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Psychology research can be tricky, because brains are complicated. But does that mean it isn't a science?

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Sources:
http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/1122sciencedefns.html
http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/13/news/la-ol-blowback-pscyhology-science-20120713
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201308/the-psychology-the-psychology-isnt-science-argument
https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/psychology-8217-s-brilliant-beautiful-scientific-messiness/
http://www.apa.org/action/science/
Hello, and welcome to SciShow Psych! I’m Hank Green, one of your hosts, and twice a week we’ll be here exploring the science of what makes humans tick. That’s right, I said it: psychology is a science.

People have been debating this pretty much since psychology started back in the 1800s. You can sort of see why people might think psychology doesn’t count as a science: the study of the human mind is often missing the tightly-controlled experimental conditions and conclusive results that you’ll find in other fields, like astronomy or chemistry. And yeah, psychology research can be tricky, because brains are complicated. But it’s still a science.

Defining science is surprisingly hard, because there’s no standard definition that everyone agrees on. But most people would probably agree with this: science is systematically observing natural events, then using those observations to develop laws and principles. Then, those principles are tested through the scientific method -- that list of steps you probably learned in your first science class: observation, hypothesis, experimentation, analysis, and conclusion.

Still, these are really just basic guidelines, and most branches of science will operate a little differently from one another. Like, particle physicists can’t directly observe the Higgs boson -- instead, they rely on statistics to know it’s there -- but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or that physics isn’t actually science. The so-called “rules” of science all depend on the type of work a scientist is doing, and psychology is no exception.

Psychology is the study of the human mind and behavior, and there are lots of different ways to do that. But any good psychologist can demonstrate that their research follows the scientific method, just like biology or chemistry.

After observing patterns in human behavior, psychologists usually develop a specific, testable hypothesis about why that behavior happens. Or they might create a scenario and see if it leads to certain behaviors. Then, if they want to find a correlation between variables -- that a certain event and behavior are related -- they’ll conduct a field experiment, where they carefully observe subjects in normal, uncontrolled circumstances.

Or, if they want to determine causation -- whether or not a certain event actually triggers a behavior -- they’ll create a rigorous, highly-controlled, and replicable laboratory experiment. Next, they’ll use statistics to analyze relationships within those data. And to make sure the findings are reliable, the experiments are often repeated under the same conditions. Sounds a lot like science, right?

People who don’t believe psychology is a science will usually say that psychology isn’t rigorous enough -- that data is often inconclusive or can be interpreted in too many ways. They might also argue that the definitions in psychology are too abstract to be accurately tested.

For example, how do you define happiness? People define it differently depending on their culture, their circumstances, or even what day it is, so how can researchers objectively define it? Also, how can you objectively measure, or quantify, something as abstract as happiness?

Another argument is that the results in psychology can’t be reliably reproduced because people change every day. But psychologists account for those things. Like, even though you can’t directly measure abstract concepts like happiness or anger, psychologists operationalize them — meaning, they create, validate, and test a functional definition that serves as a good substitute for something abstract.

Going back to our happiness example, they might study it by tracking how often a person smiles or laughs. Or they could have people rate their happiness on a scale from 1 to 10, or track the amount of endorphins in their system. All of these are useful for different reasons and offer valid, valuable data.

Also, a lot of arguments against psychology miss the whole point of the field: Psychology isn’t looking to capture a universal human experience, because that doesn’t exist. Humans are messy: you’re influenced by so many things, from your culture to your circumstances, and even that book you read all the time back as a kid.

Creating broad, strict rules for human behavior would miss a lot of the nuance and detail found in different people and situations. So as long as researchers acknowledge that their work is limited by the differences between people and take that into account in their analyses and conclusions, it’s not an issue. At the end of the day, psychology is a science, just like biology or chemistry -- or particle physics.

But there is plenty of pseudoscience out there — self-help books and advice columns and websites that make claims about psychology that are totally false. And it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. And that is part of why we’re starting this show. Humans are strange and fascinating and surprising, and we want to explore the science behind how we think and behave.

But we’ll also be debunking some misconceptions along the way. And we will do that using hard scientific evidence. We hope you’ll join us.

Thanks for watching this very first episode of SciShow Psych. This show wouldn’t be possible without our patrons on Patreon, so if you’re a patron: thank you for helping us bring you this new channel. And if you’re not yet a patron but want to help us keep making this show, you can go to patreon.com/scishow.

You can get all kinds of rewards, like access to a livestream with the SciShow team once a month and exclusive blooper reels. And for lots of new psychology content every single week, go to youtube.com/scishowpsych and subscribe!