Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Psychology: It isn't rocket science

When you sign on to be a Psychologist, you have taken on the study of a topic that is both extraordinarily complex and underappreciated.  Many people have an interesting attitude toward Psychology.  On the one hand, they  are interested enough to want to read news stories and blog entries, but on the other hand they often get the sense that Psychology isn’t doing the heavy lifting of “hard” sciences like chemistry and physics.  Even within the scientific community, Psychology is often the Rodney Dangerfield of sciences.  There are plenty of Nobel laureates like Roger Penrose and Francis Crick who decide that after winning their prize, they will turn their attention to a simpler science and clean it up--only to discover that Psychology is harder than it looks.

There is some evidence that this attitude toward Psychology starts early.

A paper in the February, 2010 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Frank Keil, Kristi Lockhart and Esther Schlegel studied attitudes toward a variety of sciences from Kindergarten through adulthood.  They found that as early as second grade, kids see Psychology as explaining things that are easier to understand than the natural sciences (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) or even Economics.  (In their sample, these differences went away in the group of adults, but their adult sample consisted largely of college students, many of whom were getting course credit in psychology classes for their participation.)

Why does this happen?

There are a few things that seem to be related to people’s attitude that Psychology is easier than other sciences.  For one, children think it would be easier to learn about aspects of Psychology than to learn about the natural sciences.  They are also more sure that adults would know how things work in Psychology than in the natural sciences. 

The authors did rule out one explanation.  They found that children and adults were no better at distinguishing between facts that are true and false in psychology and in other sciences.  That is, people don’t believe that Psychology is easier because they actually know more about it.  They believe that Psychology is an easier science than the natural sciences because it feels easier.

A key aspect of thinking about Psychology is that we all have minds.  We all have conscious experiences of what it is like to think.  Those experiences give us intuitions about the way our thought processes work.  Even though those intuitions are often misleading, it feels like a good scientific explanation for those thought processes are just beyond our grasp. 

The authors point out that this facet of Psychology has some important practical consequences.  For example, judges in legal trials are often much less likely to allow Psychologists to give expert testimony on the workings of the mind than they are to allow other scientists to give expert testimony.  The judges see the relevant Psychology as part of a juror’s common sense.

I realize that a blog entry like this may be preaching to the choir, but it is important that we find ways to get beyond this sense that Psychology is just studying things that are already obvious.  People struggle with addictions.  They go into counseling to seek help with navigating their daily lives.  Companies seek help making employees happier, more productive, and better innovators.  The answers to these questions come from the science of Psychology.  It really is time for Psychology to sit proudly and unapologetically at the scientific table.