In this essay we will determine whether social psychology is scientific by answering two questions. Firstly, we will need to ask whether social psychology has been able to use the principles or methods used in science in the study of social psychological phenomenon. However, it would be unreasonable to classify social psychology as scientific simply because it uses these methods, for social psychology to be classified as a science we will need to look at the way in which these methods are used. Based on this, the second question we will be asking is whether the goals science are appropriate to the study of social psychological phenomena.
Malim et al.(1992) state that there are four goals to any science: to describe events as objectively as possible, to use such descriptions to predict future events and propose hypotheses, to gain greater knowledge through hypothesis testing and finally, to give us a greater understanding of the world around us through understanding cause and effect.
Scientific method is the means by which a scientist develops theories and collects data. A scientist proposes a theory based upon a collection of facts. These facts are the result of objective observation. A scientific theory can lead to generalisations being made about a certain object/occurrence etc. These facts generate expectations or hypotheses about other related phenomena. A scientist tests his hypothesis by setting up a controlled experiment where he manipulates an independent variable(IV) and observes changes in the dependent variable(DV). Results from these experiments are used either to support or refine a theory. Key concepts in scientific experiments are: objectivity, control, manipulation, replication and falsification.
If social psychology is scientific then it must have similar goals to science and social psychologists must carry out investigations which incorporate the above methodology.
Social psychology is a sub-discipline of the larger field of psychology. According to the Collins English!
‘The scientific study of all forms of human and animal behaviour.´
Social psychology is a unique area within psychology because it is particularly concerned with behaviour in social situations.
‘…the scientific study of the way individuals think, feel, desire, and act in social situations.´
It is interesting to remark that in their definition of social psychology Brehm and Kassin have chosen to describe it as scientific.
In order to answer the first of our questions we will proceed to give a brief history of the development of social psychology. By looking at its history we will be able to determine whether social psychology have been able to use the scientific methods to demonstrate social psychological phenomenon.
Thinkers have been concerned with psychological issues for centuries. However, it was not until years later that psychology became recognised as a discipline in its own right and began using empiricism as a way of answering questions. Bernard Notcutt says:
‘The idea of applying scientific method to the study of human thought and behaviour was not seriously entertained until the nineteenth century.´
The years 1936-1945 have been described as the ‘infancy´(Brehm and Kassin) of social psychology. This period was marked by the ground-breaking work of people such as Sherif. He published a study of social influence in 1936 and was one the first social psychologists to use the laboratory experiment as a method of enquiry. Participants in his research observed a visual illusion – a dot of light that was actually stationary but appeared to move. Watching alone, participants differed considerably in their individual estimates of the light´s movement. When they watched together in groups, however, their estimates of the light´s movement converged. The light itself never budged, but opinions moved towards a common perception. Sherif´s research was crucial for the development of social psychology because it demonstrated that it was possible to apply the scientific method and conduct well-controlled, repeatable experiments.
The years 1946-60 have been described as the ‘classic age´(Brehm and Kassin) of social psychology. Many successful research programs using the scientific method were carried out during these years. These included Asch´s studies of conformity, Festinger´s work on cognitive dissonance and Allport´s important research on prejudice and stereotyping.
By the late sixties social psychology was well founded and a huge range of experiments were being carried out. For example, Latané and Darley had looked at bystander apathy, Moscovici had looked at group interactions and Milgram had carried out his classic studies of obedience. All these experiments incorporated Malim et al´s goals and the psychologists involved carried out the experiments with the aim of fulfilling all the rigours of scientific method.
We have answered our first question because we have shown that social psychologists have been able to use the scientific method to demonstrate social psychological phenomena. However, the late sixties was also a time of crisis for social psychology. The disagreements were in reaction to the dominant research method of the day: the laboratory experiment(which still remains the dominant research method today). This period of history is very important if we are to answer our second question since many of the objections concerning laboratory experiments can be used to be used to determine whether the goals of science are appropriate to the study of human behaviour. It is important to mention that the laboratory experiment is not the only research method used in social psychology. For example social psychologists carry out controlled observation studies in natural settings. But this essay will focus on laboratory experiments as these are the most common and most ‘scientific´ of the experiments carried out in social psychology.
Experiments in social psychology face problems which other ‘scientific´ disciplines do not. What we are dealing with in psychology are not chemicals or rays of light as in physics or chemistry but ‘active´ participants. Can we really say that social psychology is scientific in the same way as physics or chemistry?
