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Cognitive psychology is a special science

Rob explains why cognitive psychology is a special science. People really are very different from blocks of wood, drops of water, and iron filings.
Cognitive psychologists study things like :- • what is actually going on when we understand and follow instructions • what is the best way to revise for exams, • why expert game players are better than novices • Whether it is possible to train people to recognise faces better than they otherwise do The list is indefinitely long. They study the mind by adopting scientific methods. Begin by setting out an hypothesis about some aspect of mental functioning. Generate a testable prediction in terms of measurable behaviour. Develop an experiment to test the prediction. Take the necessary measurements. This is the scientific approach to studying the mind. However we need to tread very carefully here.
It simply is a scientific fact that water has the molecular structure H2O Every drop of water has this molecular structure. For physicists and chemists what this means is if you want to do an experiment on water then it shouldn’t matter where or when you do the experiment because if you have H2O you have water. Now things are very different in cognitive psychology. For a start, no two human beings have the same life experiences – not even genetically identical twins. We typically do not know and may have no means of finding how these life experiences have affected the different people we test.
And we may not know and may have no way of finding how such life experience influence their performance in our experiments. We cannot assume that every one will behave in the same way in the same circumstances. And moreover we cannot assume that the same person will behave in exactly the same way when we repeat the test. The underscores a distinctive challenge for running a cognitive psychology – people that we test vary.
In fact there are two critical kinds of variability – (1) Variability between people and (2) Variability in how a person performs over time We proceed on the assumption that we can generate testable predictions about the mind that eventuate in replicable results but the different kinds of variability can make replication hard. Indeed, both forms on variability might be thought to play havoc with our science of psychology. But in fact measures that reflect variability are key. To learn more about these ideas would entail a more in depth discussion of statistics and indeed studying advanced psychology entails studying statistics. Nonetheless, the basic ideas behind running an experiment can be discussed without any need to engage in a detailed discussion of statistics.
We can separate out concerns about how to collect data in a sensible way from those concerned with statistics. Our primary focus here is with how best to collect data that can inform us about how the mind works. And we need to consider what steps to take to make sure our experiments are robust tests of our hypotheses.

The fact that people are not robots and that their behaviour changes in, what may appear to be, unpredictable ways might be taken to be a serious problem. It may even lead some to think that psychology cannot be a science, but this is simply not true.

Yes, behaviour is changeable, but it is not random. If you think that it is in your better interests to spend time studying rather than gaming you will study. What we are trying to do is explain general patterns of behaviour and most of the time our conclusions are phrased in terms of likelihoods rather than certainties. Indeed, you will see (as the course unfolds) that not only are we attempting to describe the norms of behaviour, but we are also trying to capture the exceptions to such norms.

There are lots of fundamental issues being touched upon here – such as the nature of science and the nature of what it is to be human. Nonetheless, the basic claim is that in adopting a scientific approach much progress can be made in understanding how the mind works.

Again we must stress that this is a course about cognitive psychology as an experimental science and not the philosophy of science, but to fail to consider such fundamental issues can result in losing sight of what the ultimate goals are. Given that, there is every reason to pause and take stock.

We mentioned, in passing, the notion of the laws of behaviour, but given that people are variable, is it really sensible to attempt to derive such laws and what would such a law look like?

This may be the first time you have had to consider such issues in such terms – but what do you actually think about what has been discussed?

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Introduction to Cognitive Psychology: An Experimental Science

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