Several issues have hounded the field of modern psychology. Take note that it is generally defined as a scientific study of the mind and behavior. It is also a multifaceted academic discipline and field of profession covering the areas of human development, cognitive processes, individual and social behaviors, and mental and physical health. However, throughout the years, criticisms have emerged, questioning the credibility of psychology as a scientific discipline.
The Arguments: Major Issues and Criticisms of Psychology Both in Research and Practice
Science writer and communication consultant Alex B. Berezow noted that psychology often fails to meet the five basic requirements for a field to be regarded as scientifically rigorous. These are clearly defined terminologies, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.
Nevertheless, the application of metascience in some of the studies conducted under psychology has revealed considerable methodological problems. These problems include confirmation bias, problems in reporting or underreporting of experiments, low reproducibility or replication crisis, and misuse of statistics and misrepresentation of its results.
1. Confirmation Bias
Statistician Theodore Sterling published a study in 1959 that reviewed and investigated the results of psychological studies. His examination showed that 97 percent of the results of the reviewed studies had conclusions that supported their initial hypotheses, thus suggesting a possible publication or confirmation bias.
The 2010 study of Daniele Fanelli also showed that 91,5 percent of the studies analyzed had conclusions that confirmed their initial hypotheses. The researcher explained that the likelihood of arriving at positive results was about five times higher than in other fields, such as space science and geosciences, thus arguing further that “softer” sciences such as psychology have constraints to their conscious and unconscious biases.
2. Underreporting of Experiments
A major cause of the false positives centers on the practice and manner of reporting a subset of the potentially relevant statistical analyses pertaining to a research project. Critics have noted that a complete experimental design and set of measured variables in several psychological studies are not readily accessible, thus arguing that the field has researchers that tend to underreport their experiments.
The study published in 2015 by A. Franco, N. Malhotra, and G. Simonovits found that about 40 percent of the studies they reviewed failed to report all experimental conditions fully while about 40 percent failed to detail in full all outcome variables included in the research instrument. The researchers noted that their study is the first to provide direct evidence of selective underreporting in psychology experiments.
3. Replication Crisis
Replication crisis is another critical issue and thus, a major criticism of psychology as a scientific discipline. Several efforts have been made to evaluate the extent of this problem. For example, the Reproducibility Project of the Center for Open Science revealed in 2010 that two-thirds of highly publicized findings in psychology failed the replicability test.
The project specifically noted that topics in social psychology have poorer reproducibility than those in cognitive psychology. Meanwhile, personality psychology, behavioral genetics, and behavioral economics generally do not suffer from the replication crisis. Other subfields that have questionable replicability are clinical psychology and developmental psychology.
4. Misuse of Statistics
In his 1994 review study, psychologist and statistician Jacob Cohen argued that many psychologists habitually confuse statistical significance with practical importance, thus reporting with certainty and a great deal of enthusiasm unimportant facts. A more specific example involves an assumption that the rejection of the null hypothesis affirms the actual hypothesis.
Marjan Bakker and Jelte M. Wicherts also analyzed 281 articles from low-impact and high-impact journals. Their results showed that around 18 percent of statistical results in the psychological literature are incorrectly reported. These inconsistencies were more common in low-impact journals. In addition, upon recalculation, around 15 percent of the articles have at least one incorrect statistical calculation.
5. Generalizations from WEIRD Bias
Another notable criticism of psychology centers on the notion that researchers and practitioners seem to cater only to a small portion of the global population. Psychologist Jeffrey J. Arnett mentioned that most articles published in the journals under the American Psychology Association were about the United States population. He argued further that psychologists should not assume that psychological processes are universal and generalize research findings to the rest of the global population.
J. Henrich, S. J. Heine, and A. Norenzayan also noted that behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic or WEIRD societies. Their review suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with other subjects from other societies.
6. Gap Between Theory and Application
In his book “House of Cards” first published in 1994, psychologist Robyn Dawes noted that there is a perceived gap between theory and application as evident from the application of unsupported or unsound clinical practices and advice in psychology. Some of the examples he noted include notions that self-esteem is essential to productivity, childhood events affect fate as an adult, and that a person needs to love himself or herself first before loving another.
Barry L. Beyerstein, a professor of psychology and scientific skeptic, also mentioned that there has been an increase in the number of mental health training programs that do not instill scientific competence, along with the emergence of self-help psychotherapy. He concluded that bogus treatments would continue to flood the market as long as people refuse to put psychotherapy methods to hard-nosed empirical tests.
The Counterarguments: Defense Against the Criticisms of Psychology
Michael W. Kraus, a psychologist and professor of social-personality psychology, raised several interesting points. For starters, he acknowledged the fact that some of the criticisms of psychology stem from having self-proclaimed psychology professionals with unscientific practices, as well as from the cases of retractions and frauds in research.
However, he also noted that these incidents are common in other scientific fields such as medicine, biology, and physics, among others. He explained that arguing a field is not a science just become some of its members are scientists is not really reasonable.
Kraus also explained that research in psychology is inherently messy because researchers need to deal with the fact that human experience is subjective. While most people demand that for psychology to be real science, it needs to uncover universal human psychological processes. However, just because psychological phenomena are often culturally and individually bound does not mean evidence of lack of scientific rigor.
Take note that there have been efforts undertaken to improve research standards and practice in psychology. It is also worth mentioning that most critics of the field are psychologists themselves. Several organizations and researchers have addressed the replication crisis through the retesting of important findings and providing stringent methodological guidelines.
Expansive collaborations between researchers working in multiple labs in different countries are in place. These researchers have also made their data openly available for others do scrutinize ongoing works. These initiatives that revolve around criticism, cooperation, and collaboration have helped in dealing with confirmation bias, statistical misrepresentation, and overall methodological conduct.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Bakker, M. and Wicherts, J. M. 2011. “The (Mis)reporting of Statistical Results in Psychology Journals.” Behavior Research Methods. 43(3): 666-678. DOI: 10.3758/s13428-011-0089-5
- Berezow, A. B. 2012, July 13. “Why Psychology Isn’t Science.” Los Angeles Times. Available online
- Beyerstein, B. L. 2001. “Fringe Psychotherapies: The Public At Risk.” Scientific Review of Alternative Medicines. 5(2): 70-79. Available via PDF
- Cohen, J. 1994. “The Earth Is Round.” American Psychologist. 49(12): 997-1003. DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.49.12.997
- Dawes, R. 1994. House of Cards: Psychology and Psychoterpahy Built on Myth. ISBN: 978-0-02-907205-9.
- Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., and Norenzayan, A. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 33(2-3): 61-83. DOI: 10.1017/s0140525x0999152x
- Fanelli, D. 2010. “Positive Results Increase Down the Hierarchy of the Sciences.” PLOS One. 5(4): e10068. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010068
- Franco, A., Malhotra, N., & Simonovits, G. 2015. “Underreporting in Psychology Experiments.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 7(1): 8-12. DOI: 10.1177/1948550615598377
- Kraus, M. W. 2013, August 13. “The Psychology of the ‘Psychology Isn’t a Science’ Argument.” Psychology Today. Available online
- Open Science Collaboration. 2015. “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychology Science.” Science. 349(6251): aac4716-aac4716. DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716
- Sterling, T. 1959. “Publication Decisions and Their Possible Effects on Inferences Drawn from Tests of Significance–Or Vice Versa.” Journal of the American Statistical Association. 54(285): 30-34. DOI: 10.2307/2282137