The definition of psychology claims that psychology contains the features of science. First of all it is important to know what science is. Second, if psychology is a science, i: it a natural science like physics, chemistry, and biology or a social science like sociology and economics? As you will read later, psychology has evolved out of the combined influences of natural science and philosophy. Hence, ii contains some of the elements of natural science.
What is science?
Science refers to a systematic process of acquiring and organizing knowledge. Science is defined not by its subject matter, but by the methods employed to acquire knowledge. The methods used in science are systematic, objective, and verifiable. The objective of science is to gain an understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship among variables under carefully controlled observations. The controlled observations, called be experiments, usually take place in the laboratory with the help of scientific instruments. While using experimental procedures, certain variables or conditions are changed by the experimenter to observe their effects on another an, variable. The variables changed by the experimenter are called ‘independent variables’; the variables on which their effects are observed are called ‘dependent variables’. The process of gaining knowledge follows certain defined stages in scientific enquiry:
(a) identification and analysis of a problem,
(b) formulation of a hypothesis which states the expected finding of an investigation,
(c) preparing a design or strategy,
d) collection and analysis of data,
(e) interpretation of the findings, and
(f) developing or revising a theory.
Since Wundt established the first psychology laboratory in 1879 at Leipzig, psychologists are claiming a scientific status for their discipline. In the early years, psychology emulated the methods of physics and biology, it was also considered to be a life science as it was connected with biology. Recently, neurophysiology has emerged as a discipline, which studies the relationship between biological structure of the brain and its psychological functions. Thus psychology contains a few elements of natural sciences. Let us take an example of how method of learning influences retention of the learned material. ^ Here, the ‘method of learning’ is the ‘independent variable’; ‘the amount of retention’ is the ‘dependent variable’. The method of learning may be massed (no interval between learning trials) or distributed (a specific interval between .’ learning trials). After the problem is identified, a hypothesis is formulated.
In this case, the hypothesis may be, ‘ The amount of retention would be more for distributed than for massed method of learning’. The design followed is an experimental design with two conditions. In one condition, the subjects are exposed to ‘massed’ learning trials, and in the other, they are given ‘distributed’ learning trials. Other variables such as laboratory setting, number of trials, nature of materials etc. are controlled, which means that they remain the same for two groups. After learning, the subjects are asked to recall what they learned.
Thus data are collected, analysed, and interpreted. If the findings show that the distributed condition results in better retention compared to the massed condition, the hypothesis is supported; if it does not, the hypothesis is rejected. In this example, the procedures and steps of natural sciences are followed. The researcher has been objective and has collected information systematically. The findings can also be verified by another scientist, who would probably obtain the same result. These findings can be generalized to form scientific laws. Using these laws, scientists can understand and make predictions.
Can we call psychology a science?
Yes, we can, because it fulfills many conditions of science. It has systematic and objective methods; its findings can be verified; it examines cause-and-effect relationships to produce universal laws governing human behaviour.
The question arises, ‘Is psychology an exact science like physics, chemistry, and biology?’ Perhaps, not. Unlike natural sciences, psychology deals with behaviors and mental processes. Behavior is very complex, dynamic, and ever changing. The mental processes are very abstract, and are in a state of dynamic interaction. Hence, the laws in psychology are not as exact and precise as those in physics.
We cannot expect that psychology would conform to the laws of natural sciences. Human beings not only live in their natural environment; they live in a community having its unique socio-cultural aspects. The cultural influences vary immensely from one setting to another.
Hence it is difficult to come up with universal laws that would be applicable in all contexts. Furthermore, many issues of psychological interest cannot be studied in laboratory set up under artificially controlled conditions. Considering all these, psychology can best be described as a social science, devoted to the scientific study of behaviors, experiences, and mental processes.