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Psychology: The Science of Behavior

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A definition for psychology is offered by the American Psychological Association as “the scientific study of the mind and behavior,” but how accurate is this definition? Is psychology really a true science? If so, what aspects are used to classify it as one? Here, we will consider both arguments and take a dive into this controversial topic.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, science can be defined as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” Science has given us many answers to the questions we ask about the world and has offered numerous ideas that are far different from that of a religious or philosophical background. For example, science chooses to focus on the natural world around us rather than the spiritual and supernatural forces that religion would suggest. Science has played a crucial role in our society for many years now but it was specifically during the Renaissance period that its contributions were focused on significantly. The Renaissance took place in the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries and was the result of changes in the way people think. Many started to become curious of how the world works and they craved a sense of understanding. This is where the new age of science began. The scientific revolution came into play and scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton made significant contributions to science and mathematics; at the time, they did not know their ideas would soon change the world. One of these contributions was the scientific method. This method was the combination of using observation, measurements, and experiments to formulate tests and hypotheses. It was based on the manipulation of one variable to determine if other variables would be affected by the change. Galileo, along with many other scientists, made great use of controlled experiments. After the experiment was complete, they analyzed their data to determine the accuracy of their theories. This experimental method was, and still is, very important to science as a way of seeking truth. It offers consensual data that can be used to support or deny certain ideas or beliefs.

Like any other, this process has various strengths and limitations. Some strengths include, but are not limited to, the researcher has control over the variable themselves, they can utilize the results to determine a process that will produce the greatest good in our society, and finally it can be combined with other methods to produce more accurate data. Some limitations, on the contrary, are those that follow. These experiments are subject to significant human error, the sample chosen may not be an accurate representation of a population, the results can become difficult to replicate as they may only apply to a specific situation, human responses are very complex and difficult to measure, and lastly, performing certain experiments can become very unethical very fast. There are many cons related to this method but that does not make the discoveries that resulted from it any less prominent.

This approach was used to understand behavior in physiology and early psychology in numerous ways. For example, the early work of Ivan Pavlov helped provide basic stepping stones that could later be developed on by other psychologists. He studied salivation which resulted in him conducting one of the most important studies in the field of psychology. In this study, Pavlov would ring a bell before presenting a dog with food. After a while, the sound of the bell alone would cause the dog to salivate. In other words, the dog had been conditioned to respond to a stimuli that had no effect on him previously. The main takeaway from this research was the idea of unconditioned stimuli, unconditioned responses, conditioned stimuli, and conditioned responses because they offer an accurate explanation of how we learn and even teach others. Following this, were additional experiments by Pavlov which focused on the processes that occur after learning. For example, he coined and defined the term, generalization. It became known as having a conditioned reaction to stimuli that are similar but not necessarily identical to the original stimulus. With Pavlov’s research alone, it is quite obvious that the experimental method played a very significant role by testing various hypotheses and helping us determine exactly how the world works.

Moreover, many psychologists believed that their work followed all the criteria necessary for their field to be considered a science. A belief in behaviorism was significant to support their argument. Behaviorism is defined by the American Psychological Association as “an approach to psychology that is based on the study of objective and observable facts rather than subjective, qualitative processes, such as feelings, motives, and consciousness.” Those who supported this approach made great use of the experimental method by expanding on experiments that were previously done. Two very important behaviorists who did so were John Watson and B.F Skinner.

John Watson was the major founder of American Behaviorism. He wrote a psychological review in 1913 which he called Psychology as a Behaviorist Views It in which he elaborated on three main points. The first identified psychology as an objective natural science with no introspection or subjective data. The second emphasized predicting and controlling human behavior instead of describing and explaining it and finally, he specified that there is no obvious dividing line between humans and animals. He wrote yet another book in 1919 entitled Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist where he covered human behavior, extended methods of animal research to humans, established innate emotional responses (fear, rage and love), and stated that all other emotional responses are acquired. It is important to take notice of Watson’s most famous study, the Little Albert study. Here, he conditioned an eleven month old baby boy to have a learned fear of white rats and various other objects by banging a gong each time one was placed in front of him. His method in this and all of his other studies was to start off by observing, then administer tests, present a verbal report and finally use the conditioned reflex method.

B.F Skinner also built his research on previous studies. He took the idea of classical conditioning, as established by Pavolv, and developed operant conditioning. Operant conditioning occurs when organisms learn through consequences. In order to test his theories, Skinner constructed and made use of an apparatus called the Skinner box. This box was used to study reinforcement schedules in animals. It included a lever, bar, or button that the animal could use, when pressed or moved, items such as food, water, or treats were dispensed to reinforce the behavior. These studies made it easy to control the environment and learn the rate at which learning occurs. The schedules were classified as either fixed-interval, fixed-ratio, variable- interval, or variable-ratio. Skinner continued his studies by hypothesizing that complex behaviors are composed of various simple ones. He wrote both Behavior of Organisms” and “Science and Human Behavior” which both expressed his support of behaviorism.

When considering the idea of behaviorism it is also important to consider how this affects free will. Behaviorists do not believe we have any free will, and our behavior is determined by the environment and our history. In the field of science, the more we can say behavior is determined by causes, the more we can predict it, and the less free will there is.

As there were many who agreed with this idea, there were also those who disagreed that psychology should be a science. The two we will be discussing are Immanuel Kant and William James.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who believed in transcendental idealism, thought that causality was only a developed idea and believed that humans only know what they experience, not the world as it truly is. Kant highly disapproved of psychology becoming a science. He argued that this would never be possible because our mental processes cannot be measured, they are not spatial, they cannot be experimentally manipulated or mathematically described, and they are transient.

William James, a Harvard professor and psychologist, had views similar to Kant’s. He was not convinced that psychology was a distinct discipline. He wrote in his book Psychology: Briefer Course, “This is no science; it is only the hope of a science,” then continued to state that a true science of psychology had to rely completely on determinism and would have certain limits. Determinism was the idea that all events are determined by causes outside of our control, this is where the idea of free will comes into play. Both James and Kant knew that free will had some effect on where we go in our lives, dismissing determinism as a valid argument and strengthening their views on the opposition of psychology becoming a science.

I strongly believe that psychology cannot be a science, nor should it be. The main reasons why are some of which Kant stated, our mental processes cannot be measured, they cannot be manipulated or mathematically described, also I believe we have some sort of free will. Most importantly, not every individual is the same nor is their brain, thought processes, or behaviors. Therefore, the experimental approach may give us some answers but it is nearly impossible for those answers to apply to every unique individual. The human body and mind is extremely complex and cannot be limited to certain theories. Additionally, believing that our lives are already determined the minute we are born seems far fetched. Our everyday decisions, actions and responses to certain stimuli can have a drastic effect on our lives and where we end up. I understand why some believe psychology is or can be a science. Some aspects are certainly convincing and do provide adequate data, but psychology simply cannot provide the mathematical, physical and consensual answers that are needed to explain just how the world works.

In conclusion, the answer to the question “is psychology a science?” is not simple and the debate concerning the real answer has been continuing for quite some time now. There are some that believe it is or should be, such as behaviorists John Watson and B.F. Skinner but of course there are those that disagree, such as Immanuel Kant and William James. I, myself, agree with those who disagree. Psychology would need consensual and physical data about mental processes in order to fit the description of a true science. This does not mean that psychology is lesser than physics, chemistry, or biology. It simply means, this field itself is unique in its own way. 

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