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Is Psychology A Science Or Social Science?

by Brihony Tulloch
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Way back, psychology and philosophy were two peas in a pod. Famous philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle spent most of their time pondering about human nature, emotions, and why we do what we do. Fast forward to the 19th century, and psychology started stepping out of philosophy’s shadow thanks to trailblazers like Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and later American psychologist Abraham Maslow. Psychology began to don the cloak of science, running experiments and adopting a methodical way of looking at things. However, the 20th century was a game-changer. Some psychologists embraced the scientific method, they understood that if psychology is a scientific field, it meant focusing on hard evidence and experiments. Let me explain. 

Psychology Is A Science (?)

Let’s break science down a bit. At its heart, science is about observing, measuring, and experimenting to understand the mysteries of our world, and psychology definitely draws on those techniques and methods. 

Here’s why:

Hands-on Research

Psychologists aren’t just sitting around speculating. They’re out there running experiments, conducting surveys, and observing folks in action. It’s all about evidence-based conclusions. In fact, it’s these decades of research that have gone into forming the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; a taxonomic and diagnostic tool produced by the American Psychological Association (APS) and used by practising psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. 

Studying the Brain

Psychology is more than just “the talking cure”. Neuropsychology, psychobiology and behavioural neuroscience are just some of the subfields that use scientific methods to study the human mind and connect the dots between our brain and behaviour. For example, neuroimaging techniques like PET scans, EEG and FMRI are used to learn more about how we think, feel, interpret and experience the world around us and how mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression manifest in the brain. 

Controlled Experiments & Empirical Data  

We’ve come a long way since the days of phrenology when the shape of a person’s head was used to determine whether or not they were mentally ill, violent or even a serial killer. 

Just like medical researchers, physicists or engineers, experimental psychologists love controlled settings and applying the same precise scientific methods to further our understanding of the mind, mental illness and treatment options. 

Psychology & Social Sciences: The Crossover

The practice of modern day psychology is deeply rooted in science, but there’s no denying the similarities bet it’s also deeply rooted in the social sciences. After all, social science is defined as the study of human behaviour. This includes examining thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, as well as how people interact with one another in groups, and psychology involves all of those things. Treating the mind isn’t always as simple as treating the body; antibiotics can help heal a chest infection, but recovering from post traumatic stress disorder may require a combination of psychotropic medications and behavioural therapy. Humans are complex, and we’re not always governed by straightforward scientific laws. 

The Talking Cure

There’s a reason psychotherapy is sometimes described as “the talking cure”. Beyond cold, hard numbers, psychotherapy professionals like counsellors, psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists listen to people’s personal stories, feelings, and experiences. It’s not always about data; sometimes, it’s about understanding someone’s personal narrative.

We behave differently depending on where we’re from or the groups we hang out with. Social psychologists are like detectives, piecing together the puzzle of these variations. 

What’s more, not all mental health issues can be treated with the same type of psychotherapy. For example, let’s say a psychologist is treating two patients who both suffer from insomnia due to clinical depression and recommends mindfulness techniques like meditation as a way to find relief from this symptom. Patient number one finds meditation helpful, but patient number two has a history of family violence and finds the vulnerability of meditation triggers feelings of anxiety and personal safety. Unlike doctors treating patients with medical issues, psychotherapists often have to adopt a fluid approach to treating patients. 

Where Does This Leave Us?

Instead of boxing psychology into “science” or “social science”, think of it as a brilliant blend of both. While some parts of psychology lean heavily on biology and concrete data, others dive deep into the societal and cultural pools.

What’s thrilling is that psychology doesn’t restrict itself. It borrows the best bits from both worlds. Whether it’s the precision of scientific experiments or the rich depth of personal stories, psychology is all about understanding the complex tapestry of the human experience.

So, is psychology a science or social science? The answer’s a fun mix of both. It’s this incredible dance between the rigidity of science and the fluidity of social understanding. And as we continue to delve deeper into the human mind, this dance becomes even more intricate, offering us a front-row seat to the wonders of human behaviour.

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