Flanagan(1997) says that it is not always possible to extrapolate between psychological experiments and ‘real life experience.´ This was one of the objections to many of the above studies. We can look at Milgram´s famous studies of obedience as an example. He carried out a series of experiments where subjects believed they were taking part in an experiment investigating the effects of punishment on learning and delivered what they thought were electric shocks to a ‘victim´ who was really a confederate. The study placed the participants in a highly conflicting situation: to carry out the experiment involved hurting another person. The focus of study was the amount of electric shock the subject was willing to give to another person when ordered by an experimenter to give the victim a shock. The learner(confederate) was strapped into ‘electric chair´ and had to learn a list of paired associates. The teacher(participant) had to administer punishment whenever the learner erred. The learner erred purposely many times. There were various levels of electric ranging from a mild shock to a severe shock. Milgram found that 60% of the subjects gave shocks right up to the maximum level. Milgram´s interest in this area was aroused by the trials of Nazi soldiers during the Second World War.
He wanted to discover how easily individuals could become an instrument of authority. Although Milgram did this using scientific method, he did so by setting up a laboratory situation far removed from the situation any Nazis would have found themselves in. We can argue that we cannot generalise from Milgram´s findings to the larger world because the social situation in his experiment is simply far too diluted to be comparable to the real world. It is difficult to imagine it being possible to replicate the social situation in which the Nazis found themselves during the Second World War. If this is the case we might well ask ourselves if there is a point to carrying out such research it if does not allow use to increase our understanding of human behaviour in the real world. Is social psychology scientific if in using scientific methods it fails to provide an objective explanation of human behaviour? We will now look at a number of other factors which show that causal inference from the results of any laboratory experiment is more problematic than many social psychologists allow. A key term here is validity which refers to the extent to which one is justified in drawing inferences from one´s findings.
One factor which limits validity is referred to as demand characteristics. Demand characteristics are cues in the experimental setting which convey to the participant the nature of the experimental hypothesis. The participant can use these to work out what is required of him by the experimenter.
Psychologists often use a cover story to attempt to prohibit the participant from discovering the nature of the enquiry. For example, Milgram told participants in his study that they were participating in a study about punishment and learning By giving a cover story experimenters believe they are able to effectively give participants a false explanation of the nature of the experiment and thus prevent confounding variables. However, Orne argues that even if experimenters effectively use a cover story they are still conveying something to the participant which might influence their participation in the experiment. The atoms and light rays studied in chemistry and physics do not engage in the construction and interpretation of the meaning of the experiment as participants in social psychological experiments do. Above all else participants know they are participating in an experiment and not a real life situation so whatever they think they are being asked to do they know it is part of an experiment.
It is more possible in social psychology than in other disciplines for the experimenter to affect the behaviour of their participants by their expectations. This problem is referred to as experimenter bias and was demonstrated by Rosenthal and Jacobsen(1968) in an experiment where some children´s IQs increased as a result of their teachers being given higher expectations for them. This effect can be overcome by using the double-blind technique but even when the experimenter and subject are not aware of the nature of the experiment their expectations can still affect the result.
In rebuttal experimental psychologists argue that all scientific experiments are affected by experimenter bias. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle suggests that even in physics there is a limit to certainty. This argument cannot really be accepted because even if experimental bias does occur in other sciences it appears clear that it is more of a problem in psychology. Aristotle, for example, said that human actions did not admit of the same exact scientific study that was possible in other fields.
Another criticism is that social psychological experiments are culturally limited. Even though cross-cultural replications of studies are carried out the fact still remains that between 75-90% of social psychologists live in North America (Smith and Bond) meaning the majority of social psychological experiments are culture bound(Berry et al. 1992). For example all the participants in Milgram´s original study were white American´s meaning that a sample bias could have been the explanation for the findings.
These factors, and others beside them, demonstrate that social psychological phenomena are unique events. There will always be some factor that prevents research being objective and entirely repeatable. Gergen(1975) says:
‘In dealing with human beings in social settings it is virtually impossible to manipulate any variable in isolation of all the others.
In conclusion it needs to be said that we answered our first question by showing that social psychology does use the scientific method. The use of this method in social psychology is identifiable with the goals and practices of science as seen in other disciplines. However it would be incorrect to say that social psychology is scientific in the same way as chemistry or physics. In terms of our second question it seems inappropriate to refer to social psychology as scientific since as unpredictable and subjective as human behaviour cannot be studied in the same way as lights and gases. We have shown that factors such as a lack of generalisability, demand characteristics and cultural limitations are the reason for thus. This is not to say that scientific methods should not be used in psychology only that they do not provide a ‘royal road´(Aronson 1985) to causal inference as they do in other sciences. We also need to consider that social psychology as a young discipline which is evolving and looking for the best way to examine human behaviour. If social psychologists can address the problems raised in this essay it may be possible to classify social psychology as scientific, though this seems unlikely.
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