Can Psychology be a Science?

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Kieron McKeigue        

Access Psychology: Can Psychology Be a Science?

To answer this question, a definition of science must first be established. This is not as straightforward as one might think as interpretations vary, and are the cause of some debate. The American Heritage Science Dictionary appears to encompass the general consensus, and defines science as: “The investigation of natural phenomena through observation, theoretical explanation, and experimentation, or the knowledge produced by such investigation. ◇ Science makes use of the scientific method, which includes the careful observation of natural phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis, the conducting of one or more experiments to test the hypothesis, and the drawing of a conclusion that confirms or modifies the hypothesis.” Put simply, it seems that for a field to be considered a science, it must utilise observation and experimentation to confirm or falsify a hypothesis. The word science itself comes from the Latin word scire, meaning know, implying that knowledge is gained through science.

To question psychology’s status as a possible science, it is necessary to examine theories related to the field that are possible to falsify or to repeat; to see if they can be tested using scientific methods of hypothesis, observation and experimentation.

Developmental Psychologist Jean Piaget’s influential Theory of Cognitive Development has many elements that can, and have been, scrutinised in a scientific manner. His theory suggests that children pass through four distinct age stages of cognitive development, briefly outlined here:

  1. The Sensorymotor Stage (0-2), itself split into six sub-stages, is essentially when “the child learns about, and starts to control, its environment through the senses and motor (movement) abilities.” (Benson, 1998).
  2.  The Pre-operational Stage (2-7), also subdivided, is so called because “Piaget believes that the child is not yet capable of logical thought” (Twining, 2001). In this stage, the child learns to speak and eventually understands that people see things differently.
  3.  The Concrete Operational Stage (7-11) is when a child can perform mental operations, so long as the objects are visible (concrete, rather than abstract).
  4. The Formal Operational Stage (11+) occurs when mental tasks can be performed using abstract ideas; that a child can manipulate concepts and ideas hypothetically.
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A number of studies have been carried out in relation to Piaget’s theory. In one of his own studies, conducted with Inhelder in 1956, he showed children a model of three mountains and asked them to describe the scene from the perspective of someone else on the other side of the mountain. In the experiment, it was only when the children had reached the ages of seven or eight that they were able to do so, showing that younger children were still egocentric; that they could only see the model relative to their own position.

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