Experimental psychology is the aspect of psychological science that explores the human mind and its perceptions and behaviors through experimental methodologies and subsequent interpretation of the obtained results. Again, “evidence-based practice in psychology is the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture, and preferences” (American Psychologist, 2006). This definition is in line with the one advocated by the Institute of Medicine (2001) that says, “Evidence-based practice is the integration of best research evidence with clinical expertise and patient values” (Sackett, Straus, Richardson, Rosenberg, & Haynes, 2000, p. 147). Experimental psychological research makes use of controlled conditions in experiments to conclude about the validity of a hypothesis and evidence-based practice in psychology constitutes a large part of it. This essay attempts to discuss the various experimental evidences used in psychology and form an opinion on the usefulness and credibility of those evidences.
How Good is Psychological Experimental Evidence
Evidences from experimental psychology are of interest to researchers working on human behavior, brain mechanics, neurology, and so on; regardless of where these are performed either within the laboratory or outside of it, human beings form the major part of the experiment. The primary goals of experimental psychological research are to be most cost effective, improve quality and increase accountability. However, the psychological community—including both scientists and practitioners—is concerned that evidence-based practice initiatives not be misused as a justification for inappropriately restricting access to care and choice of treatments (American Psychologist, 2006).
Experimental psychology and its psychological approaches broadly deal with psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and cognitive psychology. Since psychoanalysis explores the mind and explains its behavior, it is of prime importance; that said, it has been argued that psychoanalysis is overrated, as it is only able to explain the behavior after it has occurred and not make any helpful advance predictions. Behaviorism explains a wide range of behaviors from language usage to moral values using the principles of behavior shaping, generalization, reinforcement etc. Behaviorists were able to come up with moderately consistent predictions but absolute predictions for individuals was not possible. Cognitive psychology, on the other hand, follows a very scientific approach to explain primarily non-discernable mental processes through experiments and models.
The empirical approach to psychology is questioned by the advocates of the humanistic approach who lay emphasis on individual conscious experience and disregard experimental evidence. They stress on subjective perception and understanding rather than objective reality. The argument put forward by the humanists says that human behavior is the sum of one’s feelings and aura, and is shaped by the perception and understanding of one’s environment. Thus, humanists contend the experimentalists on the premise that a perspective of the whole person is important to settle on any outcome; one should look through the ‘observer’ lens as well as the ‘observed’ lens.
The humanists are advocates of free will and reject determinism; they do not support scientific approach and are not concerned with predictions and control over human behavior. The right of the individual to control and dissect one’s own behavior is endorsed by humanists. In ‘Psychology as a Means of Promoting Human Welfare’, Miller criticizes the controlling view of psychology, suggesting that “understanding should be the main goal of the subject as a science, as he asks, who will do the controlling and whose interests will be served by it? “ (Miller, 1969).
Psychological experimental evidence can be valid in evidence based practice as it gives a data point on the theories that are being explored. It is about integrating individual clinical expertise and the best external evidence (Sackett, Straus, Richardson, Rosenberg, & Haynes, 1996). Thus the external evidence provided by scientific approach like statistical methods is helpful in making deductions that in turn assist in forming the foundation for evidence based medicine. An experiment by Cathy Faulkner, to substantiate the use of confidence intervals for estimation is a case in point. In her study, she “asked a group of leading clinical researchers to think of a clinical trial that they have designed and then to think of the most central question in the trial. 81% of the respondents thought that it was – is there an effect? Then she asked them to rate the importance of three possible questions: 1) is there an effect? (2) How large is the effect, and (3) how clinically important is the effect? Given those prompts her expert respondents rated all three as highly important. In other words, their first response was influenced by their automatic dichotomous thinking but when prompted they immediately recognized that a trial psychological therapy is only useful if it tells us how large an effect the therapy is likely to give and how clinically important that is. So, estimation, meaning confidence intervals, is what we need for fullest information about the size of an effect and the best basis for assessing its clinical importance” (Cumming, 2012).
The value of experimental evidence lies in the fact that it is able to provide a basis for future research and enable replication of the same, wherein a number of psychologists, after skillful experimentation would come up with similar answers. For example, in experiments on effects of drug habits, the experimental results would almost always validate stress as a consequence of drug abuse. Thus by replication of results and consequent corroboration of facts, a theory is likely to gain acceptance.
Nonetheless, the limitations of the empirical approach following a specific scientific methodology are many: Since psychology deals mostly with humans, and no two human conditions can be the same, the results are never absolute. Moreover, human behavior changes with time and so would the results of experiments.
In establishing causes for incidents, psychologists take the deterministic view and discount the peripheral variables that influence human behavior and ones they have no control over.
Also the range of paradigms in psychology makes it difficult to advocate a universal law for any occurrence/observation.
Again, since most of the parameters are unobservable, like memory, and some immeasurable, testability becomes an issue in such experiments.
“Whenever psychologists involved in research or practice move from observations to inferences and generalizations, there are inherent risks of idiosyncratic interpretations, overgeneralizations, confirmatory biases, and similar errors in judgment” (Dawes, Faust, & Meehl, 2002). Objectivity is almost impossible in some cases. Thus, integral to use of psychological experimental evidence and “clinical expertise is an awareness of the limits of one’s knowledge and skills and attention to the heuristics and biases— both cognitive and affective—that can affect clinical judgment” (American Psychologist, 2006).
Judgmental errors and volatility of psychological experimentation is exhibited clearly in the 1971 Stanford prison experiment led by researcher Phillip Zimbardo, held in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. The objective of this experiment was to test a hypothesis on prison behavior, how captivity influences and changes an individual’s response and behavior. Zimbardo and his team wanted to find out if the cause of abusive behavior in prisons was the inherent personality traits of the prison officials. The participants of the prison simulation experiment, including Zimbardo himself got so engrossed in the characters they were playing (after sessions of de-individualization, disorientation and de-personalization) that it turned dangerous for the them and they were forced to stop it after 6 days. However, it was concluded that the situation is the biggest influence on a person’s behavior rather than the individual’s character.
The Stanford prison experiment was an eye opener for ethical issues regarding psychological experiments using living subjects. It led to creation of better safeguards for the participants and meticulous scrutiny before embarking on experiments. It became imperative to demonstrate the necessity of the experiment and show how it would contribute to the advancement of psychology, and also provide clear option of opting out of the set up if it gets uncomfortable for the subject. Concerns on informed consent have also been dealt with to uphold the safety and health of subjects. Several other pioneering experiments like Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to authority experiment in 1974, Ivan Pavlov’s classical Conditioning experiment way back in 1903, Henry Harlow’s Emotional Attachment in rhesus monkeys have employed living subjects; the answerability thus automatically escalates when using such participants.
In conclusion, it is clear that psychological experimental evidence plays an integral part in the progress of psychology; however, the researcher needs to strike a balance and critically decide on the need for empirical approach in preference to humanistic approach. Studies designed to investigate the credibility of psychological theories and explain certain behavior patterns by isolating situational controls using living subjects (human or animal) need to be handled with utmost care and precaution. The researcher should be in a position to adequately address any ethical issues that might arise out of the experimental set up. It is to be borne in mind that humans are prone to error and judgment might be prejudiced in some cases; it is important to be prepared for these contingencies. To tackle the concerns from humanists and warrant the use of experimental evidence, Slife and Williams (1995)have suggested:
• We need to try at least to strive for scientific methods because we need a rigorous discipline. If we abandon our search for unified methods, we’ll lose a sense of what psychology is.
• We need to keep trying to develop scientific methods that are suitable to studying human behavior – it may be that the methods adopted by the natural sciences are not appropriate for us.
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