Is psychology a science and should its empirical methodology be continued with?

Fundamental to our understanding of the broadness of psychological research is the resolution of the controversy of whether psychology is a science or not. Most psychological literature strongly promotes psychology in this regard but questions still remain to the legitimacy of the claim. It is important to acknowledge that a substantial part of this controversy is due to lack of a distinct and agreed definition of science itself. However, after outlining an appropriate outline of science for psychology, this article will discuss some major concerns with this controversy. It will essentially contest the claim that psychology is a science from the positivist empiricist view and in doing so will question whether the scientific method in which research is conducted should be replaced.

As mentioned, defining the term science is not a straightforward process. Much of this controversy relies on the broadness of definition used. Throughout history, approaches such as reductionism, determinism, positivism and others have all attempted to explain what psychology is (Gross, 2007). For the purpose of this article, the positivist empiricist view of science has been adopted as it arguably has had the largest influence on mainstream psychological research to date (Gross, 2007). Basically this definition asserts that psychology operates through an objective process of discovery based on an empirical methodology. This methodology is applied to subject matter and then leads to unbiased universal principles (Dana, 1987). To assess this view correctly, an evaluation of the objectivity and validity of the methodology and subject matter of psychological research must be undertaken.

Firstly, the issue of methodology in psychology appears straightforward. Good psychological practice asserts that a scientific process of discovery in research should be adhered to (Breakwell, 2006). This positivist empiricist methodology involves formulating hypothesis from observations of the world and empirically testing such hypothesises. Then interpreting the results and publishing the implications. This, in turn, leads to testable theories or avenues for further research (Breakwell, 2006). Psychological research for the most part adheres to this scientific methodology and therefore, is argued that psychology does fit the scientific bill (Lutus, 2009). However, just because psychologists adhere to this methodology it does not mean that psychology fully fits the positivist empiricist model and furthermore it does not mean that it is the most appropriate methodology for psychological research. To resolve these issues, the subject matter researched must be taken into account.

When we turn our focus to the subject matter in psychological research, strong concerns are evident in this regard. As alluded to earlier, science is an objective process to obtain universal principles. Universal principles mean that external validity must exist (Sue, 1999). This is currently not the case in psychology. The subject matter that psychologists study predominately consists of human beings. This is a major issue for psychology as human beings are by their nature intrinsically different and subjective (Meehl, 1978). From this, it is extremely difficult for researchers to effectively explain the first person experience of the subject matter from their third person perspective. In this way, subject matter variance in a psychology study can often be seen as a severe limitation for others evaluating it (Cronbach, as cited in Meehl, 1978). Accepted sciences, such as physics and chemistry, have subject matter that does not entail this problem. However, such serious concerns with subject matter in psychology negate it as a positivist empiricist science. Furthermore, if the subject matter is not objective and thus fails to lend itself to external validity should the positivist empiricist methodology still be adhered to?

As already discussed in the lecture series, gender and cultural differences are controversies still existing in psychology. The prevalence of such issues directly goes against the possibility of psychology being a science in the way it is being currently conducted. It makes it impossible for methodological results to be universally applied across the population (Gross, 2007). In reality, this lack of external validity also reflects the issue already discussed of the subjective nature of the subject matter. Gender and cultural differences highlight the variation that can easily exist between subject matter. Cultural differences themselves can vary in their form, as religion, region and social class all exist as their own culture set (Cohen, 2010). This obstacle to constructing universal laws is out of tune with the positivist empiricist approach. It occurs too often in psychological theory that you can not accurately and definitely predict that an individual’s results will support the theory being tested.

A further alarming issue with subject matter is the concern over the context or setting in which the subject matter is studied. Through the positivist empiricist methodology, psychological researchers attempt to control for many confounding variables, including the environment (Bevan, 1991). However, the environment is known to play a major role in many human operations, including memory (Rule, Garrett & Ambady, 2010). The logic of studying humans in laboratories must therefore be questioned. Although, it is an attempt to address objectivity, the omission of a natural environment takes much away from our understanding of the human (Bevan, 1991). Reducing the environment of the subject matter is in no way a solution to reducing its subjectivity that refutes the science model outlined.

