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differences between psychology and common sense

This essay will examine the differences between psychology and common sense. It will also discuss the obstacles and drawbacks that primary experience and common sense beliefs can have on the epistemological advancement of any experimental science. The paper will start with a brief history of psychology and then discuss the different perspectives and approaches within the field. Giving examples throughout and briefly touching on the pioneers in the development of psychology, this essay will argue that the use of systematic and objective methods of observation and experimentation in psychology make it much more than just ‘common sense’.

The bathroom floor is somewhat colder than the bedroom carpet. Most people would agree with this statement and pass it off as just ‘common sense’. But what if a thermometer showed that the bathroom floor was actually the same temperature as the bedroom carpet, and the real reason that the tiled floor in the bathroom ‘felt’ colder than the bedroom carpet was because the carpet is a better thermal insulator than the ceramic tile? Therefore feet lose heat to the floor more slowly on the carpet than on the tile floor, and consequently the cold receptors in the feet’s skin are not stimulated to the same extent (Refinetti, 1992). This example, although not specifically a psychological one, shows that the element of primary experience and common sense beliefs in most humans can prove to be an obstacle in the development of any experimental science.

The first formal laboratory for psychological research was founded in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt. Widely regarded as the “father of experimental psychology” (Teo, 2005; 40) and placed first in the list of most outstanding psychologists carried out by Korn et al in 1991, Wundt established psychology as a separate field of study with its own unique questions and methods. Thirty years later in 1910, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a pioneer in the experimental study of memory, described psychology as having “a long past but only a short history” (Ebbinghaus, 1910, cited in Hothersall, 1995: 1). Ebbinghaus was referring to the fact that although psychology is a relatively new discipline, studied perhaps for only a hundred years or so, philosophers and scholars since the time of Plato and Aristotle have been asking the same questions for thousands of years.

In many text books psychology is defined as the science of behaviour. Although this definition holds some merit it is also important to point out that many psychologists also accept accounts of their participants own conscious experience, often known as introspection (Eysenck, 1998: 2). It is this point that led Sternberg (1995: 4, cited in Eysenck, 1998: 2) to define psychology as:

The study of mind and behaviour…[that] seeks to understand how we think, learn, perceive, feel, act, interact with others, and even understand ourselves

Sternberg’s definition shows that psychology contains two fundamental elements. Firstly, that psychologists study behaviour, any type of behaviour that can be measured or observed. Secondly, it shows that psychologists study the mind, referring to both the conscious and unconscious mental states that cannot be seen but can be observed through behaviour.

Because we spend so much of our time trying to understand other people’s behaviour and the motives for their behaviour, in some sense we are all psychologists. Perhaps it is this reason that leads some people to dismiss psychology as nothing more than just common sense – or a slight advance of it (Eysenck, 1998: 2). Naturally, there are some similarities with one another in that they can both try to explain human behaviour; however this does not mean that they are the same thing.

The most important difference between psychology and common sense is that psychology uses systematic and objective methods of observation and experimentation. Common sense on the other hand is usually played out in proverbs or short phrases, most of which are contradictory to one another. For example ‘he who hesitates is lost’ and ‘look before you leap’ or ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ (Eysenck, 1998: 3). Common sense refers mainly to a set of beliefs and skills that are shared by most people but acquired through no specialist education. According to Refinetti (1992), the concept is too broad and any meaningful statement should refer not to the whole concept but to some component of it.

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Another important reason why psychology and common sense are different is the outcome of psychological tests carried out over the years which on many occasion have produced very different results to what might have been predicted using only ‘common sense’ alone.

One example can been seen in a test carried out by Stanley Milgram (1974), a psychologist at Yale University who conducted a study focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. His test was designed to examine the claims made by those accused of war crimes during World War II at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials. The defendants often claimed that they were just obeying orders whilst under the authority of their superiors (Hayes, 2002 & Eysenck 1994).

In his Study of Obedience Milgram selected 40 male volunteers, all of who varied in age, educational and occupation. Hayes (2002) explains that Milgram then introduced the volunteers to a stern looking experimenter who stated that one subject would be assigned the role of “teacher” and the other would be assigned the role of “learner.” The teachers were asked to give the learners some simple memory tests. Each time the learner got an answer wrong the teachers were instructed to administer a shock to them by pressing a button on what Milgram called ‘the shock generator’. Unbeknown to the volunteers each of them would always end up playing the role of teacher and the learner was actually played by an actor instructed by Milgram to indicate increasing levels of discomfort as the teacher increased the shock level.

For every mistake the learners made the intensity of the shock was to be increased by 15 volts up to a maximum of 450 volts. Before the experiment Milgram had sought predictions from experts and non-experts about the outcome of the tests and with remarkable similarity they predicted that virtually all the subjects would refuse to obey the experimenter, in fact some professionals guessed that as little as one in a thousand would give the maximum shock. In actual fact Milgram found that on average about half of all participants obeyed orders to punish the learner to the very end of the 450-volt scale (Hayes, 2002 & Eysenck 1994).

This experiment along with many others shows that common sense can often be inaccurate and is subject to bias and life-experiences. One particular bias that common sense has against psychology is the problem of hindsight bias. This is a tendency to be wise after the event and can be very difficult to eliminate.

