Getting to an understanding of psychology

I don’t think many people “get” scientific psychology. Even very smart people are not likely to get it unless they study it. Personally, I don’t think I got it until I’d been teaching a while. Bear in mind that I am talking about the science of psychology, and not clinical, counseling, or other professional practice; the latter may (and should) rely on the discoveries of scientific psychology, but essentially they deal with psychological disorders or school and workplace issues. The science of psychology seeks to explain all aspects of behavior and mental processes (not that those are separate things), which mostly means as these function in normal people.

Misconceptions About Psychology

As I mentioned in the Why Psy page, psychology suffers from a couple of basic misconceptions, especially the belief that psychology is entirely clinical (dealing with disorders), and that psychologists are forever analyzing people around them. Neither of those misconceptions even hints at psychology being a science. So the first problem to really getting psychology is to realize that it’s a science, that the work of psychologists is to carefully and correctly decipher normal human behavior and mental processes. Once we realize psychology is mostly about normal people, the next hurdle is to apply this big word, “science.”

In general, the sciences are intellectual pursuits that aim to decipher and “get it right.” Chemistry, for example, is a pursuit of the molecular structures of nature; physics pursues the sub-atomic structures of nature; biology pursues the nature of life, and each of these has methods to weed out errors and get it right. Psychology is an intellectual pursuit that gives us a language to talk about human experience, and, because it’s a science, a method to test our claims and conclusions regarding human experience.

Scientific Skepticism

Misconceptions abound. Not only the two main ones about “what psychology is,” but countless beliefs that we all have inside our minds. Now, a lot of these beliefs are about people and behavior and how minds work. But people, behavior, and how minds work is exactly what psychology studies. And usually, what we discover when we study these things scientifically is that many of our personal beliefs are wrong; they are misconceptions.

As a result, scientists within psychology have learned to be skeptical about whatever people say about people, behavior, the mind. That is, they tend to doubt the validity of common claims and beliefs. They require that claims, beliefs, factual statements, etc. are supported by scientific evidence. What counts, then, as scientific evidence? In short, science is a method of discovering things about the world in a way that avoids error. And as we conduct our science, we learn that sources of error are rampant. We are easily fooled, easily misled, our observations are easily contaminated. But to get reality to reveal itself objectively, we have to make sure that we take every precaution to eliminate error. What counts as scientific evidence is work that has been conducted in ways to potentially eliminate all sources of error.

Consequently, scientific psychology is relatively “dry.” There’s no flattery in it (“aren’t we smart”), there’s no magic (“unleash your hidden potential”), no gurus (“Dr. So-and-so, Ph.D., from Harvard, as seen on Oprah”); those are all potential sources of error. Now, if we compare scientific psychology to popular psychology, which is the “psychology” that we see on TV or find in self-help books, the scientific stuff seems almost to de-humanize us. Which is ironic, considering that the science of psychology describes exactly what it means to be human (at least in terms of action and awareness). The trouble is, we often prefer other stories to the ones that are scientifically correct.

For example, we’ve so often heard, “depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain,” that we think it’s true. But the frequency that we hear a claim is not what makes it correct. The science on depression is extremely complicated; it’s safe to say we don’t know what causes it. We don’t know what a “chemical imbalance” is (it assumes that we know what “balance” is, and that we know where to draw lines between differences and disorders); we don’t even know if the anti-depressant drugs do much in people with mild depression. Or we all know that “people differ in learning styles so teachers need to adjust teaching styles accordingly,” except that it isn’t true. It sounds nice, seems accurate, makes sense, but it’s not supported (in fact it’s refuted) by cognitive science. Even the well-worn, “seeing is believing”: although we’d support it literally — people do believe that what they saw was accurate — the problem is, we often do not see the world accurately.

Like any science, psychology presents a complicated picture of the parts of the world that it examines, but unlike other sciences these complications often (very often) conflict with beliefs that are usually much simpler and more humanistically and existentially compelling. Understanding psychology requires us to suspend many of our beliefs about people, and that’s a lot easier said than done.

Science, Insight, Mystery

Additionally, most people simply aren’t accustomed to thinking about the human experience as something that can be deciphered scientifically. As regular people, we haven’t had to decipher our personal lives scientifically, and things have worked out just fine (or so we think). There are probably two competing trends against scientific discovery here: insight and mystery. Since we live in the middle of human experience, we often develop our own insights into it, and we frequently discover that some people have better insights than others. All of this reinforces the assumption that knowing the human experience can reliably come through the process of insight, or informally just knowing. And secondly, because there is always error, always some degree of unpredictability, always some randomness to human experience, there is a tendency to ascribe many of the seemingly inexplicable happenings to mysterious forces; life is a mystery, or at least it seems like it is to many of us. Frequently, the mystery is comforting: it leaves room for possibility. Then, instead of accepting the superiority of scientific discovery, we refuse to abandon our trust in insight and our gut feeling that mysterious processes exist. Yet scientific psychology requires us to do just that. In the world of psychology, insight has proven time and again to be a poor tool for discovery. And science thinks of mystery in a different way than do most people: to science a mystery is a yet unsolved, but probably solvable problem; it’s not an opening for forces beyond our understanding. And randomness is not mystery, it’s just the very particular circumstances operating at the moment.


Randomness in human experience raises another important issue. Scientific findings in psychology boil down to probabilities rather than certainties. There’s always some degree of unpredictability because there are always unknown particular circumstances affecting people at any moment in time. (Actually, scientific findings in all sciences boil down to probabilities, but in physics or chemistry, for example, the probabilities are much closer to certainty, so they don’t as clearly seem like probabilities.) Our knowledge in psychology is always a matter of probability, though, and scientists are usually more careful to remind us of it than are non-scientists. But outside science most people have a lower tolerance for a body of knowledge of probabilities compared to a body of knowledge grounded in certainties.

For example, research has found that simply telling women that men do better at math leads women to do worse on a math test than if they hadn’t been told. In other words, if we give 100 women a math test, but beforehand we tell 50 of them that men are better than women at math, those 50 score lower than the other 50 women (who didn’t hear the gender stereotype beforehand). Does this mean that every woman in the first group of 50 scored lower than she would have if she hadn’t heard the stereotype? No. It means enough of them scored lower so that we see a difference, but it doesn’t mean it worked on every single woman in the study. So when we state the fact: “telling women that men are better at math causes them to do worse on a math test than if they hadn’t been told,” which is a true statement based on this research, we know that it probably applies in any individual case, but it’s not guaranteed. And if it doesn’t happen with some particular woman, that doesn’t mean the conclusion was flawed. Why? Because we know it’s a probability, a change in likelihood, but not an absolute thing.

So when we know something, our knowledge is relative to probability. Of course, probabilities are extremely important. If there are two rooms that you can live in for the next year, and room #1 gives you a 10% chance of being shot (someone sits there cleaning shotguns), while room #2 gives you a 40% chance of being shot (more people cleaning shotguns), which room do you choose to spend the year in? Would it matter if you ran into a lot of Room 2 survivors? Is it worth the risk? That’s probability. That’s how the world works as far as we can decipher it. That’s a difficulty of understanding science, and scientific psychology especially (where, as I’ve said, probabilities are generally lower than in chemistry or physics). We do not explain the individual, we explain the likelihood of something in general. Another quick example: people who observe violent behavior, especially when it’s rewarded in the end, are likely to model it and act more violently themselves; but if we take one specific person and see if it works, it might not. If we took 50 people, and half watched violence and half didn’t, it will work: the 25 who watched will, overall, be more violent than the 25 who didn’t watch.

This emphasis on probability is an important part of grasping psychology. We conduct a lot of studies. We have a lot of results. We state those results in language that ranges from careful to overly confident. But no matter how we state it, the results are always always probabilities. Testosterone increases aggression; short-term memory holds approximately seven items; behavior therapy is effective for anxiety disorders; newborns can distinguish their mother’s voice from other women, and countless other facts that make up the body of knowledge in the field of psychology. Though not on the surface obvious, these are all and always probability statements. And to make sure we’re thinking clearly about this, let’s keep in mind that sometimes the probabilities are weaker and sometimes stronger; some statements refer to things that might happen 80% of the time (pretty strong, that), while others refer to things that happen only 15% of the time. No chance of getting shot… 15% chance of getting shot; that’s nothing to balk at just because it’s a small number.

Facts and Theories

They’re also just facts. Here I might be straying into territory that’s a touch controversial, but facts alone are of limited use. The more interesting discoveries are theories, which of course develop out of facts and need facts for verification. Theories explain the facts. When we discover the correct theories, we’ve come to correctly understand how or why things work and exist.

What’s controversial about this? Not much. Most scientists would agree with what I just said. But many would consider it an ideal. We operate, they would argue, in the world of facts more often than in the world of theories; and therefore we should attend more to facts than theories. It’s one thing to notice that a particular medical practice works; it’s another to understand why. And right now we want to stop the illness. Also, facts are easier to teach. You can memorize facts. Usually you have to think about theories. And so you’ll come across a large number of scholars who are very adept at reciting facts. In specific situations they have immediate use. But much more progress, and probably that thing we call wisdom, comes from having theories: explanations for how or why things happen. The project of science is to arrive at theories that are correct. When we have correct theories, we get to move forward with intention and not just chance. Stated more wisely by an eminent psychologist (Kurt Lewin), “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

Valid Questions

One last thing, though I don’t think it’s really part of the problem of thoroughly understanding psychology: since it’s a science, it deals with the verifiable world, and only the verifiable world. You’ll have heard this related to empiricism, and maybe you’ll have heard the word “falsifiable” as well, which applies here. Basically it means that we only ask and seek answers to questions that can be (potentially) tested in ways that other skeptical people can verify or refute. An “empirical question” is one that scientific methods can be used on to answer. The information needed can somehow be had in a way that comes in through our senses: if I can see something, then it’s visible and others can see it as well and verify it is there or not. That “or not” is equally important: it’s the basis of “falsifiability”: anything might not be true, and if it isn’t true, there must be some obvious way to show it. If there isn’t a way to show it as untrue, then science is not the tool to examine it. For example, if we couldn’t measure “violent behavior” in the example above, then the claim couldn’t be tested, but we can measure it, and we can imagine that the results came out negative instead of as predicted. Some way for the results to come out negative is what falsifiability is all about. (In contrast, consider any question dealing with God: a person who insists God controlled their actions is not open to any “evidence” showing that God did not play a role. These kinds of issues are not the things science examines because there’s no way for results to come out negative in any convincing manner.) Saying something might be untrue is much different from saying it is untrue. It might be untrue that I wrote this on a computer. Someone could watch me, and maybe they’d see me write with a pen and paper and somehow inexplicably the words appear on my web site. If so, it would falsify the claim, “I wrote this on a computer.” But lo and behold, an observer would see me typing on my Mac. Scientific psychology only deals with questions that can be verified or refuted by people using their five basic senses.

I’d say, “there you have it,” but this is all in a nutshell, absent of many details and complexities. If you followed this, and grasped it, even though it’s short and simplified, and not nearly as clear as I’d like, you’ve got a better understanding of psychology than the vast majority of people. Scientific psychology is skeptical, it’s sobering, it often contradicts personal experience, it robs us of cherished beliefs, it relies on probability, it seeks theories beyond the facts, and it can only answer scientific questions, yet it’s fascinating for the portion of reality that it discovers. May this positively influence your GPA.