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"Psychology is the scientific study of the mind, brain, and behavior. It is a field that seems self-
evident, but everyday experience doesn’t necessarily make us an expert. William James, the founder of American psychology, noted that psychology is difficult to study. Psychology spans multiple levels of analysis, from molecules to complex social and cultural influences; from brain to mind.
The challenges in studying psychology reflect the difficulties in studying behaviors that are multiply determined and that are interdependent. Single-variable explanations are inadequate. Individual differences in thinking, emotion, personality, and behavior preclude general rules, and people influence each other, a phenomenon called reciprocal determinism. Finally, people’s behavior is shaped by culture—often studied from both emic (the perspective of a “native” or insider) and etic (the perspective of an outsider) approaches.
To understand why others act as they do, most of us trust our common sense. But such understanding of ourselves and the world is often mistaken. We trust our common sense because we’re prone to naive realism: the belief that we see the world precisely as it is. But appearances can be deceiving, so we need to think scientifically. Most students think that science is just a word for all of the “stuff” they learn in their biology, chemistry, and physics classes. But science is really an approach to evidence, a way of thinking, beginning with empiricism, the gaining of knowledge through direct observation.
Many people misunderstand what defines a scientific theory. A theory is complex and does not explain single events. It is more than an educated guess. A good scientific theory will account for existing data, and for a theory to be scientific, it must generate a testable prediction, called a hypothesis, which researchers can test.
Scientists are just as prone to biased thinking as anyone else, so they use safeguards against errors in thinking. One common error in thinking is the confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out evidence that supports our beliefs and dismiss evidence that contradicts them. Another common bias is belief perseverance, the tendency to stick to our initial beliefs even when evidence contradicts them. It is also important to distinguish scientific claims from metaphysical claims: assertions about the world that we can’t test, such as assertions about the existence of God, the soul, and the afterlife. It’s not that metaphysical claims are wrong or unimportant. They are simply not testable with scientific methods.
The popular psychology industry is growing rapidly. This information explosion has also lead to a misinformation explosion. We need to distinguish claims that are genuine from those that are imposters of science, called, pseudoscience: a set of claims that seem scientific but aren’t. Pseudoscience lacks the safeguards against biased thinking that characterize science. Some of the warning signs of pseudoscience are: (1) overuse of ad hoc immunizing hypotheses (loopholes), (2) lack of self-correction, and (3) overreliance on anecdotes.
There are many reasons why people are drawn to pseudoscientific beliefs. Our brains are predisposed to make order out of disorder and find sense in nonsense. This tendency to seek out patterns can lead us to experience apophenia: perceiving meaningful connections among unrelated phenomena.
For example, we may attribute paranormal significance (outside the boundaries of traditional science) to coincidences. Another way that we find patterns is the phenomenon of pareidolia: seeing meaningful images in meaningless visual stimuli, such as seeing the face of a “man” in the moon. A final reason for the popularity of pseudoscience is motivational: We believe because we want to believe. For example, according to terror management theory, many pseudoscientific claims may give us comfort because they seem to offer us a sense of control over an often unpredictable world.
To avoid being seduced by pseudoscience, we must learn to avoid common pitfalls in reasoning—logical fallacies. Three important logical fallacies are the emotional reasoning fallacy, the bandwagon fallacy, and the not me fallacy. There are three major reasons why we should be concerned about pseudoscience. These include opportunity cost, direct harm, and an inability to think scientifically as citizens.
One approach to help uncover pseudoscience is to be skeptical—to keep an open mind to all claims, but only accept them after careful scientific testing. One danger is that many of us accept claims simply on the basis of authority. The hallmark of scientific skepticism is critical thinking. This text emphasizes six scientific thinking principles. These include: (1) ruling out rival hypotheses, (2) correlation isn’t causation, (3) falsifiability (a falsifiable claim can be disproven), (4) replicability, (5) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and (6) Occam’s Razor.
Psychology as a science has existed for only about 130 years. Until the late 1800s the field of psychology was part of the field of philosophy. In 1879, Wilhelm Wundt developed the first psychology laboratory in Germany. Wundt combined experimental methods with introspection, a careful reflection of mental experiences. Soon, psychologists around the world opened laboratories in major universities.
Five major theoretical perspectives have shaped contemporary psychological thought. Structuralists aimed to identify the basic elements, or “structures,” of psychological experience. Functionalists wanted to understand the purposes, or functions, of psychological characteristics, such as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They were profoundly influenced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Behaviorists focused on uncovering the general principles of learning underlying externally observable behaviors in humans and animals. Cognitive psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists have argued that thinking is so central to psychology that it merits a separate discipline in its own right. Psychoanalysis also focused on internal psychological processes. Today, psychology isn’t just one discipline, but rather an assortment of many subdisciplines. These range from biological to cultural. The field of psychology is remarkably diverse, as are the types of careers psychology majors pursue.
Two great debates have shaped the field of psychology since its inception and seem likely to continue to shape it in the future. One, the nature–nurture debate, examines whether our behaviors are attributable mostly to our genes (nature) or to our rearing environments (nurture). Behavior
geneticists use sophisticated designs such as twin and adoption studies, whereas evolutionary psychologists examine the fitness of organisms to survive. The second debate concerns free will versus determinism and examines the extent to which our behaviors are freely selected rather than caused by factors outside of our control.
So psychology is all around you, from the changing colors of fire emergency vehicles from red to lime yellow, to the addition of a third, center mounted brake light on cars, to the crafting of commercial messages, to the development of tests, such as the SAT or ACT. Basic research examines how the mind works; the goal of applied research is to solve real-world problems. To think like a psychologist, you
will learn to think scientifically—learning how to collect and interpret evidence."