There are five main approaches in contemporary psychology, Behaviourist, Biological, Psychodynamic, Cognitive and Humanistic. According to Glassman & Hadad an approach can be defined as a perspective that involves certain assumptions about human behaviour. There may be several different theories within an approach, but they all share some common concerns: to make careful, consistent observations, to avoid errors, and to develop clear theories (2004: 17).

Each approach shows us something different in our understanding of human behaviour and each approach portrays strengths and weaknesses. Most psychologists would agree that no one approach is correct, although in the early days of psychology J.B Watson stated that psychology should abandon all study concerned with the mind and concentrate solely on behaviourism, believing that this was the only truly scientific approach.

The behaviourist approach studies observable responses and focuses on learning to explain changes in behaviour. They reject any attempt to study internal processes such as thinking (Glassman & Hadad, 2004: 147). The behaviourist psychologist regards all behaviour as a response to a stimulus and assumes that what we do is determined by the environment we are in. They argue that the environment provides stimuli to which we respond, and that past environments can lead us to respond to stimuli in particular ways. According to Watson (1913, cited in Eysenck, 1994: 21)

Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behaviour. Introspection forms no part of its method

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Behaviourists use two processes to explain how people learn: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning can be described as a neutral stimulus which gains the ability to bring on responses through regular pairings with another stimulus. This was first shown by Ivan Pavlov in 1904 who noticed that the dogs he had been feeding as part of a digestion experiment had become familiarised with the pre-feeding routines and began to salivate before food was put in front of them. In order for Pavlov to validate his observations he began to ring a bell before the actual sight or smell of food was present and after a certain time the dogs were shown to salivate profusely in association with the ringing of the bell alone.

Classical conditioning only allows the person to produce existing responses to new stimuli, but operant conditioning, a term used by B.F Skinner, is concerned with how the probability of a voluntary response changes as a function of the environmental consequences which follow the response (Glassman & Hadad, 2004: 120). Skinner argues that if certain behaviour produces a certain response and is followed by reinforcement then the likelihood of that behaviour being repeated increases in the future. A consequence can be reinforcing in two ways: either a positive reinforcement where the person gets something good or a negative reinforcement where the person avoids something bad.

Skinners theory, that human behaviour is determined by the contingencies of reinforcement, is contrary to that of the common sense belief that people behave in certain ways because of their thoughts, wishes, expectations, and feelings. B.F. Skinner was a radical behaviourist, unlike Edward Tolman, who although behaviourist in his methodology went on to propose through his experiments with rats that animals and therefore humans could develop cognitive maps. Tolman’s experiments, although not completely accepted at the time, went on to path the way for later work in cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists are interested in understanding the thinking processes that underline our actions.

To a large extent, the coherence of the cognitive approach is not based on a single theory or researcher, but rather on the underlying assumptions about behaviour, and the central focus given to internal mental processes (Glassman & Hadad, 2004: 152)

Concerned with mental functions such as memory, perception, thinking and language, the cognitive approach emphasises the role of mediating processes in human behaviour. Memory is a mediator of behaviour and is regarded as having three separate stages – sensory memory, short term memory (STM) and long term memory (LTM) each of which convey between stages that are dependent on attention, rehearsal and encoding. Glassman & Hadad argue that –

the cognitive approach deals extensively with mental processes within the person. In this sense, it is similar to the psychodynamic approach. However, one of the major limitations of the cognitive approach is its failure to address questions of intentionality – that is, it does not explain what motivates behaviour. By contrast, issues of motivation are central to the psychodynamic approach (2004; 204)

Pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s the psychodynamic approach theorises that our behaviour and feelings are strongly affected by unconscious motives. It argues that the behaviour of adults, including psychological problems, is rooted in childhood experiences. Eysenck argues that it is important to stress that before Freud’s time, abnormal behaviour was considered to be the result of an inner demon. The treatment for this demon was to make life as unpleasant for it as possible, a viewpoint that justified all kinds of barbaric acts such as flogging, starving, and even immersing people in boiling water(1994: 7) . Freud introduced the idea that people with abnormal behaviour are actually suffering from mental illness, caused by a disturbed functioning of the mind and Freud argued that sanity and pathology are merely different points in the same psychodynamic continuum. This of course contrasts with the ‘common sense’ belief that a person is believed to be either normal or afflicted by some mental disorder (Refinetti, 1992; Para 6). Freud’s studies of personality were driven by the suffering of his patients and his desire to help them. This can also be seen in the origins of the humanistic approach, developed by Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow during the 1950s, and its desire to aid those in distress.

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The Biological approach is the only approach in psychology that tries to explain behaviour in terms of the workings of the physical system. It is orientated towards understanding the physiological and genetic basis of behaviour. Based on the assumption of materialism, the biological approach has two primary concerns: the workings of the nervous system and the role of heredity in behaviour (Glassman & Hadad 2004). The most challenging aspect of the biological approach is understanding consciousness and the workings of the brain, which is thought to have one hundred billion neurons and a quadrillion different connections in the cortex. Primary experience and common sense explain that humans have five senses: vision, taste, touch, hearing, and olfaction. In Neurophysiology however, it has been shown that humans also perceive pain, warmth, cold, pressure, rotary acceleration, and other variables (Ganong 1975, cited in Refinetti, 1992, Para 8).

This essay has shown conclusively that through its empirical use of observation, experimentation and research methods, psychology is so much more than a commonly held set of beliefs played out in proverbs and short phrases but acquired through no specialist education. Each approach gives us more understanding of people’s behaviour

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