On “Psychological Science”

I’m not talking about the APS journal, but rather about the decision some decades ago when APS stood for American Psychological Society to break away from the APA which served both the scientific and clinical psychologist communities. For the scientific subset, that was an unhappy marriage. The popular image of the psychologist was of Freud and the leather couch. It was hard to be taken seriously as a scientist when the typical response to naming your profession was “oh, so now I bet you’re reading my mind.”

The APA was heavily invested in the clinical side of its support base. It was never going to broker a settlement. It would merely try to keep the peace.

The APS, which now stand for the Association for Psychological Science, was formed by experimental psychologists who had had enough and who wanted a purely scientific organization to represent their professional interests. That included promoting to the public a correct(ed) image of what scientific or research psychologists do. No leather couches, no Freud. Just well-conducted psychological research that would advance scientific theories of human behaviour, cognition, emotion, and motivation at all levels from the individual to the collective.

An important part of the public relations exercise carried out to achieve that professional rebranding goal was to rename its members as “psychological scientists” rather than “psychologists”. As a PR exercise, I’m not sure how influential this has been. My comments are not focused on it’s marketing success as much as on the coherence of term and its implied meaning.

I understand very well the goal of distancing ourselves from the clinical practice side of the psychological house. It would be nice to describe one’s profession to someone on the outside and have them have at least at reasonable sense of what I do and what I do not do without going through the predictable step of correcting misconceptions.

But something about the term psychological science just bothers me. It reminds me of that guy who tries a bit too hard to impress others and ends up looking like a schmuck in the process. It reminds me of people who talk loudly to others, but you know they’re hoping to be heard by strangers. In the term, I see more desperation than emancipation. If we have to explicitly call ourselves scientists, it suggests we have not been able to show that we are without recourse to a bold name change.

I find the crassest example of this APS’s publication boxes where they feature a high profile psychologist under the banner “I am a Psychological Scientist”. Every time I see this it makes me laugh and shake my head at the same time. It almost has a cult-like reprogramming feel to it. Take some “celebrity” figures and get them to publicly call themselves “psychological scientists” and hope the less successful successfully model their behavior. I feel embarrassed for those who put themselves up to it, allowing themselves to be used as tools in a “word speak” exercise.

Aside from the offensive whiff of shameless self-indulgence that has accompanied the “PS” movement, the term itself is incoherent. Biology is sometimes referred to as the biological sciences. That make sense since biology stands for the study of life (bios is “life” in Greek and logia is “the study of”). Recent sciences, which do not trace back to Greek or Latin terms, such as computer science, also make sense. But psychology is a term comprised of the ancient Greek ψυχήpsukhē, meaning soul or spirit, and logia. So, psychology literally refers to the study of the soul or spirit. Therefore, psychological science is the scientific study of the the human soul and spirit. This is why I say the term is incoherent. If taken literally, it would involve the application of scientific methods to the study of what exactly–reified prescientific folk concepts? If we want to be taken seriously as scientists, maybe we should let the clinicians own the term entirely. Or perhaps we should accept our prescientific roots and move on.

As a result, I usually call myself a behavioural scientist. Sometimes I add in “cognitive and behavioural,” and sometimes I’ll still use experimental or cognitive psychologist, but I have never described myself as a psychological scientist.

I think that’s a good thing. I recommend it to others who used to call themselves psychologists.




2 thoughts on “On “Psychological Science”

  1. You’re spot on David. In addition, I’d like to remind folks that a majority of academic psychologists (the so-called ‘psychological scientists’) don’t actually use the scientific method i.e., experiments. Rather, they use surveys e.g., work done in developmental psychology and many areas of applied psychology such as health and occupational psychology.

    • Thank you. Your comment raises an important question — what exactly is science? And, how does that definition affect the inclusion or exclusion of certain areas of psychological research? If experimental manipulation is a requirement for research to be deemed scientific, then clearly a lot of research would be outside the realm of psychological science. If science requires careful replication attempts, then even the majority of experimental psychology would be nonscientific since most of it has not been subjected to pure replication trials. However, such initiatives are now being formed — notably the Open Science Foundation’s Reproducibility Project for Psychology (https://osf.io/ezcuj/wiki/home/).

      I wonder if APS has a statement outlining its view of what the essential requirements of science entail. Given that they are leading the PS public relations movement, it strikes me as something they might want to define. What exactly is the difference between psychological science and other forms of psychological research in their view? Is there any?

      By the way, I don’t think using surveys precludes scientific research, even by the stricter criterion you mentioned (i.e., experimental manipulation). Researchers can and often do manipulate variables in surveys and these are sometimes referred to as survey experiments. So, I would regard the response elicitation method as distinct from the manipulability question.

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