Psychological Science and Beliefs Where does science fit? Chapter 2
Marie, Jen, and Sara sit and chatat the local park every Saturday. It’s atypical day, with the kids playing whilethey watch from the benches. Jen keeps a very close eye on herson, Tyler. She warns him about thegravel under the swings. Then she tellsTyler to be careful at the top of the slide.When all of the kids climb the junglegym, she jumps up and runs over, tellinghim to get off because it is not safe.
Scolded, and feeling sad, Tyler walks over to his mother for a hug. After comforting him, Jen tells him to go play with the children by the swings. Watching this, Sara and Marie exchange adisgusted look. They can’t believe how much Jenpampers Tyler. They have to say something.
Marie decides to bring it up, “Jen, you’ve got tostop that, you know?”Relieved that Marie said something, Sara adds,“Yeah, Jen. You’re going to make a lot ofproblems for him if you constantly treat him likea fragile little flower. He’s a boy. Let him be aboy.”Surprised, Jen asks, “What’s that supposed tomean?”
Marie hesitates, looking back to Sara,exchanging glances. “Well if you don’t let himtoughen up, he’s going to end up being…youknow…”“Jen,” Sara interrupts, exasperated, “you’ve gotto stop trying to protect him from every littlescratch and bruise. You’re going to make him agirly boy if you keep this up.”
Marie nods agreement. “You know a boy hasto be a boy if you want him to grow up to be aman. What will you do if he grows up tobe…well…” she trails off.“Gay,” Sara states, flatly. “Just say it, Marie.She’s going to make Tyler gay if she keeps thisup. Look, Jen, if you don’t let him be a boy,you’re going to look back on this and know youtreated him like a little girl. You’ll only haveyour self to blame.”
Marie and Sara were communicating a belief.They believe that the way a mother parents her son can affect his sexuality later in life.
This belief is not isolated to my fictional dialogue between friends.
For example, thisadvertisement for karatelessons is based on asimilar belief.The ad suggests that ifyou catch your son inmom’s shoes, you betterput him in karate lessons.This implies that a boy’sactivities will change howfeminine or masculine heis.
What is the truth?Can you change a child’s sexuality, or their gender identity, by how you parent them?
Psychologists face many questions like this.Many people in our society have opinions and beliefsabout topics such as sexuality. How do we navigatethrough all of these opinions and ideas?
Why might people believe that a mother beingprotective toward her son, or putting a boy into karatelessons, will affect if he grows up to be homosexual orheterosexual?
Ways of KnowingBefore we start discussing how psychologists addressthese questions, it is important to recognize thatpeople form and hold beliefs in different ways.
Ways of KnowingPsychologists base their theories and observations onthe scientific method.
Ways of KnowingHowever, not all beliefs are based on science. In fact,most probably are not. The following is a useful wayof categorizing how people “know” something, or howthey hold their beliefs.
Ways of KnowingThe next five slides introduce these five ways ofknowing. Experience Intuition Tenacity Authority Scientific Method
Ways of Knowing ExperienceSome beliefs come from experience.
Ways of Knowing ExperienceIf you go to a new restaurant and have a good meal, it is understandable if you tell someone that you believe it is a good restaurant. True, you didn’t sample everything on the menu or meet every employee. In fact, you’re basing your recommendation on very little evidence (one visit, one meal, one waiter/waitress, etc.). For most mundane beliefs, though, this is not a problem.
Ways of Knowing IntuitionSome beliefs are held due to intuition. You believe it because you feel that it is true.
Ways of Knowing IntuitionFor example, belief in God for many people is an act of faith. That faith may be based on a deep feeling, beyond words, that they feel God exists.
Ways of Knowing IntuitionNot all intuitive knowledge is so serious. For example,sometimes people buy a new item because it feels likea good idea. There’s no thought involved, justintuition. “That looks good.” “Why?” “I don’t know, itjust does.”
Ways of Knowing TenacitySome beliefs become firm simply because they are held for a long time or by a lot of people. Even if there isn’t a good reason for the belief, it may be held firmly just because “everyone knows it’s true.”
Ways of Knowing Tenacity For example, have you ever heard that you shouldn’t swim right after you eat? It’s not true (unless you’re a long- distance competitive swimmer), but a lot of people believe it and keep stating that belief.
Ways of Knowing TenacityThese commonly held beliefs can have incredible tenacity, or persistence, making them difficult to change.
Ways of Knowing AuthoritySome beliefs come from an authority. Parents, doctors, teachers, ministers, priests…all of these can be sources of beliefs based on authority.
Ways of Knowing AuthorityFor example, if a doctor tells you that you have pneumonia, most of us take the doctor’s word for it. We do not independently verify the diagnosis. You believe it because the person who told you should know.
Ways of Knowing Scientific MethodOther beliefs are held because they are reasonable. We can use reason and logic to evaluate beliefs. Even better, we can use reason and logic with experiences, or observations. This is how the scientific method works. You systematically seek experiences, and evaluate them based on reason and logic.
Let’s examine Marie and Sara’s belief that a mother’s concern for her son could affect his sexuality. Here are examples of how each “way of knowing” could apply to their belief.
Example – ExperienceIt is possible that Marie or Sara watched a mother who was protective of her child. Over the years, they saw the mother treating the boy gingerly. Maybe they saw the boy grow into a man who comes out of the closet as gay.
