MANY UNDERGRAD PSYCH TEXTBOOKS DO A POOR JOB OF DESCRIBING SCIENCE AND EXPLORING PSYCHOLOGY’S PLACE IN IT

24th February 1930: Film actress Helen Ruth Mann reads a hefty book on Psychology. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Psychology as a scientific field enjoys a tremendous level of popularity throughout society, a fascination that could even be described as religious. This is likely the reason why it is one of the most popular undergraduate majors in American and European universities. At the same time, it is not uncommon to encounter the firm opinion that psychology in no way qualifies for consideration as a science. Such extremely critical opinions about psychology are often borrowed from authorities – after all, it was none other than the renowned physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman who, in a famous interview in 1974, compared the social sciences and psychology in particular to a cargo cult. Scepticism toward psychological science can also arise following encounters with the commonplace simplifications and myths spread by pop-psychology, or as a product of a failure to understand what science is and how it solves its dilemmas.

According to William O’Donohue and Brendan Willis of the University of Nevada, these issues are further compounded by undergraduate psychology textbooks. Writing recently in Archives of Scientific Psychologythey argue that “[a] lack of clarity and accuracy in [psych textbooks] in describing what science is and psychology’s relationship to science are at the heart of these issues.” The authors based their conclusions on a review of 30 US and UK undergraduate psychology textbooks, most updated in the last few years (general texts and others covering abnormal, social and cognitive psych), in which they looked for 18 key contemporary issues in philosophy of science. 

Almost a quarter of the sampled textbooks explicitly and boastfully stated that there is no difference between psychology and other “hard” sciences such as chemistry and physics.

More on their findings in my article published in the BPS Research Digest:

Many undergrad psych textbooks do a poor job of describing science and exploring psychology’s place in it

Also in the source article: 

Problematic images of science in undergraduate psychology textbooks: How well is science understood and depicted?    [open access]

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