Psychology had not existed in the past as a separate science until the experimental psychology appeared. Although it is hard to distinguish the exact time when it was initiated, it is known that experimental psychology was started in German universities in the nineteenth century (Hearnshaw, 2019). The scientists who made a tremendous contribution to the birth of this discipline are Weber, Fechner, Wundt, and von Helmholtz (Robins et al., 2019).
For example, Weber used experimental methodology to investigate mind-body connection and sensory perception (Robins et al., 2019). Helmholtz studied people’s sensational perceptions of objects and tried to explain various phenomena of the human mind (Robins et al., 2019). Wundt is believed to be the founder of experimental psychology because he compiled the previous knowledge and segregated this science as an autonomous entity (Robins et al., 2019). Furthermore, Wundt opened the laboratory for experimental psychology in Leipzig in 1879 (Hearst, 2019). He believed that consciousness is built upon our perception, establishing the foundation for the future research field. Hence, experimental psychology was essential in shaping modern psychological science by transforming it into a separate discipline to study physiological and emotional interconnectedness.
Essential Features of Experimental Psychology
Like other scientific disciplines, psychology possesses several features, including determinism, empiricism, parsimony, and replicability. First, empiricism in psychology means setting an experiment to make observations of people’s thoughts and behavior (MacLin, 2020). Indeed, modern psychology also utilizes laboratory settings and equipment to dive into the human mind (MacLin, 2020). The second characteristic, determinism, assumes that all events are predetermined and thus can be tested if the correct experimental design is used (MacLin, 2020). In fact, the scientific revolution allowed “to measure what can be measured and make measurable what cannot be measured” (Mayrhofer et al., 2021, p. 2). Parsimony is another feature of science that implies that explanations and answers should be simple (MacLin, 2020).
Fourth, a scientific experiment should be replicable and properly ordered (MacLin, 2020). Researchers in this field try to use models, employed by natural science that requires formulating a hypothesis, making observations, collecting data, and concluding about the accuracy of the initial theory (de Ruiter & Albert, 2017). Overall, these four characteristics distinguish psychological science from lay opinion or philosophy.
Research Designs for Various Psychology Studies
As the name implies, experimental psychology studies the mind on the groups of participants, utilizing different methodologies. Research in this field ranges from memory and emotions to childhood traumas; hence, various studies require a specific experimental design. For instance, studies related to the influence of emotional context on memory formation and retention were done on animals and humans using modern imaging techniques (Wixted & Thompson-Schill, 2018). Indeed, imaging tools allow identifying the exact brain regions associated with a particular type of learning in specific circumstances. The importance of basolateral complex in fear learning was demonstrated through electrical stimulation and pharmacological studies in rodents (Wixted & Thompson-Schill, 2018).
Furthermore, these experiments allowed to determine the benefit of sleep for memorization (Wixted & Thompson-Schill, 2018). Moreover, human studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed amygdala activation in response to obnoxious auditory stimuli or carbon dioxide induction (Wixted & Thompson-Schill, 2018). However, even seemingly perfect methodology may have flaws, resulting in slight inaccuracies and imprecision. It appears that measuring such complex phenomena as human thoughts and behavior is a challenging task that requires the fragmentation of an abstract idea into smaller measurable elements.
The Significance of Experimental Discipline for the Development of Modern Psychology
Exploration and findings in the field of experimental psychology were not only critical for helping individuals with various emotional issues but also allowed to understand social attitudes and behaviors. Indeed, according to Bishop (2020), “this line of work has had significant application to economics, politics, business studies, and law” (p. 3). In fact, many corporations were able to influence the decision of the target groups and increase sales of their products.
Comprehending the psychology of unlawful acts was also crucial for the legislative system. Moreover, politicians were able to extract valuable data to find levers for winning voters’ trust. Overall, experimental psychology laid the foundations for psychological science and other related fields, making their definitions and therapy of this discipline more evidence-based.
Modern psychology appeared due to introducing the features of a science to it. Furthermore, this field brought structure and sophisticated equipment to psychology, monitoring and recording subjects’ behavior and responses (Hearst, 2019). For instance, brain electrodes, electroencephalography, computers, and imaging techniques allowed for substantial advancement of this area (Hearst, 2019). Indeed, technology helped understand the neuroscience behind human emotions and behavior, allowing psychologists to develop evidence-based diagnostic and treatment methods. However, any experimental model in science requires appropriate adjustments and a proper selection of parameters. For example, one of the most frequent problems in psychological studies is the limited sample size which is the obstacle for attaining randomization effect and increasing confounding factors (Singmann & Kellen, 2019).
Therefore, researchers had to develop ways to optimize their calculations to these factors by doing regression analysis. Specifically, the most popular one is the mixed model, which controls small sample sizes and interdependencies (Singmann & Kellen, 2019). Still, psychological scientists continue to struggle with the same problems as other research fields, including bias in data analysis and reporting.
Challenges in Experimental Psychology
Like any scientific discipline, experimental psychology has some cognitive constraints. For instance, psychologists may be amenable to confirmation bias, over-reliance on a plan, lack of statistical power, and asymmetrical reasoning (Bishop, 2020). First, confirmation bias is a tendency to choose literature, patterns, and results that support the preferred hypothesis (Bishop, 2020). Indeed, if an influential figure introduced a false theory, most researchers strived to find justification for it. Still, according to Bishop (2020), scientific approaches are more probabilistic rather than true or false. Hence, many modern studies prefer to suggest that one event is statistically more likely than another.
The second problem is reliance on the initial experimental design, which leads to the omission of data not mentioned in the original schemata (Bishop, 2020). Third, insufficient statistical power due to small sample size is a widespread issue in psychological studies (Bishop, 2020). The fourth problem is asymmetric reasoning which refers to hiding and underreporting findings that are difficult to articulate (Bishop, 2020). Nevertheless, these issues can be resolved through critical reasoning and practice.
