Can Psychology Be a Science and an Art?
Jessica Costello, Stonehill College
It’s no secret that the field of psychology has been going through an identity crisis. At my college, as I suppose is the case at many others, the psychology department is located in the science building, despite debate over whether a field focused on the ever-changing human mind qualifies as a true science. To add to the confusion, when I graduate, I’ll earn a Bachelor of Arts.
I embraced the contradiction and chose psychology as my major in part because it rests on the border between science and art. Studying the mind engages both my desire for empirical knowledge about human functioning and my curiosity about the classic existential questions that poets, artists, and theologians have posed for centuries. Getting involved in research projects at the undergraduate level has renewed my appreciation for the scientific method and ignited my curiosity about new topics.
But I worry that current trends in the field have cast off the existential flair in total favor of empirical testing. Even if an exciting study’s conclusions have many practical applications, it’s unlikely nonacademic readers will slog through pages of dry, academic text to learn about them. As the field has retreated into the lab, researchers have lost the art of communication with the outside world.
Marianne Fallon, of Central Connecticut State University, would agree. In her recent editorial, “Writing Quantitative Empirical Manuscripts With Rigor and Flair (Yes, It’s Possible),” Fallon argues for greater accessibility in scientific writing (for example, using a concrete example to help readers visualize an abstract concept) and “encourage[s] all scientists to adopt a classic style that puts writers and readers on a level playing field” (Fallon, 2018).
My first love was creative writing. As I became more familiar with psychological literature, it seemed obvious to me that I could combine my passion for crafting prose with my love of psychology and communicate scientific conclusions to everyday people. I was going to reach the audiences whom all this advanced psychological research is meant to benefit.
Perhaps that’s partially why I was so shocked when a faculty member recently questioned the value of my creative writing minor. Given the chance, I could go on for hours about the stories I’ve written, both in terms of the content and of my experience while writing them. I could ramble about how writing makes a good metaphor for life. How creating fictional characters and living in their worlds, seeing life through the narrators’ heads, has increased my empathy for people who have experienced things I can't imagine. At the heart of both fictional stories and at the heart of our real day-to-day existences lie relationships. Whole, fractured, healthy, toxic—all of them. Writing about the lives of fictional people has given me insight into how I interact with real people.
Have psychologists been so busy trying to earn the identity of a science that they have forgotten the sense of human connection that drives so many people to study psychology in the first place?
In an article for Psychology Today, Gregg Henriques, a psychology professor at James Madison University, argues that much of the confusion over the field’s status is due to a “never ending call for more research” that muddles the larger purpose for which we carry out research. He cites the data, information, knowledge, and wisdom (DIKW) pyramid to illustrate that psychologists tend to be so concerned with gaining information that we forget how to synthesize the data we collect into meaningful knowledge. As we struggle to wade through all our studies' contradictory conclusions, we risk forfeiting meaningful progress toward that eternal, poetic wisdom for which we’ve been searching.
Fallon, M. (2018). Writing quantitative empirical manuscripts with rigor and flair (Yes, it’s possible). Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 23, 184–198. https://doi.org/10.24839/2325-7342.JN23.3.184
Henriques, G. (2016, 27 Jan.). The ‘Is psychology a science?’ debate. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/theory-knowledge/201601/the-is-psychology-science-debate