Look up any definition of psychology and you’ll see that the definition will often start off with, “the scientific study of.” Psychology is a science, although in a way it’s hard to see it as one. It’s a field that’s still a little fuzzy; we’re still trying to figure it out. This doesn’t mean we haven’t come a very long way – we have! But there are still many unknowns to resolve.
Take brain research for example. It’s exploded in the last 10 years, along with other new areas of science that are getting more and more attention, such as Positive Psychology, and the psychological impairments of gifted children.
Yet, when you think of psychology, you might think of therapy, two people sitting in a room discussing something things that are ephemeral, such as feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. So, how can psychology be a scientific study? To answer that question, let’s first look at its full definition.
Psychology is the science that studies behavior and mental processes. Yet, there are a wide variety of theories, therapeutic orientations, and scholars that make up the field of psychology, making this definition pretty narrow. And, likely you have had your own experiences with dreams, counseling, and unhealthy thought patterns, that don’t exactly fit within this definition.
Many people look at psychology as non-scientific for the ways that it has attempted to treat mental illness. Some theorists, like Freud for example, came up with an idea, tried it on their patients, and if it worked, it stuck. However, now we know that not everything that Freud theorized or used with his patients is the best solution. In order to stay as objective as possible and to test first whether a therapeutic solution will stand the test of time is to use the scientific method. In fact, the use of scientific method is what makes a particular field scientific. When this method is applied psychology’s understanding of behavioral and mental processes of human beings, it too becomes a science.
The scientific method, which has been used throughout science since the early 20th century, is used in certain divisions of psychology. One essential reason for this is that without the scientific method, it is easy to be bias and allow personal perceptions, judgments, conditioning, and experiences to get in the way of seeing objectively. This is the method that all scientists use to arrive at truths within their field, including psychological research. The steps to the scientific method are:
The Scientific Method
- Ask the question
- Develop a hypothesis
- Collect relevant observations.
- Test the hypothesis.
- Reach and share a conclusion.
The essential question to ask when applying the scientific method or in simply gathering data is: How does one obtain relevant observations? There are a variety of scientific ways to collect data, particularly when documenting and observing that which is subjective – feelings, thoughts, moods. Some of these research methods include descriptive research, archival research, naturalistic and nonnaturalistic observation, longitudinal studies, surveys, and more.
All of these ways to observe behavior and mental processes are meant to promote objectivity, and with that, the possibility of arriving at a universal truth about the mind and human behavior. Being curious, conceptualizing a problem, collecting data using objective means, analyzing that data, and then drawing a conclusion are the means by which psychology is a science.
However, psychology becomes an art when you are sitting across from your client in the therapy room. At first you may not be sure how to respond to what your client has shared with you in a particular session. However, when the right words come to you and you share them and it turns out to be just the right words for facilitating your client’s healing process, these moments are artistic in nature and not scientifically planned or mapped out in any way.
And what does all of this have to do with your mental health? It is the combination of the art and science of psychology that yields results, further insights, and a deeper understanding of the mind. As the field of psychology continues to grow and evolve, it will be able to more accurately assess, diagnose, and treat mental illnesses.
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