Is psychology a science?

There is an ongoing debate about whether psychology is a science. Most psychologists believe it is a science, as it employs scientific methods and has a real-world impact.

What is a science?

Before we can answer is psychology a science, we need to understand what a science is. This is important because sciences hold a privileged position in terms of status and funding. So what do we mean by science?

There's no simple answer, but there are common features in the activities we class as a science. Namely:

  • Claims are based on empirical evidence.
  • Systematic and clear procedures are followed.
  • Theories are generated and evaluated.

Psychology meets this criteria, as it employs scientific methods to collect empirical evidence. The results are used to support or disprove hypotheses, and evaluate a theory.

Psychology meets the criteria for a science, even though it may not take place in a lab.
Psychology meets the criteria for a science, even though it may not take place in a lab.

Scientific methods

Psychology is the scientific study the mind and behaviour according to Dr Paul Taylor:

“Psychologists use scientific methods to observe, describe, predict, and explain behaviour and mental processes. These methods include controlled experiments, surveys, observations, and clinical trials, among others. Psychology aims to understand various aspects of human behaviour, cognition, emotion, and development through empirical research and evidence-based practices.”

However, Dr Cath Sullivan points out that this may overlook nuance in the subject:

“Some of psychology is like that, but not all of it. So, does that mean only some of psychology is scientific?”

For example, a cognitive psychologist may use an EEG to measure brain activity. This is a highly scientific method which collects empirical data. A social psychologist, on the other hand, may carry out an observation. This is more open to interpretation.

Although there are different approaches, psychologists will try to make research as scientific as possible. They follow British Psychological Society (BPS) guidance for best practice. For example, an observation will follow a strict procedure and control as many variables as possible. Therefore, we can still class psychology as a science.

Slide 1 of 2
Cognitive psychologists may conduct an EEG.
Cognitive psychologists may conduct an EEG.

The history of psychology

To answer is psychology a science, we need to consider the history of the subject.

Science was previously believed to develop slowly, through a series of small changes that further ideas, approaches and understanding. In the 1960s, the philosopher Thomas Kuhn challenged this idea. He proposed instead that science develops to a crisis point and then experiences a scientific revolution.

Psychology certainly follows this pattern. We can see several established approaches, a crisis point and then a new, improved psychology that follows.

Real-world impact

Psychology is central to many of the problems we face in the world today. However, it is sometimes not afforded the same respect as other sciences like biology or chemistry.

A 2005 study by Kevin Boyack aimed to determine which scientific disciplines are most influential in modern society. It looked at the citations in over a million articles published in over 7,000 different journals. Citations are used to reference sources of information, data, ideas, and findings from research. Psychology was identified as one of the seven hub sciences that underpin our understanding of the world around us alongside Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Earth Sciences and Social Science.

This shows that psychology is increasingly respected by the scientific world. It is regularly referenced as a source of knowledge.

Psychology is an influential discipline.
Psychology is an influential discipline.

Is psychology a science?

Psychology has contributed much to our understanding of the modern world. The use of scientific methods and empirical data mean that it meets the criteria of a science. It is also afforded growing respect by the scientific world, as shown by the staggering number of academic references. That means we can confidently say that psychology is a science.