Ethics in psychology is a further area where the claim that psychological research based on the scientific method is weakened. One of the main concerns with ethics in psychology is the issue of double obligation. This basically poses the dilemma of whether it is reasonable to harm a small number of individuals for the greater universal good (Gross, 2007). Ethics in psychology strongly attests that the individual must be protected even if the community loses out (The Psychological Society of Ireland, 2003). Take the example of a psychologist attempting to understand a specific behaviour pattern by removing brain tissue. Ethically this cannot be conducted on a fully functioning human being although the results may hugely benefit the community. The options thus are carrying out the research on animals or on appropriately brain damaged individuals (Lutus, 2009). In both these cases, external validity of the results is a major issue. This example clearly indicates the hindrance of ethics for psychology in its scientific claims. As already discussed, science is concerned with universal principles and this ethical obstacle in psychology hinders the possibility of this being achieved. This further illustrates the issue of the subject matter in psychology. There exists a moral and ethical attachment which is not part of an objective scientific framework.

As explained thus far, psychology can not fully be regarded as a science in the positivist empiricist model which it has derived its methodology from. A number of fundamental problems exist with validity and objectivity. Due to individual differences, context and ethical issues this article concludes that psychology cannot be described as a science model on which it has based itself. It must be noted that psychology is a relative newcomer in the field of science but whether it should be in this field is certainly contentious. Perhaps such difficulties can be overcome as psychology grows and our understanding of the subject matter becomes less ambiguous. In the mean time however, since the subject matter is an issue, perhaps the method used to study it should be altered. This being the case, the question of whether it should base itself on this very model must be asked. More pertinently, is the use of the empirical model for research the best methodology for psychology to use? If the subject matter is not scientific then should the method be?

When discussing whether the scientific methodology should be kept, a huge issue must surround the tools used. Although the methodology is scientifically sound, large amounts of published psychological research are conducted using scales that are not one hundred percent valid, a necessity for the scientific model outlined. Thus, concerns exist over what level of results can be truly inferred statistically from scales (Meehl, 1978). Further on to this the issue of questionnaires and self reporting from subject matter entails major issues for the scientific methodology used. Wording, format and context are all issues that can interfere with the response from the subject matter (Schwarz, 1999). In line with these issues, concerns such as social desirability, evaluation apprehension and demand characteristics all go against the positivist empiricist model as they deny psychology external validity. If this is the case, that the tools used to help implement the scientific methodology do not uphold its basic principles, then should it be continued?

Further to this concern is the use of statistical testing. Although commonly utilised in research psychology, it has no place in the science model outlined earlier. Statistical tests are not a core aspect of the scientific model in which psychological research is based (Anderson, Burnham & Thompson, 2000). The lack of external validity already outlined is heightened by the fact that such inaccuracy is taken into account when reporting results from psychological research. It is common practice to say that results are significant if they can be generalised to ninety-five percent of the population. In science, one hundred percent validity is necessary. In this way significance testing is a major problem for psychology that it does not appear to be addressing (Curran, 2009). The fact that statistical testing does not fit into the scientific framework makes the continued teaching of the method in the majority of psychology courses surprising and worrying (Schmidt, 1996). As with the tools used to impose the scientific methodology, the tests used to undertake it are open to strong criticism. As this is the case, perhaps an alternative to the scientific model must be found. Attempts to apply it in psychology cannot succeed as it is currently being conducted.

In this regard, it important to note that more established sciences also have issues with methodology being discussed. Psychology is often stated as being envious of physics (Dewsbury, 2009). However, physics is itself moving away from the idea that the methodology can provide universal and predictable resolutions to questions (Gross, 2007). Why then does psychology still persist in following these ideals? Even in the psychology field, the empirical approach hinders the progression of an integrated understanding of our thought and actions (Dewsbury, 2009). For example, research students will often conduct research that is narrow and localised to a particular aspect of a topic. This is not just an issue with students but also with qualified researchers who essentially are specialists in their selected domain of psychology. Positivist empiricist science looks for broader, universal results rather than specific understandings of narrow concepts. However, psychology is using its methodology in an insular nature (Dewsbury, 2009). A new approach is necessary where theory and experimentation are integrated effectively.

