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Psychology Is a Science

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  1. 0:34 Scientific Method
  2. 1:11 Variables
  3. 2:48 What Psychologists Do
  4. 4:50 Placebo Effect
  5. 5:09 Blind and Double-Blind Studies
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Taught by

Polly Peterson

How do psychologists use the scientific method to research behaviors? From formulating hypotheses to reducing biases, psychology carefully analyzes behaviors and their potential causes.

The Scientific Method

How do you go about finding an answer to a puzzling question? Let's say you want to improve the speed of your roller skates. You ask yourself, 'How do I make my wheels roll faster?' But you don't know the answer. What do you do? Do you change multiple things at once, or try one possible solution at a time?

You could use the scientific method to tackle your problem. The scientific method is a systematic process of gathering measurable evidence. The first thing to do is to formulate a hypothesis, or testable idea. You did some research to remove some of the guesswork from the process, and you think cleaning your bearings might help to improve your speed. Your hypothesis is: 'Cleaning my bearings can make my skates roll faster.'

Now, it's time to conduct a scientific experiment. You think your dirty bearings are causing your wheels to roll slowly. Your dirty wheel bearings are the independent variable, or cause. The speed is the dependent variable, or effect. You clean the four bearings on your right skate; these are your experimental group to see if the dirty bearings are the cause. The four dirty bearings on your left skate are the control group for your experiment.

Then you push the two skates across the floor to see if your hypothesis was correct. You were right! Using the scientific method, you came up with a hypothesis and then tested it by comparing cause-and-effect relationships between two different variables and two test groups.

That's science! Scientists record, analyze and report the results of experiments. Regardless of whether the hypothesis was supported or rejected, the results lead scientists to formulate new questions, and the process begins all over again.

Scientific Experiments in Psychology

But what if your question is more abstract? Take the human mind, for example. Can psychological questions be answered scientifically? Can the way people think and feel be directly observed and objectively analyzed? Behaviors can be recorded, but the thought processes behind those behaviors can't be objectively measured. In order for psychology to become a science in its own right, psychologists moved away from philosophy and aspects of the mind that could not be scientifically observed and analyzed and focused more on measurable aspects of behavior. Psychology studies the mind through the observation of behavior.

Let's look at how psychologists use the scientific method. After your wheels are rolling fast, you're toying with the idea of joining your local roller derby league. Maybe you're wondering if you're cut out for what seems to be a violent sport. Must you have an aggressive personality in order to make the team? The psychologist in you comes up with the hypothesis, 'Derby players have aggressive personalities on and off the track.' How would you go about testing this assumption? You'd conduct a scientific experiment similar to the one you did for your wheels.

You go online and find a sports psychology survey that assesses athletes' behavioral profiles through a series of questions. In this experiment, an aggressive personality is the independent variable, or cause of the behavior. The survey questions would measure your own perceptions of how you behave, which is the dependent variable, or effect. By comparing your answers against the answers of other athletes who took the survey, you have more self-awareness of why you behave the way you do and how you interact with others, like aggressive roller derby players.

Clinical Research

Now, the majority of psychologists today work directly with patients instead of conducting online surveys. These clinical psychologists often assess mental health. They are aware that subjects might behave differently than they normally would because they know they're being evaluated.

One way to avoid sampling bias in a clinical study is to expose subjects at random to the independent variable, or cause of the behavior, so that they behave normally under test conditions. So, a clinical psychologist who hypothesizes that increased testosterone levels lead to aggressive behavior in roller derby players may conduct hormone therapy. They may give some derby players drugs to increase their testosterone levels and give others a placebo, or fake pill. Even so, the placebo effect can occur when the control group thinks they're being treated even when they're not. The roller derby players may start acting more aggressive because they think their testosterone levels are higher. To avoid subject bias, psychologists can conduct a blind study where subjects don't know they're being treated.

The experimenters themselves can also influence the outcome. A double blind study can be conducted in which the experimenters don't know which subjects they're giving the treatment to and which ones they're giving the placebo. This research method reduces experimenter bias.

Summary

You've learned that psychologists use a powerful tool, the scientific method, in order to interpret observable behaviors. From these behaviors, they work to understand the underlying processes, like feelings of aggression or high testosterone levels. Psychology is a science because it's about measuring observable cause-and-effect relationships. Because one of the most difficult parts of psychology is making unbiased observations; these scientists use a number of methods to remove bias, including placebos, blind studies and double-blind studies. After all, when we talk about a touchy subject like female aggression, sometimes we see what we want to see. That's why these tools are important.

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