Chapter One:
Psychology and Science

Table of Contents

Part One: What is Psychology?

Part Two: The History of Psychology

Part Three: Critical Thinking

Part Four: Observational and Experimental Research


Overview of Chapter 1: Psychology and Science

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the field of psychology, introduce some basic principles of critical thinking, and describe two basic forms of scientific research used by psychologists: observational research and experimental research.

How this Chapter is Organized

We start with a definition of the field and a brief discussion of the different types of psychologists. Next we review some of the history of psychology. Psychology has been through many changes in emphasis during its years of existence. In some ways it has come in a full circle from the initial concern with mind and consciousness in the mid-1800s to an emphasis on observable behavior in the mid-20th Century to a revival of interest in mind and consciousness in the 21st Century. We will discuss how, in present-day psychology, there are four ways of analyzing psychological data that co-exist in relative harmony: the biological, the behavioral, the cognitive, and the subjective or phenomenological approaches.

After discussing the historical development of psychology, we turn to critical thinking. Psychologists encourage what William James called (in the 1890s) "the habit of always seeing the alternative." To evaluate alternative explanations of data, one uses the scientific method, which seeks evidence to support or reject claims about reality. In this section, we examine the methods used by scientists in the process of testing ideas. We start with the process of making operational definitions, which is always necessary if one seeks to test a claim by gathering evidence. Then we examine fake or “quack” science and how it ignores the requirements of real science. From there we go on to discuss two major kinds of research used in psychology: observational research and experimental research. We examine the potential pitfalls in each type of research, relating this back to the idea of critical thinking.

The Creative Brain

Throughout this book runs a theme that surfaces in almost every chapter: the creativity of the human brain. Virtually all the evidence from various branches of psychology points to the conclusion that all our psychological processes, including all the subtleties of our thoughts, emotions, consciousness and social relations, are produced by the brain. This implies that the brain has tremendous creative powers! The brain is a superb audio/visual synthesizer, and it is also a learner, a planner, a communicator, a feeler, and a thinker. The brain constructs our entire complex human experience. The implications of this simple insight are vast. However, this principle is so relevant to so much of psychology that you might get tired of having it constantly pointed out. (“Look! Look! Another example of the creative brain!”) So this integrating theme will remain largely implicit (unspoken) except in the chapter introductions, like this one, or where it is directly relevant to the subject matter.

How does the creative brain relate to this chapter, with its emphasis on scientific method? One answer is that science is like an extension of the brain's reality-modeling capabilities. This idea, that science extends and amplifies the abilities of the human brain, is discussed on the page titled "The Role of Science." There I argue that the whole purpose of science is to model the natural universe, schematically, much as the brain models the inner and outer world for us. The same theme surfaces in a small section on the “two powers of science” on p.54. But it is present under the surface throughout the whole chapter, because the whole chapter is about how psychology and science extend our ability to know the world.

Related Topics in Other Chapters

Specialties of psychology are discussed in greater depth throughout the book. Historical material (except for a quick survey in this chapter) is generally presented in the context of particular subject matters. For example, the history of memory research is discussed in Chapter 6 (Memory). The principles of scientific thought also appear in many other chapters, often with backward references to concepts in this chapter.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Read about language learning overseas on these pages: "Communication at your fingertips" (—languagetrainers.com) and "Summer Studies" ( —www.esl-schools.org).



Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey