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May 9, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Psychology: A Science

When you see the word ‘psychology’, what comes to mind? Common answers include ‘beards’, ‘Dr. Phil’, ‘sex’ and ‘why people do stuff’.

It’s easy to see why people say this—notable psychologists (Wundt, James and Freud especially) possess some of the finest facial hair in the academic sphere. Dr. Phil has probably done more to popularise misconceptions about psychology than any other individual, and will be discussed later, once you’ve stopped paying attention. If you’re looking for love/lust through the rather unconventional route of science, psychology is probably your best bet (unless you’re a chemist with little regard for the law and moral decency). Psychology, at it’s simplest, is the systematic and scientific study of the human mind. You’re now equipped to pass your first year PSYC papers.

If you happen to be a psychology student, this situation will probably sound familiar. You’re stepping out of Maclaurin 103, when you see an intimidating trio striding down the Cotton corridor: the chemist, her white garb singed and stained with the arcane raegents of her craft, crimson hair tied back into a sensible ponytail and safety goggles rakishly askew; the physicist, 6 foot 5 and emanating a barely perceptible blue glow, his bag full of whirring calculators slowly quantifying the universe; and the biologist, resplendent in a leopard-print lab coat, with rustling, curiously alive brown hair that cannot be described as anything other than ‘mousey’. They step towards you, and with much laughter and flailing of hands they address you, unified in scorn. “Oh, what have we here? A psychologist? How quaint. You are aware that it’s not a real science, right?”.

Persecutory fantasies aside, psychology gets a fair deal of flak from science folk. Some of it is deserved—It’s true that objectively explaining human behaviour is difficult when that soggy lump of supercomputer known as the brain never really reveals the full extent of what it’s doing. It’s true that some psychological disciplines find it difficult to be strictly empirical (which isn’t to say they don’t try). More vulnerable to bias than other scientific schools, psychology still observes the same rigorous scientific process. It’s possible to label it an ‘applied’ science, compared to the ‘pure sciences’ of physics, chemistry and biology, but that’s mostly a point of academic snobbery.

One way to think of how psychology fits into the scientific family is as the red-headed stepchild of biology: youthful, slightly detached and vaguely resented—a newcomer into an established group, even a slightly intrusive presence. Born (in its modern, scientific form) in 1879 and raised by Wilhelm Wundt, psychology has developed in much the same way as any other child, passing through a number of phases on its way to maturity and learning important lessons from each. The stubborn methodicalness of behaviourism and the moody, introspective hypochondria of Freudian theory, though philosophically opposed, both contributed to psychology as it exists today. It has also drawn material from other areas of academia. To continue our metaphor, psychology has (from a biological perspective) some pretty disreputable friends. It hangs around seedy libraries with philosophy, lurking in ‘logic’-brand hoodies. It was spotted in a parking lot, holding hands with sociology, and seen on numerous occasions shooting pool with computer science. Biology is furious—it’s sired a subject that can be studied as a Bachelor of Arts. They don’t even wear lab coats!

But let’s move on. Odds are that you’ve heard of Dr. Phil, with his doughy physique, telltale drawl and humongous stacks of cash. Dr. Phil is a suitable figurehead for the popular psychology movement, a tremendously influential trend that it’s nearly impossible to be unaware of. Walk into any bookstore (or middle-aged woman’s bedroom), and you’re bound to see shelf upon shelf of ‘self-help’ and ‘New Age’ tomes, each promising to CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOR THE BETTER. These represent the less scientific aspects of psychology, and if you’re reading this you probably have a fairly dim view of the ‘proven facts’ they contain. Pop psychology is characterised as commercialised, relentlessly optimistic and overly simplified—it’s not bad science per se, but difficult concepts roughly sliced into easily digestible chunks for mass consumption. This is a commercial necessity, and a function of pop psychology’s wide appeal, rather than any kind of systematic maliciousness or misguidedness on the part of the high-profile authors. Many contain solid amounts of sound psychological guidance, bulked out with psychobabble. An attempt to bring these self-help ideas into the fold has taken root as the positive psychology movement, a conscious and sustained attempt “to make normal life more fulfilling”, without sacrificing the scientific method.

This may startle you, but psychology is the sexiest (or sex-fixated, at least) scientific discipline. Contain your outrage, biologists! No other subject will have you well-informed and jaded quite as fast as psychology will. One of the most common reasons students give for studying it is “to learn about how people think”, which is quite obviously code for “to learn how attractive people of the gender I’m interested in think about me, and how to influence this”. Unsurprisingly, a colossal amount of research into interpersonal attraction has been undertaken, the vast majority of it as dry and methodical as anything else. If you’ve ever wanted to know why Scarlett Johnansson is so profoundly fascinating, or why neonatal features (such as big eyes, small nose and chin) are so attractive in females (Cunningham, 1986), you could do far worse than psychology.

Speaking of worse, psychology can also boast some of the least ethical (and most morbidly interesting) big-name experiments around. Marvel at unnerving discoveries such as the terrifying strength of obedience demonstrated by the 1974 Milgram study, in which participants were encouraged to apparently electrocute a man to death. Gasp at the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, which shows that people are liable to take their perceived roles far, far too seriously.

But it’s not all psychobabble, bedroom eyes and inhumanity—psychology can be found wherever people are, and has developed an application in almost every aspect of human life, from warfare to medicine. Recent advances in technology have influenced the direction of psychological research towards neuroscience, which may lead in time to a partial re-absorption of psychology by biology. These exciting developments will allow unprecedented insight into how the brain influences behaviour. Sadly, this is where our familial metaphor breaks down, becoming some kind of bizarre reverse-Oedipal scenario. It was fun while it lasted.

As a final note I’d just like to give a heartfelt apology to the Victoria University School of Psychology for insulting their craft with this clumsily ham-fisted article (to which my criticisms of popular psychology apply in their entirety) and strongly suggest you drop in to have a chat with them sometime. They’re lovely, interesting and friendly people. They don’t let on that they’re silently judging you at all.


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