Psychology Soft Science

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          Psychology is not an exact science.  One cannot duplicate experiments with human subjects and get the exact same results time after time.   Contrast psychology to a hard science such as physics or chemistry.  You can test the theory of gravity and get the same figures (acceleration = 9.8 meters per second squared) no matter how many times you run the test, as long as all factors remain constant. 

          When observing the processes of the human mind, one may find a particular result one day and a significantly different result the next day, no matter how rigorously the researcher maintains the parameters, integrity and continuity of testing conditions.

          The physical laws that govern movements on a cellular level will guarantee certain results within certain fields of study.  When one is attempting to study the human mind, and human behavior, there are no ironclad rules that can be proven again and again through repetitions of experiments.  However, there are ways to observe patterns of human behavior, analyze thoughts and predict actions of humans with a reasonable degree of accuracy, using the scientific method.

           When looking for patterns that can open doors to understanding a human mind, one must be aware of correlation and causation.  This distinction must be understood when measuring certain relations, such as a particular behavior and a particular environmental stimulus.  If a certain noise causes a child to behave in a certain way, the noise is a cause and the degree to which the child acts out is a correlation.  By introducing varying levels of volume, one can make noise into an independent variable.

         The unanswered questions regarding nature vs. nurture, and the unsettled debate regarding the influence of violence on television illustrate the soft nature of psychology.  Take for example, the case of a 9 year old boy who sees a man murder a woman on television.  He then takes a gun to school and shoots a young female classmate.  Did the image of violence on television make the boy commit murder?

          One theory holds that the boy’s behavior is a form of observational learning.  He observed the killer on television, and emulated that action in real life.  This theory is flawed, because it doesn’t explain where his motivation came from to emulate that behavior.  The boy probably sees people on television doing numerous things, such as making coffee, driving a car, or jumping off a rooftop, but he didn’t mimic every action he saw.  Why then, would he choose this one activity to imitate and not others?  No, there must be a better explanation.

          The theory that he brought a gun to school because of what he saw on TV is incomplete.  The fact that he watched violence on television may be a small part of the cause of his behavior.  A better theory of why he did that would be based on a comprehensive study of the child. Many factors should be studied, including the socio-economic class of the child, and a profile of his emotional state to find out what underlying issues he may be struggling with.  Is the child a victim of abuse or neglect?  Does he have stifled anger and resentment over the lack of a father figure in the household?  Is there a chemical imbalance in the child’s brain?  All these things could contribute more to his behavior than anything he sees on television.

          In fact, it is empirically provable that the television did not cause the boy to kill a classmate.  Consider children who watch violence on television as a subset of group A:  American children.  This is a large subset. According to one study, the average American child sees 8,000 murders on television by the time he finishes elementary school. (California State University, Northridge: Herr, N., Ph.D, 2007)   If observing murders on television causes a child to commit murder in real life, then we should be seeing many more cases of adolescent killers in the U.S.  Since the vast majority of children do not commit murder, it is a reasonable conclusion that watching violence on television does not make a child violent.

          This is a classic example of correlation vs. causation.  If the subset of group A mentioned above, (children who see violent acts on television) all were to become violent, then the violent images on television could be seen as a causative factor.  Since only a small percentage of them become violent, it is merely a correlation.

          The key to making psychology more of a “hard science” is to reduce observer bias through standardization.  This lends credibility to the result of any psychological experiment. 


California State University, Northridge: Herr, N., Ph.D. (2007). Television & Health.

            Retrieved on November 06, 2009 from:

More about this author: Eric Youmans

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