Although many people who studied psychology may work in jobs that perhaps do not, on the surface, seem "scientific," the practice and education of psychology is guided by research findings that are firmly grounded in the scientific method. There are some disciplines within psychology that are even more aligned with the natural sciences, such as neuropsychology, which is the study of the brain's influence on behavior. Psychology is commonly recognized as a social science, and is included on the National Science Foundation's roster of recognized STEM disciplines.
Many psychology undergraduate programs are shaped by the goals laid out in the American Psychology Association's "Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major", said Dr. Michelle Hill, senior associate dean of psychology programs at Southern New Hampshire University. Goal 2 of the American Psychology Association guidelines version 2.0 is "Scientific Inquiry and Critical Thinking," which includes the following subgoals: Use scientific reasoning to interpret psychological phenomena, demonstrate psychology information literacy, and interpret, design, and conduct basic psychological research.
More widespread recognition of psychology as a science is one of the points of emphasis in the APA guidelines, Hill said.
A Scientific Discipline
"Professionals in the field who 'do psychology' (e.g. research, teaching, psychotherapy) understand that psychology is a scientific discipline," said Nickolas H. Dominello, Ph.D., lead faculty for SNHU's undergraduate psychology program.
Psychology's status as a science is grounded in the use of the scientific method, said Dominello. Psychologists base their professional practice in knowledge that is obtained through verifiable evidence of human behavior and mental processes. Psychological studies are designed very much like studies in other scientific fields. It is through these studies that psychologists contribute to the body of research in their field.
Learning to design these studies and interpret the findings is a significant part of psychology education. Undergraduate students learn to develop a research question and select a data collection method, and have the opportunity to design and refine a hypothetical research investigation, said Dominello.
Psychology is always growing and always building on itself, he said. "The subject of psychological science, behavior and mental processes, is vast and complex," said Dominello. "Therefore, establishing conclusive evidence is challenging. Psychological research is cyclical, and published research findings often spawn additional inquiries. Each 'brick' of knowledge contributes to the overall structure of knowledge for a particular phenomenon."
So, if psychologists agree that psychology is a science, where does the confusion come from? What prompts some people to think of psychology as a soft science?
"I feel that in part, this misrepresentation of psychology stems from the diversity within the field (i.e. the various subfields) and the fact that psychological science findings often lead to more questions and avenues of future research. This contrasts with some of the more traditional sciences that only search for concrete, definitive answers," said Dominello.
Psychology also utilizes a wider array of qualitative methods than some traditional sciences.
"Although qualitative research provides a different route to understanding than traditional quantitative methods, I feel that is also 'scientific,' just grounded in different philosophical underpinnings," said Dominello.
Research methods can be categorized as either quantitative or qualitative. Quantitative research results in numerical data that can be analyzed. Qualitative research employs methods like questionnaires, interviews and observations. Qualitative research can be analyzed by grouping responses into broad themes. This melding of quantitative and qualitative methods is essential to understand the human factor inherent in psychology.
"Psychology as a science embraces this broader exploratory perspective in order to better understand human phenomena. When merged, qualitative data can breathe life into quantitative data," Dominello said.
"Psychology is unique in that it adds breadth and depth of knowledge in conjunction with so many other disciplines, because we are all curious about understanding human behavior to some extent, whether it's one's own behavior or the behavior of others," said Hill.
This rich combination of qualitative and quantitative skills makes psychology a good undergraduate degree that can prepare students for a wide array of careers. Individuals with a bachelor's degree in psychology can pursue careers in social services, education, human resources and medical fields, using their education and skills as a foundation for understanding and working with others, Dominello said.
Where the Science of Psychology Can Be Applied
Hill said that a psychology undergraduate program's focus on effective communication, information literacy and understanding human behavior can lend itself to many areas outside psychology, including sales, marketing and many others.
Those who wish to practice as psychologists or work in academic research must pursue additional education beyond a bachelor's degree, often a Ph.D. This advanced education in psychology often involves a strengthening of research skills, and an increased focus on the scientific method and the design of research studies, according to Dominello.
Is psychology a science? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is much more expansive and flexible. Psychology begins with the scientific method, and researchers employ many of the same methods as their colleagues in the natural and physical sciences, but psychology also calls for a deep understanding of human behavior that goes beyond science alone.