Is Psychology an Art or a Science?

Psychology has always suffered from an identity crisis. This is a supreme irony, of course, as it is the discipline tasked with understanding the nature of both identity and crisis, among other things. In the midst of recent discussions of what psychology can or cannot do — which only represents the latest iteration of a centuries-old debate — I began to think about this major tension that embroils the field; the conflict that every graduate student argues about at one point or another (with others or, in sleep-deprived mutterings, with oneself); the question that experts within and outside of the field cannot and have never been able to agree upon: Is psychology an art or a science?

Argument for art

Psychological phenomena are, by definition, difficult to objectify, as psychology is the study of the subjective. Rather than continuing to push a round peg in a square hole, psychology could abandon the fight to be taken seriously as a science and instead focus on its heuristic and philosophical implications. As an art, psychology would still exist as a discipline to be studied and mastered, but the value of a given psychologist’s work would be more open to interpretation and critical debate, and less dependent on matching the codified standards of so-called “good science.”

An increased appreciation of the qualitative varieties of psychological practice — such as taste, talent, and aesthetic — would not be wholly inconsistent with where the field stands today. Take clinical psychology, for example (which I know more about than other branches of psychology). Though scientific inquiry has generally shown that psychotherapy works, we still don’t really know how, and one common-sense suggestion is that some people are just better therapists than others.

Being considered an art would also free psychologists to communicate their ideas in more expressive, less offensively dry academic writing than is the current standard — an issue that I have previously complained about.

Argument for science

We often like to think that physical stuff which we can (at least theoretically) hold in our hands is somehow more real than less tangible notions of thought, feeling, and social behavior. After all, science is about what’s real, isn’t it? And real stuff can fit in test tubes or under microscopes, right? Well, Jared Diamond considers this a paltry definition:

[Science] is something much more general, which isn’t defined by decimal places and controlled experiments. It means the enterprise of explaining and predicting — gaining knowledge of — natural phenomena, by continually testing one’s theories against empirical evidence. The world is full of phenomena that are intellectually challenging and important to understand, but that can’t be measured to several decimal places in labs. (1987)

Saying that psychology is too “soft” and should no longer be considered a science is akin to a group of kids, having accidentally hit their ball into the neighbor’s yard, concluding that baseball is too inconvenient and should no longer be considered a sport. The challenges of defining and measuring psychological constructs are just that — challenges. They are not insurmountable, and the potential gains from scientific discovery are equivalent to any “hard” science.

Returning to the field of clinical psychology, there is also a legitimate public health risk in denying psychology’s place in the sciences. People may abandon psychological treatments in favor of other, more “science-y” ones (even though the science behind them may be deeply flawed), despite the fact that psychotherapy might be the most helpful option available for a given person or problem.

Lastly, as has become increasingly clear in recent years, it’s not as though hard sciences are spared the rub of subjectivity. So why pick on psychology?

Argument for both

Perhaps it was clear that this is where I was headed all along. Psychology’s identity crisis is less, “Am I X or am I Y?” and more, “Can I come to terms with the fact that I am both X and Y?” The arguments above are not mutually exclusive or inherently contradictory, though they do require some wiggle room on both sides.

It is important to note that psychology’s sense of itself is not determined purely by existential questioning; it is in fact greatly — perhaps predominantly — influenced by the political and economic landscape. For instance, ever since the National Institute of Mental Health declared that it would only give grants to studies that adopt a brain-circuit model of mental disorder, psychology researchers have been put under tremendous pressure to get a lot “harder” if they want to stay funded. Public and private funding sources need to show a greater appreciation of psychology as both a science (so it doesn’t feel like it has to act more like other sciences to be taken seriously) and an art (so psychologists can afford to explore human subjectivity through less “scientific” but equally valid methods). Then, perhaps, the age-old and unproductive debate about what psychology is can finally be put to rest.


One thought on “Is Psychology an Art or a Science?

  1. Unfortunately for the clients, psychiatrists and therapists are not trained to practice their field as if it was part science/part art. They mostly lean toward acting as if it is complete science and don’t have enough humility about what they can actually know as fact.

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