The Science of Psychology

When you think of Science, you may imagine a Biologist in a while lab coat, looking through a microscope at some organic sample. Or perhaps a Chemist, mixing chemicals in test tubes.  Science has made incredible strides in explaining the natural world around us.  But can the scientific method also be used to understand people?  Can love, happiness, friendship and prejudice be studied in the same way that scientists investigate chemical reactions and thermodynamics?  That's been one of the enduring questions in the field of Psychology in the 20th century.  In this lesson, you'll explore the Science of Psychology, and the differences between scientific and pop psychology.
Video Activity
One topic of study in Psychology is attraction - what makes one person attracted to another?  In this activity, you'll reflect on some popular advice about how to be attractive.

1.  First, write down 3 things that you think a guy could do to become more attractive

2.  Now, watch the video below, created by a popular You Tube vlogger, discussing attraction.  Make a list of her suggestions on how to become more attractive.

3.  Compare your ideas with Shallon's.  Do you and Shallon both agree on what makes a guy more attractive?
What do you think about Shallon's advice?  Her main point seems to be: Act confident.  And what if you aren't naturally confident?  Well, then just fake it.  Imagine yourself as a celebrity, and try to channel that energy.  Even if you are secretly insecure and unsure of yourself, just imagine yourself as Justin Bieber, acting how Justin would act, and you will instantly become more attractive.  

Do you agree with Shallon's advice?  Is this how attraction works?  How do we even know if Shallon is right or not?
Think Critically
Where do you think Shallon got her ideas on attraction from? 

How can we tell if she's right about what makes someone attractive?

Can you think of a way to test her ideas using the scientific method?
If you are perhaps a little skeptical of Shallon and her theory of attraction, you are quite correct in being so.  Shallon never offered up any evidence that "fake confidence" makes you more attractive.  So maybe she's right, but maybe she isn't.  Shallon didn't do any research on attraction, and might simply be giving advice on what she finds attractive.  Maybe Shallon is attracted to guys who act very confident, but that doesn't mean that's true for everyone (or even most people).  In fact, one could argue the opposite:  that "faking" confidence could actually be very unattractive!  Isn't a common piece of advice to "just be yourself?"

Shallon's video is a typical example of what's known as Pop Psychology.  Pop Psychology consists of explanations of human behavior, but which lack scientific evidence.  Pop Psychology is everywhere - if you open any popular magazine, or check out the Self Help section of any bookstore, you will find lots and lots of authors who write about dating, love, relationships, success, and so on - but often without providing any evidence to back up their claims.

So what is Pop Psychology based on?  How do Pop Psychology writers come up with their ideas?  Here are a few different ways:

  • Personal experiences & insight.  Many writers base their advice on their own life experiences, and the "insights" they've developed along the way.  For example, a successful business owner may write a book on the character traits that they believe helped them achieve success.

  • Folk knowledge. Folk knowledge is cultural knowledge that's often passed down through generations.  For instance, you may have heard the saying that if someone can't look you in the eye, they are probably not being truthful.

  • Popular opinion.  Finally, a lot of Pop Psychology advice is simply based on "common sense", for instance, common signs that your partner is not being faithful, or tips for making new friends.

Pop Psychology isn't necessarily wrong.  In fact, "common sense" Psychology sometimes turns out to be true.  However, most Psychologists agree that relying on personal insight, folk knowledge and popular opinion is not enough.  In order for Psychology to do a better job of really understanding people, you have to carry out research, make observations, collect and analyze data.  The key difference between Pop Psychology and Scientific Psychology is that only Scientific Psychology is backed up by research meant to "test" whether claims are supported by evidence. 

How do Psychologists carry out research?  That will be the topic of the following lessons, but here is a quick overview of three common research methods - ways that Psychologists "test" their claims:

  • Experiments. These typically involve studying people under specific fixed conditions, called "variables", to see if a change in one variable causes a change in another.  For instance, an experiment could be carried out on whether a pharmaceutical drug is effective in treating depression.

  • Correlational studies:  These involve collecting lots of data on people, to see if certain patterns emerge.  For instance, a study could be carried out looking at how age of marriage, income level and education influence the likelihood of getting divorced.

  • Case studies: These involve an in-depth investigation of a "case" (usually a person) who is remarkable and unique in some way, in order to shed some insight into human nature.  For instance, a person with an exceptional memory may be studied in the hopes of learning more about how memory works.

TOK Link
Theory of Knowledge identifies eight ways of knowing: Language, Perception, Emotion, Intuition, Faith, Reason, Sense perception, and Memory.

  • Which of the "ways of knowing" are used in Pop Psychology? 

  • Which of the "ways of knowing" are used in Scientific Psychology?

  • When you try to "figure out" someone, for instance trying to understand why a friend is mad at you, what "ways of knowing" do you rely on the most?

Try It Out
Read the following articles, all of which involve some aspect of Psychology.  Which of the following articles are based on Pop Psychology, and which are based on Scientific Psychology?  How can you tell?  Scroll down to the end of the page to check answers.

1. Could playing video games make you smarter?  CBS News

2.  5 Daily Habits of Highly Successful People. Success

3.  11 Signs That You Should Get Back Together. Seventeen

  • I can explain the difference between "Pop Psychology" and "Scientific Psychology", by making reference to different ways of knowing

  • When reading an article or watching a video, I can tell whether it is Pop Psychology or Scientific Psychology
Quiz Yourself!

1.  Which statement about Pop Psychology is true?

A. Pop Psychology is always based on myth.

B. Pop Psychology appears on the internet, whereas newspapers always rely on Scientific Psychology.

C.  Pop Psychology is based on personal experiences, folk wisdom and common sense.

D.  A case study is an example of Pop Psychology.

2.  The key difference between Pop Psychology and Scientific Psychology is:

A.  Scientific Psychology is produced by research universities

B.  Scientific Psychology only appears in research journals

C.  Scientific Psychology is written by people with a Doctorate degree

D.  Scientific Psychology is based on research evidence

3.  Which is not a common research method used in Scientific Psychology?

A.  Comparative analysis

B.  Experiments

C.  Correlational studies

D.  Case studies

4.  Which statement about Scientific Psychology is false?

A.  Scientific Psychology involves designing research studies to test a claim

B.  Scientific Psychology can involve a variety of different research methods

C.  Scientific Psychology studies human thoughts and behavior

D.  Scientific Psychology is useful for lab research only, while Pop Psychology is useful for everyday life

Try It out

The CBS article on video games is based on Scientific Psychology, as it refers to research studies that measure the effects of video games on the mind.  The other two articles are Pop Psychology.


1-C, 2-D, 3-A, 4-D