To Be or Not To Be a Science? The Origins and Impact of Psychology

Psychology is classified as a social science, but many disagree with this classification.


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“In fact, if we are to understand ourselves better than we do now, I have no doubt that we must try to unravel all these complicated activities of the living matter in our brain,” said psychologist E.D Adrian in his book, ‘The Physical Background of Perception,’ published in 1947.

Imagine a glowing orb floating in a void. The orb starts to expand, releasing tendrils of light to spread across the black plane. The tendrils twist and turn around one another as they stretch, eventually learning to communicate with one another. Each branch of the orb serves a function, and the intercommunication between them helps the orb create more within this blank space and learn to build on its foundational knowledge of its capabilities. 

This orb is much like the mind. Our minds are constantly perceiving and learning new things, broadening our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our surroundings through new experiences. The explanation for how the mind learns, grows, and affects our behavior is far beyond a one-size-fits-all response. As a result, humans have turned to studying it. 

Psychology is the study of the mind and how its functions affect our behavior. It originated from philosophical questions on how the human mind works and why. This later transitioned into its field of study in the 1800s, and truly gained traction after the first psychology laboratory was established by William Wundt. With an established laboratory, psychologists had the space to widen their research and experimental discoveries. This was further propelled by the first psychology professor, James Mekeen, a student of William Wundt, during a time in which psychology was considered a lesser science. 

Since then, psychology has expanded from universities and laboratories, and is taught in many settings.  Today, high school students may explore psychology in A.P. or post-A.P. Psychology, dual enrollment, or volunteer with an organization focused on mental health and psychology. It has become a much more accessible subject to study than in the past.

As a result, psychology has also become increasingly popular among students, and is now the eighth most popular major in the country, with more than 195k psychology degrees being awarded in 2021. Although some people discourage pursuing psychology, many individuals continue to be allured by the idea of learning how the human mind works.

Ericka Wilson ’24, who currently takes the A.P. Psychology course offered at The Bronx High School of Science, is one of the many students who have been drawn to the subject. “I like knowing how the brain structure affects our every day life and how we as humans function, as well as knowing why we think the way that we do, whether it is based medically or from things done as children,” she said. This idea is shared by many of her fellow classmates.  

Anna Rosario ’24 said, “Psychology has the ability to understand humans and their behaviors. It can be both general or individualized, which is what particularly captivates me. Humans come from all types of backgrounds with differing types of experiences, memories, and interactions, so when studying each person independently, it’s fascinating what can arise and what patterns we can take notice of.” 

This increase in popularity and attention given to the field brings more attention to the debate about its status as a science. 

This conclusion is drawn from the claim that psychology doesn’t align with the five criteria for sciences, defined as terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility, and predictability and testability, and therefore should not be categorized as a science. 

In an article in The Los Angeles Times, psychologist Timothy D. Wilson said that he feels that his field of study is frequently disrespected and overlooked. Science writer Alex B. Berezow disagreed with this sentiment in his Los Angeles Times article ‘Why Psychology Isn’t a Science’ and declared that the supposed disrespect towards psychologists was because, “it’s rooted in the tired exasperation that scientists feel when non-scientists try to pretend they are scientists.” 

One point that Berezow brings up is that emotions and the reasons for which they are felt vary from person to person. Though there are likely commonalities between some groups of people, there is no tool like a microscope or ruler to measure such emotions, and placing abstract sensory concepts under one definition will not fit nearly enough cases per feeling. Since feelings such as happiness cannot be strictly defined, psychology fails to meet the requirements for clear terminology and quantifiability. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 aimed to study how individuals conformed to societal roles. Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo selected a group of 24 male college students to act as either prisoners or prison guards. Zimbardo had to shut the experiment after six days because the group had conformed to their roles so much that the environment grew tense and dangerous. 

It may be argued that the sample size was too small and too specific to truly represent the extent to which individuals conform to societal roles. If a greater sample size of a more diverse group of people were selected for the experiment, it is possible that the results would vary much more and fit into the criteria a lot better. If the experiment were to be redone with the same sample size and type of individuals under the same conditions, it is very likely that the results will be similar to the original experiment. Under this experiment, there were highly controlled conditions and reproducibility. 

Psychology may not use microscopes or weights, but contrary to some beliefs, it does include a form of measurement called psychometrics. Though not used in the conventional sense of measurement, where each tool has its designated purpose, psychometrics do require a procedure to provide a particular score to an individual that represents a particular characteristic, similar to how a scale assigns weight. 

As for how psychology may compare to sciences like chemistry or biology, psychology follows several scientific principles: it includes fact collection, theory creation, and a testing of those theories through a series of experiments. At its core, it shares many similarities with the higher respected sciences, though categorized differently. 

Psychology is, like any other scientific discipline, heterogeneous. So I don’t think you can say that all of psychology is a certain kind of way,” said Mr. Daniel McNickle, an A.P. Psychology teacher at Bronx Science. 

Some argue about its differences from chemistry, biology, physics, and the like, but those subjects are categorized differently than psychology is, and they have already been established to be distinct. Biology is a life science, while chemistry and physics are both physical sciences, which shows that there is a separation even between the hard sciences. 

Psychology is categorized as a social science, meaning that it is one of the branches that study society and human behavior. That along with psychology’s philosophical roots set it apart from the other sciences and placed it into a category with sociology and anthropology. 

Psychology is a fluid, dynamic science. As Mr. McNickle put it, “Since bias is human and universal, I believe that the scientific community needs to resemble, and thus represent, the human community, so that we can check and correct each other’s biases in this search for truth.” 

In short, psychology is a unique practice. It goes beyond the use of tools and experiments and draws from its philosophical roots to provide us with a better understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. It is a science that fits more than one definition and may not strictly apply to the criteria all the time, but it is valid nonetheless.

Psychology is a fluid, dynamic science. As Mr. Daniel McNickle, an A.P. Psychology teacher at Bronx Science, put it, “Since bias is human and universal, I believe that the scientific community needs to resemble, and thus represent, the human community, so that we can check and correct each other’s biases in this search for truth.”