Psychology: Art or Science?

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Good clinicians not only have to stay abreast of the research, they have to bring some common sense and seasoned skepticism to their analysis of the research findings in order to incorporate only sound, reliable, and proven methods into the practice of their art.

The field of psychology encompasses a vast area of study and practice. And almost as long as the field has been around, there’s been some debate about whether it should be rightfully considered an art or a science.

The short answer to the question of whether psychology is an art or science is “yes.” In many ways, it is both. There are branches within psychology that are strictly devoted to the understanding the human mind and behavior through rigorous scientific experimentation. But the practice of psychology as a professional discipline is more than simply the mechanical implementation of proven scientific techniques. Rather, it requires the practitioner’s use of professional experience, manner of delivery, empathic intuition, and judgment. So, the professional practice of psychology is definitely an art.

Clinical psychologists have for some time adopted the model of “scientist-practitioner.” That means that not only do they draw upon the vast body of scientific knowledge available to them and “artfully” incorporate principles derived from that body of knowledge into their therapeutic encounters with their clients but, also they constantly look for and gather relevant data and test hypotheses in order to help increase the scientific knowledge base of the entire field.

Psychology’s base of scientific information is constantly changing and expanding. If you venture toward the shelves in a library that hold only the “abstracts” of psychology studies and experiments, you’re likely to be quite overwhelmed. The abstracts alone fill many volumes. Psychologists themselves are often overwhelmed not only keeping up with all the latest findings but also incorporating those findings into the “art” of their practice. The narrow focus of some of the research can easily make a person wonder what relevance it could possibly have to better understanding the human condition. Then there’s the issue of apparently conflicting findings. The result is that despite the plethora of scientific data, there is only a handful of reliable, relevant, information available to practitioners seeking to be optimally informed when they engage in their art.

These days, the scientific “purity” of much of the research undertaken throughout the various behavioral science fields is also much debated. The sophistication of our scientific methodology is unquestionable. However, the interpretation of results of our scientific investigations and the correct application of principles derived from them are often suspect. “Correlational” studies are very common these days. Such a study might take a look at different variables like the average cups of coffee a person drinks per day and the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and through various statistical analyses find a surprising inverse “correlation” between coffee drinking and the disease. Of course, all students of statistics remember being taught that we can’t infer causality or directionality of association from correlational studies. But in fact that’s done throughout the field with surprising frequency. Then it takes future findings to debunk any of the unwarranted claims of the previous research. (Anyone remember all the magical claims for oat bran?) So, good clinicians not only have to stay abreast of the research, they have to bring some common sense and seasoned skepticism to their analysis of the research findings in order to incorporate only sound, reliable, and proven methods into the practice of their art.

Because I’m a natural skeptic, I’ve always incorporated a fair degree of hesitation and deliberateness into the art of my practice as a psychologist. I’m usually in no hurry to promote the latest craze in the field or to part company with a principle that my experience has taught me is of great value just because some new study strongly questions its validity. I’ve been around long enough now that I’ve seen many a fad come and go and prevailing beliefs change. The foremost guiding principle of my “art” of practice is to do no harm to those I’m treating and to do my best to ensure that the methods and techniques I do use truly have the potential to do some good. Some of my colleagues have sometimes given me the impression that they chose one of the mental health fields to escape the rigor and regimentation of the more “hard” sciences and to feel more free to do as they as they felt inclined as long as they “really cared about” their clients. But I feel an obligation to have reliable, effective tools at my disposal when a client is paying me hard-earned money for professional guidance as opposed to just chatting with a friend or venting in a support group. So, I’ve had to use both my experience and knowledge to help myself become a truly artful scientist. And I’m painfully aware that as a profession, psychologists don’t yet have all the tools they need to provide sufficient help to a great many individuals. Even though I’m a natural skeptic, I welcome the day that true advances in science will enable me to exercise my art with even greater effectiveness for all those who might seek my help and counsel.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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