Finding an alternative option is a worthwhile dilemma that psychology must attempt to address. Our understanding of scientific processes needs to be enhanced so that an improved methodology is discovered (Bevan, 1991). Furthermore, psychologists need to examine their own ideologies to make them more aware of what psychology is trying to achieve. Bevan asserts that the methodology that psychologists should use is one that ensures external validity. As already mentioned, the scientific method still has validity issues for psychology. Psychologists should not pay heed or worry to methodologies that are not classified as scientific. More so, they should be careful and critical to select a methodology that does offer validity (Bevan, 1991).

Meta-analysis is an option offered by some as it integrates statistics from previous studies in the area (Curran, 2009). However, this solution is futile as it does nothing to eliminate the use of the scientific method. It just uses the results obtained in a different and possibly more effective way, but it still fails to rectify the problem. As outlined quantitative research has a number of fundamental flaws so an automatic alternative avenue would be that of qualitative research. Qualitative research is open ended and allows for a more representative view from the subject matter than the scientific method cannot produce. It gives a more real understanding to their experiences and behaviours in context (Henwood & Pidgeon, 1993). However, limitations with this approach exist as well. Through the reading of literature surrounding this topic, it is difficult to find a sound alternative to the scientific model. Some claim that this is due to a lack of effort on psychologists behalf (Dewsbury, 2009). More time and encouragement is needed in psychology to explore new methodological possibilities so that psychology may become less controversial and more assured of its progress.

In conclusion, psychology appears to be stuck in an outdated and incompatible method of research. This article has strongly rejected psychology as a science of empiricism and positivism in which it has largely grounded itself. Major issues with validity and objectivity of subject matter are ones that are not easily resolved. However, a scientific methodology in this regard is still persisted with. The final conclusion this article wishes to make is that psychologists need to spend more time searching for the best research procedure rather than continuing to undertake research with unsound scientific methods that cannot achieve what they claim to.


Anderson, D., Burnham, K., & Thompson, W. (2000). Null Hypothesis Testing: Problems, Prevalence, and an Alternative. The Journal of Wildlife Management. Vol. 64, 912-923.

Bevan, W. (1991) Contemporary psychology: a tour inside the onion. American Psychologist. Vol. 46, 475 – 483.

Breakwell, G. (2006). Research Methods in Psychology. Retrieved March 28, 2010, from

Cohen, A. (2010). Just How Many Different Forms of Culture Are There? American Psychologist. Vol. 65, 59-61.

Curran, P. (2009). The seemingly quixotic pursuit of a cumulative psychological science: Introduction to the special issue. Psychological Methods, Multi-Study Methods for Building a Cumulative Psychological Science. Vol. 14, 77-80.

Dana, H. (1987). Training for Professional Psychology: Science, Practice, and Identity. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Vol. 18, 9-16.

Dewsbury, D. (2009). Is psychology losing its foundations? Review of General Psychology. Vol. 13, 281-289.

Gross, R. (2007). Themes, Issues and Debates in Psychology (2nd Ed.). London: Hodder Arnold.

Henwood, K., & Pidgeon, N. (1993). Qualititative Research and Psychological Theorizing. In Hammersley, M. Social research: philosophy, politics and practice (pp. 14-31). Retrieved March 20, 2010, from

Lutus, P. (2009). Is Psychology a Science? Retrieved March 17, 2010, from

Meehl, P.E. (1978) Theoretical Risks and Tabular Asterisks: Sir Karl, Sir Ronald, and the Slow Progress of Soft Psychology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 46, 806-834.

Rule, N., Garrett, J., & Ambady, N. (2010). Places and Faces: Geographic Environment Influences the Ingroup Memory Advantage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 98, 343-355.

Schmidt, F. (1996). Statistical Significance Testing and Cumulative Knowledge in Psychology: Implications for Training of Researchers. Psychological Methods. Vol. 1, 115-129.

Schwarz, N. (1999). Self-reports: How the questions shape the answers. American Psychologist. Vol. 54, 93-105.

Sue, S. (1999). Science, Ethnicity, and Bias Where Have We Gone Wrong? American Psychologist. Vol. 54, 1070-1077.

The Psychological Society of Ireland. (2003). Code of Professional Ethics of the Psychological Society of Ireland. Dublin: PSI.


~ by maoliosaq on March 31, 2010.

