Psychology is defined to students as the scientific study of human behaviour. However, when the American Psychological Association surveyed 1,000 adult members of the public, 70% did not agree with the statement, ‘psychology attempts to understand the way people behave through scientific research’ (Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, 2008, p. 29). Lay people deny, what is to those within psychology, an undeniable fact: that psychology aims to test theory-grounded hypotheses in an objective, replicable and empirical manner – and is therefore scientific. Recently, psychologists have investigated the reasons for such a divide between expert and novice views of the field. In doing so, they have uncovered how lay people evaluate whether a subject deserves the scientific stamp of approval.
Within psychology, attention has increasingly been cast on examples of inadequate applications of the scientific method. Such questionable research methods include researcher fraud, distortions of data to reach statistical significance and strong biases against the publication of null effects or failed replication attempts. Such problems may have undermined the confidence of psychologists in their own field. However, expert criticisms of the research process cannot explain the long-existing scepticism of the public towards the ‘science’ of behaviour.
Nevertheless, the methods of psychological research have contributed to its unscientific image in one way: the public judge the scientific status of an investigation from its equipment, which often differs between psychology and the natural sciences (Krull & Silvera, 2013). Interestingly though, the equipment used influences lay comparisons of topics within the natural sciences but not within the behavioural sciences.
For example, mirrors, electrocardiogram (ECG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are perceived as more scientific methods of studying the brain, hormones and cancer than questionnaires, interviews and video games. In contrast, mirrors, ECG and MRI are perceived as no more (or less) scientific ways of studying attitudes, personality and emotions than questionnaires, interviews and video games. In other words, the influence of equipment disappears in relative judgements of different psychological topics. The same irrational pattern arises when participants are asked to judge the importance of research: the type of equipment influences the perceived importance of different topics within the natural – but not behavioural – sciences.
The combination of studying natural science content with natural science equipment holds a more scientific image than research which either investigates behaviour, recruits behavioural methods or does both – by definition psychological studies always falls into one of the latter three categories. Krull and Silvera (2013) present this lay way of reasoning as flawed; they claim that sciences should be defined by their application of the scientific method, not their content or equipment.
However, this claim of the authors may also be flawed; it ignores the fact that the content and equipment of research indicate the likelihood that the scientific method can be applied successfully. For example, studying the brain with MRI has a greater probability of meeting the scientific ideals of objectivity and empiricism than studying attitudes with questionnaires. Brain activity levels can be inferred more directly from blood oxygenation recordings than attitudes can be inferred from the self-reported outcomes of conscious biases. Therefore, lay reasoning should not be dismissed as uninformed because it can be more difficult to apply scientific principles when studying behaviour with psychological methods.
Whilst the methods of psychology may invite justifiable scepticism of its scientific status, other factors exacerbate the scientific image of psychology in unjustifiable and avoidable ways. First, the shop front of psychology is home to its most unscientific goods, yet this shop front is also the most visible part of the field to the window shopping public. Between 1870 and 1930 the number of psychologists writing for popular magazines dropped by 300% and remains at this record low today (Benjamin, 2006). In replace, a handful of media personalities, such as Dr Phil and Dr Laura in America, cast opinions and advice on prime time TV without the support of scientific evidence (Arkowitz & Lilienfeld, 2009). The advice presented in a mere 5% of the 3,500 self-help books published each year is verified scientifically (Arkovitz & Lilienfeld, 2006). There exists only one psychology magazine which is both based on rigorous research and targeted at the general public: Scientific American Mind: Behaviour, Brain, Science, Insights – the absence of the word ‘psychology’ in its title or subtitle may be intentional (Lilienfeld, 2012).
Second, the public primarily have contact with only one sector of psychology: clinical therapy. Therefore, basic psychology – experimental research aimed at understanding the mind for the purpose of developing scientific theory – hides behind its big applied brother: the provision of ‘talking therapies’. Hence 52% of respondents to the APA survey agreed with the statement, ‘psychology attempts to understand the way people behave by talking to them and asking them why they do what they do’ (Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, 2008, p. 29). Indeed, on average undergraduates estimate that 67% of psychologists are therapists or counsellors when the actual proportion is 50% (Rosenthal, McKnight & Price, 2001). Moreover, the public and popular films they watch often fail to distinguish between psychology and psychiatry (Von Sydow & Reimer, 1998). The perception that psychologists fix mental abnormalities disguises their co-existing role of scientific researching normal behaviour.
Finally, the public may be motivated to perceive psychology in an unscientific light. The difference between the content of psychology and that of traditional sciences is that lay people have much more personal experience of behaviour than atoms, hearts, electricity and stars. Consequently, there is much opportunity for research findings in psychology to contradict the firmly held intuitions and beliefs of lay folk, unlike findings from the natural sciences. Subsequently, there is a need for lay people to seek a comforting solution to this mental conflict between intuition or experience and psychology. The solution is often to discount research findings on the basis that a scientific means of answering a behavioural question is inappropriate or impossible (Munro, 2010). Therefore, the lay desire to maintain pre-existing beliefs may hinder public acceptance of psychology as a science.
As far as behavioural methods and motivated perceptions are to blame for the unscientific image of psychology, these may (to some extent) be justified and inevitable. However, neither justified nor inevitable is lacking media promotion of experimental psychology based on controlled laboratory methods and quantitative statistical analysis. The unscientific image of psychology deters patients who need help but do not perceive the methods of therapists as scientifically credible (Lilienfeld, 2012). Abandoning psychology communication to non-researchers (as in part occurs today) risks a loss of opportunities for researchers regarding funding and the translation of evidence into policy (Lilienfeld, 2012). It is politicians and other psychology novices who decide whether research is funded and has an impact. Hence their distorted perception of our subject is important and now is the time to correct it.
Arkowitz, H., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2006). Do self-help books help? Scientific American Mind, 17, 90-91.
Arkowitz, H., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2009). The “Just do it” trap: Why Dr. Phil and Dr. Laura won’t solve your problems. Scientific American Mind, 20, 64-65.
Benjamin, L. T. (2006). Why are we keeping psychological science a secret? Invited address at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science, New York, NY.
Krull, D. S., & Silvera, D. H. (2013). The stereotyping of science: superficial details influence perceptions of what is scientific. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(8), 1660-1667.
Lilienfeld, S. O. (2012). Public skepticism of psychology: Why many people perceive the study of human behavior as unscientific. American Psychologist, 67(2), 111-129.
Munro, G. D. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief‐Threatening Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579-600.
Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates. (2008). American Psychological Association benchmark study. New York: Author.
Rosenthal, G. T., McKnight, R. R., & Price, A. W. (2001). Who, what, how, and where the typical psychologist is… the Profession of Psychology Scale. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 28, 220-224.
Von Sydow, K., & Reimer, C. (1997). Attitudes toward psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts. A meta-content analysis of 60 studies published between 1948 and 1995. American journal of psychotherapy, 52(4), 463-488.