Psychological Science

Psychology is the Science of Mental Life, both of its phenomena and of their conditions.

William James (1890), “The Principles of Psychology”

Most people intuitively understand what Psychology is about: understanding individuals and the mind. However, I think most people misunderstand the practice of psychology, particularly what it means for psychology to claim the mantle of a science. What is and isn’t science is actually complicated. Philosophy of science is an entire content area that I know very little about. However, I can tell you what I mean by psychological science.

Psychological science is the application of the scientific method to questions about the mind. It is science because we define concepts, create indices to measure these concepts, construct hypotheses with these concepts, and test these hypotheses empirically. It is also a science because we assume the same things sciences assume (e.g., reality is measurable and testable). In general, we study the ABCs of people: affect (emotion, “feelings”), behavior and cognition (values, perception, beliefs, etc). The final word on what is true is the data: a psychological theory can only be true when it explains and predicts real-world data.

Some say that’s not enough to be a true science. In particular, we lack some of the more tangible components of other sciences. Our concepts are often fuzzy because they’re difficult to define. Our measurements can be imprecise or rely on self-report. We lack true standardized scales; there’s almost nothing like the kilogram for us. All the criticisms you could pose about how psychology isn’t really science are actually things we psychologists debate all the time, too. The debate is part of the science, in my opinion. And it makes our research better over time.

When I refer to psychology I mean psychological science. When non-psychologists talk about psychology, I find they usually mean the self-help section of bookstores (some bookstores even label these sections psychology), Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis or just as a catch-all for any idea relating to the mind or human nature. I would say these are not psychology. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong by default, but the vast majority are not empirical: they don’t have testable content, data was not collected with scientific rigor, and/or statistical analyses were not performed to determine the outcome.

Psychological science is enormous. Clinical psychology is great, but I find most people have no idea there’s any other kind. The American Psychological Association (APA) has 54 separate divisions of psychology, as a reference point. Psychological science spans topics as diverse as:

  • what makes a healthy relationship (social psychology)
  • which brain regions are critical for face perception (neuropsychology/neuroscience).
  • how many photons does it take to trigger conscious experience of light (maybe a single photon, an article in Nature Communications suggests) (psychophysics)
  • how do children learn language (developmental psychology)
  • what is the best way to arrange flight indicators on a fighter jet so the pilot understands them (engineering psychology)
  • how do warring factions make peace (social psychology of groups)
  • what incentives improve employee performance and well-being (industrial-organizational psychology)

I won’t be posting about all of psychology because, yikes, that’s too much! My training covers quantitative methods in social psychology, including the use of some peripheral physiology (like EKG and blood pressure, but not brain measures like fMRI). I’m probably going to stick to what I know. When I do venture more broadly, it’ll be mostly basic stuff I find interesting. Like that article I linked above.