5 Responses to “Is psychology a science and should its empirical methodology be continued with?”

  1. You assert in paragraph 4 that the subject matter of psychology lacks external validity, due to the inherent differences between people, and that this negates its scientific status. Psychology touts itself as the science of behaviour precisely to avoid the difficulty of objective subjectivity, although Daniel Dennett suggests that a heterophenomenology may allow for third person accessability of first person experience but that is another issue…Human behaviour is as observable as any physical behaviour within any system and although individual differences are possible confounding variables the controlling process of using very many participants and statistically analysing the results for significance does lead to almost universally applicable predictions of behaviour. The ‘hard’ sciences such as physics also produce almost unversally applicable predictions of behaviour and often ignore the explanatory riders associated with their assertions; an apple will fall to the ground (if it isn’t held up by anything, if it isn’t being spun centrifugally, if it is in a medium less dense than itself, in short if it is in a ‘normal’ environment). Psychology in contrast is damned by these explanatory riders of a ‘normal’ participant in a ‘normal’ situation producing the expected response. I would argue that our desire to be less than predictable emphasises the problem of individual differences in behaviour. I would accept that there are a multitude of possible causal factors influencing any behaviour but, all else being equal, particular stimuli can predictably produce particular responses in particualr environments and this provides us with interesting and perhaps useful information about the nature of being human.

  2. Futhermore, in paragraph 9 you assert that, “Wording, format and context are all issues that can interfere with the response from the subject matter (Schwarz, 1999). In line with these issues, concerns such as social desirability, evaluation apprehension and demand characteristics all go against the positivist empiricist model as they deny psychology external validity.”. The behaviour described was derived from psychological research using the scientific method. By using concepts such as social desirability, evaluation anxiety and demand characteristics you are implicitly accepting the external validity of the results of this reserch to perversely argue against the external validity of psychological research. Although it is incontrovertable that controlling the many variables that affect human behaviour creates major problems for the scientific study of human beings, the scientific method does still provide support for, or refutation of, explanatory theories of underlying principles which affect behaviour.

  3. I think that multiple forms of scientific investigation or methodologies are the way to go. For instance, the flaws in qualitative studies can be made up for in quantitative studies just as the flaws in quantitative studies can be made up for in qualitative studies. The more forms we have the better and if all these approaches individually produce the same insights in isolation from one another in a given issue then such insights can be seen as having reliable validity. Although an individual researcher may have biases, it is less likely for multiple researchers to share the exact same biases. Insights from an individual study may be questionable but insights from the collective examination of numerous studies that incorporate different methodologies are more reliable. In other words, insights should only be considered reliable if multiple forms of scientific investigation (preferably conducted by separate researchers) support those insights.

  4. My contention here is not much in relation to the above blog post but with the label that ‘Science’ has afforded the discipline of Psychology. I feel strongly that Psychology (as a brand) needs to clean up its act in the public domain. We are all in the business of improving our lives and for me Psychology has to be at the forefront in informing public life (forget politics and religion); It surely has that potential. Psychology should not merit its status as a science when it is open to inference by a powerful institution such as the media – whereby psychological findings are constantly being promoted in ways which look to sensationalise them. From our lecture series, Marek gave a clear example of what I mean by this when he anecdotally referred to a study which claimed to show that ‘Women eat less calories in the presence of Men than they do in the presence of other Women’ (Young, 2009). This was publicised in a popular magazine and as such has contributed to updating the already established public consensus that women are more self-conscious than men. As we later discussed, this study is completely flawed in terms of validity and hardly generalises across all female samples. I could go and find other examples on which my point rests but that would lend to a broader blog post. I just want to say here that the Psychology discipline really needs to overcome this frontier of media manipulation. People should be made properly aware of what Psychology has to say about their lives and comparatively Psychology itself needs to be increasingly conscious of its responsibility, and influence.

  5. I agree with the problem of subject matter – most subjects in psychological studies are human. The whole underlying precept of science is that every experiment is completely reproducible. For psychology to be be a science it would mean that every psychological experiment designed to produce certain theories would produce similar results. Up until now, analysing the numerous experiments out they, they have tended to produce differing results. So unless an underlying scientific rationale can be found to explain individual differences in a coherent way, by definition, psychology can not be classified as a science. It would appear that we humans are just too different and difficult to study!!!

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