Is psychology a science? Social science?
Why is there so much debate surrounding this question?
In this post, we’ll explore the reasons why psychology is different from the other sciences. Though the other sciences quite often do share the same complexity as psychology, still there are some aspects of psychology that are very much peculiar to it.
Without further ado, let’s begin…
Subject (observer) turned into the object
A psychologist studying the behaviour of others is certainly a big deal but the rare individuals who also study themselves and try to figure out the complexities of their own behaviour are definitely among the true students of the discipline.
The only thing in the world trying to understand itself is the human mind. That’s the most fascinating thing about psychology. It turns the observer, which observes the world and how it works in all the other sciences, into an object of observation itself.
So if it is the mind which observes the world and in psychology, we observe the mind itself, what exactly is observing the mind in action?
Is it the mind which is observing itself in action or do we have some deeper level of awareness that watches over the workings of the mind?
When we say we have an awareness that observes the mind, doesn’t that imply we are aware of the awareness that is aware of the mind? It is an infinite regress and makes one’s mind go like “Error 404: page can’t be found”.
Diverse levels of human behaviour
There’s no one way to look at human behaviour; there are different angles and perspectives from which you can study it. For the sake of simplicity, I have categorized human behaviour into three broad categories:
General human behaviour
It is behaviour that is common to all humans because of their humanity. From the need to survive and reproduce to the desire to feel loved, special and worthy.
For example, men loving guns, gadgets, and sports while women loving social gatherings, parties and make-up tutorials.
It is behaviour that results from identifying with a particular group. A person adopts the behaviours that are associated with a social, cultural, religious or political group to which he belongs.
It is behaviour that is specific and unique to individuals, mostly shaped by past experiences. It is what comprises our personality and makes us different from other human beings.
Such diverse ways of looking at the same thing (human behaviour) and at different levels are unique to psychology.
2+2 ≠ 4
Psychology is by no means a linear cause-and-effect science because not only can there be more than one cause behind the same behaviour but also there can be a single cause that can lead to many different kinds of behaviours, depending on the individual.
For instance, a person may smoke (effect) because he wants to alleviate stress and anxiety (cause 1) or assert his masculinity because he saw masculine actors on screen do it (cause 2) or be accepted among his smoker peers (cause 3).
Additionally, it can also be that he smokes because of the combined effect of all these causes.
A person who suffers a major setback in life (cause) may become depressed (effect 1) or form beliefs like “I’m not good enough” (effect 2) or comfort himself by saying everything is OK (effect 3) or commit suicide (effect 3) or choose to fight back and survive (effect 4).
The chosen effect will not only depend on the person’s personality but also on dozens of other factors that are often extremely difficult if not impossible to account for.
An observed behaviour seldom depends on a single factor and even though researchers try their best to create controlled conditions, many subjective factors are often overlooked or ignored in various psychological studies.
This is why psychology experiments and studies are rarely repeated or retested. Sometimes even the passage of time can be a crucial factor that governs behaviour. You can’t step into the same river twice when it comes to human behaviour.
The exact conditions in which a behaviour was first observed cannot be 100% replicated and change in even a seemingly unimportant variable such as the ‘passage of time’ can have significant effects.
Unlike many other sciences which assume that phenomena occur according to some pre-set universal laws that are context-independent, psychology is highly context-dependent. In fact, context is everything.