Is psychology a science? Discuss using evidence from the five approaches.
To answer this question I feel it is important to understand the definitions of psychology and science. I will start with definitions of the terms psychology and science and will briefly review the methods of psychology. I will outline the behaviourist approach, the psychoanalytical approach, the cognitive approach, the humanistic approach and the biological approach. In order to confirm whether psychology can fulfil the definition of science I will outline the five approaches and use evidence from the approaches to support my findings.
There are numerous definitions for the word psychology, Benson (1998: 5) describes the discipline of psychology as ‘the scientific study of the mind and behaviour of humans and animals’ whereas Hayes (1998: 1) identifies psychology as ‘the study of the mind, the study of behaviour, the study of human information processing’, and the study of ‘why human beings act as they do’. The two descriptions highlight how definitions differ although it is widely agreed that psychology is the study of the mind and behaviour.
As with psychology there a various definitions for the term science, however they all appear to be based on creating theories or explanations which rely on evidence. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopaedia (2005) includes a number of definitions, firstly stating that science is the ‘study of the physical world and its manifestations, by using observation and experiment’, secondly describing science as ‘something studied or performed methodically’ and finally as ‘any activity that is the object of careful study or that is carried out according to a developed method’. In order to consider whether psychology fits the definition of science one must take into consideration that due to the nature of psychology, psychologists use research methods as well as experiments to identify the cause and effect. The two main aspects of methodology which Benson (1998: 11) identifies are ‘practical’ and ‘philosophical’.
The behaviourist approach to psychology (founded by J.B. Watson in 1913) relies on direct observations of behavioural reactions and responses. Watson believed that observations were a key part of psychology as they could be witnessed by others and ‘were not open to subjective bias and distortion’ (Hayes, 1998: 3). Behaviourists believe that humans and animals learn behaviour in accordance with their environment, either by stimulus response association or through reinforcement.
Two key contributors to the behaviourist approach were Ivan Pavlov and B. F. Skinner with theory of classical conditioning and operant conditioning theory. Classical conditioning was first demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in 1927 as he observed that critical association occurs when one environmental effect predicts the occurrence of another. An example of this is the classical study of how dogs in a laboratory were conditioned to salivate without food. Pavlov found that the dogs salivated when they saw feeding assistants coming with the vessel containing the food (Hayes, 1998). As Hayes (1998: 4) states ‘salivation should only have been a response to the food itself, Pavlov reasoned that the dogs must have learned that association’. Hayes (1998:4) also notes how Pavlov found that by ringing a bell each time the dogs were fed ‘a new association could be formed between stimuli and responses – even responses which were not automatic reflexes’. The research undertaken by Pavlov identified three influencing factors regarding conditioning which are contiguity, frequency and reinforcement.