Example – ExperienceThe problem is that they observed only one person, over a very long time. How can we know that it was the mother’s parenting that affected her son’s sexuality? How do you know it was not something else? Maybe the son would have grown up to be gay no matter what the mother did. The problem with experience is that it is not systematic. Also, it is limited to only what we happened to observe, only our experiences.
Example – ExperienceUnfortunately, experience alone leaves many questions.There are too many questions for this to be useful for a science of behavior. Psychology does not rely on experience alone as evidence.In fact, single, personal experiences are called anecdotes, and anecdotal evidence is considered very poor evidence.
Example – IntuitionPerhaps Marie and Sara simply feel that their beliefs are true. If Jen presses them to explain why they are saying she should stop looking after Tyler so closely, they may not be able to give a reason. They simply feel, strongly, that Jen really should change.
Example – IntuitionWhat does Jen do with this, though? Although intuition can be very powerful for an individual’s own beliefs, others might not share those feelings. In this example, Jen may feel, very deeply, that Marie and Sara are dead wrong. Now what?
Example – IntuitionPsychologists often use intuition as a starting point. Intuition can offer many ideas and hypotheses to study. But as a way of knowing, intuition is perhaps the least useful or convincing for a science of behavior.
Example – TenacityIf Marie and Sara grew up in a community where everyone believed that parenting affects a child’s sexuality, they may hold the belief through tenacity.
Example – TenacityIt is possible that nobody ever specifically stated that parents affect their children’s sexuality. The belief might be communicated subtly by many people – little comments people make, the jokes they tell, and the advice they give – all pointing to this belief.
Example – Tenacity“Are you sure you should let your son quit football?”“Boys will be boys.”“Let them fight. You don’t want to raise a wimp, do you?”“You can’t buy that shirt, pink is for girls.”Even name calling can be used to target behaviors that conflict with one’s beliefs. Think about what is being communicated when kids use terms like wimp, girl, sissy, queer, fag, etc.
Example – TenacityPeople can hold on to these beliefs very firmly.For a science of behavior, we are typically skeptical of beliefs that can be explained only by tenacity. Throughout history, groups of people have held beliefs that later have been shown to be wrong, unfair, or discriminatory.
Example – TenacityPsychologists recognize the importance of tenacious beliefs to those who hold them, but we give these little weight as evidence for a science of behavior.
Example – AuthorityMarie and Sara may have had a teacher, professor, doctor, minister, parent, or friend who told them that a mother can affect her son’s sexuality by overprotecting him. Maybe they found a pamphlet, book, or website making this argument. Each of these would be a type of authority.
Example – AuthorityIdeally, relying on authorities should work well, especially if the person is knowledgeable on the topic of the belief. For this to work well, it is important to evaluate the validity of their claim to authority.
Example – AuthorityThis is a problem online. Anyone can publish content online. Be very careful evaluating the reliability of the source!
Example – AuthoritySometimes authorities step outside of their area of expertise. It would probably be unwise to rely on a teacher for religious advice, or a minister for the diagnosis of chest pain. These are obvious examples. However, being human, many authorities give advice on psychological topics.
Example – AuthorityFor this course, we want you to learn enough basic psychology to be able to critically evaluate the statements made by people in positions of authority who may not specialize in psychological research.
Example – Scientific MethodThe scientific method takes thought, time, and effort. For most things in our lives, we don’t have the luxury of using the full scientific method.
Example – Scientific MethodUnfortunately, the scientific method is not easily summarized in a single slide. Chapter 2 in your textbook covers how the scientific method is used in psychological research.
Example – Scientific MethodAlso, the next couple slideshows cover how to use the scientific method to test a belief like the one Marie and Sara held.
Review Ways of Knowing Experience Intuition Tenacity Authority Scientific MethodBefore proceeding, try to describe each of these ways of knowing in your ownwords.
For the remainder of the semester, we will be focusing our attention on the scientific method in Psychology. This does not imply that the other ways of knowing are inferior.
You can respect the way that a person holds a belief and still discuss the scientific evidence that either supports or does not support that belief.
In this class, we are interested in evidence acquired systematically and examined critically. Choosing to focus on that, the other ways of knowing do not have much to contribute to our discussion.
Personal Experience is unsystematic and limited. We prefer to systematically obtain evidence that applies to many people’s experiences. Remember that anecdotes should not be given any weight as scientific evidence.
Intuition is fascinating, but it is terrible evidence. Interestingly, though, we can study how intuition works. Psychology includes the study of how people come to develop these intuitive feelings. Instead of being evidence, intuition is a topic of study.
Tenacity is very poor evidence. It can be interesting to study how a belief comes to be widely held, or how it is passed along for generations. Again, this is a topic of study, not evidence.
Authority holds no weight in scientific discussions. Scientists value having evidence that can be collected by anyone, replicated, and shared. No single person has privileged access to evidence. We will respectfully examine claims by authorities.
Remember, we are purposefully focusing on scientific evidence for the rest of this course.
Beliefs can be a powerful and significant part of how people find meaning in their lives.We are only focusing on one way that beliefs can be held, and that is the main focus of our discussions and your studies.
As you start working on Chapter 2, make sure you focus on how the scientific method works for studying human behavior.
A particular slide catching your eye?
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