurt by such allegations – not because methodology is necessarily less rigorous than in other science disciplines or publication standards any less high, but because many scientists in other disciplines fail to understand how psychology practices as a science. Sadly, this is even true within the discipline of psychology, and it is easy to take the trials and tribulations that have recently been experienced in social psychology research as an opportunity for the more ‘hard-nosed’ end of psychology to sneer at what might be considered the softer under-belly of psychological science. One branch of psychology ‘sneering’ at another branch is not a clever thing to do, because this will all be grist to the mill branding psychology generally as “non-scientific” by members of other science disciplines.

I’ll finish by mentioning a recent report published in 2011 attempting to benchmark UK psychology research within an international context. Interestingly, this report (published jointly by the ESRC, BPS, EPS and AHPD) listed nine challenges to the competitiveness of current psychology research in the UK. A significant majority of these challenges relate to the skills and facilities necessary for pursuing psychology as a science!

Psychology still requires an orchestrated campaign to establish it’s scientific credentials – especially in the eyes of other science disciplines, many of which have their own distorted view of what science is, but already occupy the intellectual high ground. Challenges to psychology as a science come from many diverse sources, including funding bodies, other sciences, intra-disciplinary research fraud, and conceptual differences within psychology as an integrated, but diverse, discipline.

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  1. Psychology is the science of mental life as William James did in his book, Principles of Psychology. So give your opinion about it.

  2. Thank you for speaking up. I've thanked you already on Twitter, The Social Psychology of Social Problems is required reading for students and practitioners of psychology, social policy and international relations.
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