Another problem in experimental psychology that demands particular attention is poor replicability. This issue is crucial because the reproducibility of studies is one of the four primary features of science. This issue seems to appear from pressure in the academic world to publish in reputable journals with high impact factors (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019). However, these journals only publish novel studies with positive results; therefore, researchers may adjust their studies to make their papers appear compelling for publication, engaging in questionable research practices (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019).
Another cause of inadequate replicability of some experiments is the lack of transparency which means that “researchers approach a scientific investigation as if their methods were a secret recipe” (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019, p. 18). Concealing methodologies and actual results creates an obstacle for psychological science to improve because the peer-review process becomes useless.
Overcoming Challenges in Psychological Science
Despite the fact that some challenges exist in scientific studies, researchers identified ways of minimizing these issues. The most effective strategy to eliminate errors in experimental psychology is professional training (Bishop, 2020). Indeed, deliberate practice and proper knowledge lead to the formation of intuitive thinking in a particular research field. For example, providing simulation games and instructional videos to young scientists decreases the chances of fallacy in their future experiments (Bishop, 2020).
Another approach is applying statistical software to predict potential outcomes with the provided parameters, diminishing the likelihood of misconceptions and incorrect calculations (Bishop, 2020). Lastly, critical evaluation of a theory, design, and results by a group of researchers or external experts is a constructive method to improve the quality of a study (Bishop, 2020). Introducing these strategies into psychological science will ensure honest and precise interpretation of study outcomes.
The problem of the inability to replicate scientific experiments in psychology should be solved collectively. In fact, journals should encourage researchers to submit preliminary data before publishing the final paper (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019). Indeed, more than 1000 international peer-reviewed journals approved guidelines for raising transparency and openness in science (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019). Another approach is to accept articles with negative results because these studies can also contribute to the field, enriching available knowledge about a specific area related to the human mind and behavior. Since psychological science experiences replication crisis, transforming the perception of the importance of negative outcomes in laboratory experiments, encouraging openness, and developing tolerance to failed experiments can minimize this issue.
Postmodern Psychological Science
Although the scientific method made a substantial contribution to the development of modern psychological science, it seems that this approach is outdated. Indeed, the supporters of the postmodern perspective in psychology claim that dissecting the brain into scientific concepts is incorrect because human behavior is more complicated than activation of neural circuits (Mayrhofer et al., 2021). The three arguments postmodernists use to show deficiencies of experimental science are a diversity of cultures, inadequacy of old beliefs, and existence of diverse social perspectives (Mayrhofer et al., 2021).
Moreover, this new stream emphasizes the importance of language and communication in understanding the motives behind human behavior (Mayrhofer et al., 2021). However, all these reasons are excessively abstract; thus, they cannot be implemented to invalidate the existing scientific methods.
Despite the opposition to experimental psychology methods, postmodernism is not the opposite concept to science because it, like science, questions the validity of every theory. Furthermore, according to Mayrhofer et al. (2021), “thinking more along postmodern lines in psychology would actually sharpen the theoretical and conceptual basis of experimental psychology” (p. 10). Notably, psychologists often have to explore abstract ideas and viewpoints before formulating a scientific theory and starting a laboratory study. Since modern psychology utilizes scientific tools and considers vague statements, it can be viewed as a hybrid discipline of precise experiments and philosophy.
Major Philosophical Issues in Experimental Psychological Science
Since psychology used to be a branch of philosophy before it adopted the experimental approach and was recognized as a separate entity, philosophical issues associated with this discipline are long-established. In fact, the first opposition appeared between rationalist philosophers, like Descartes and Spinoza, and empiricists, like Hume and Locke (Robins et al., 2019). The former stated that knowledge develops from reasoning, while the latter claimed that it appears from senses (Robins et al., 2019).
On the other hand, Kant denied the existence of psychology in both of these perspectives because he believed that it could never become precise enough to be considered science (Robins et al., 2019). The philosophical issues raised by Kant include exactness, psychic units and measurements, and introspection (Robins et al., 2019). Before modern experimental psychology was established, psychologists ignored these questions for a long time. These issues were minimized after adopting scientific methods to explore and measure human thoughts and behavior.
The subsequent two problems are caused by the fact that researchers are also human beings, which means that they have a tendency for irrational behavior and bias. Therefore, scientific society should develop measures to control this behavior (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019).
Moreover, critique of objectivism seems to question the legitimacy of the scientific community to resist bias in research. This movement claims that “a commitment to objectivism does not remove bias or values from research,” but obscures “the fact of biases and values under the cloak of objectivity” (Wiggins & Chrisopherson, 2019, p. 23). It suggests that bias is impossible to eliminate from experimental psychology; hence, aiming for an unbiased approach will inevitably leave blind areas in a study. Thus, it is better to admit that all studies are influenced by human factors and maintain a healthy skepticism about any hypothesis, experimental design, and its results.
Another critical philosophical question associated with experimental psychology is whether an unconscious exists. The most popular proponent of the unconscious was Sigmund Freud, who claimed that he tried to convince in his works that it is natural (Robins et al., 2019). The primary method he used to prove his argument was hypnosis, which allows one to interact with a person who remains unaware of what he was doing during such session (Robins et al., 2019).
Furthermore, Freud distinguished instincts from unconscious thoughts because the former was not mental states. Moreover, experimental studies were later conducted to measure this phenomenon and demonstrate different angles of it (Robins et al., 2019). For instance, American neuroscientists Benjamin Libet showed in his studies that thoughts are generated unconsciously in people’s brains before free will makes a decision (Robins et al., 2019). However, his works received an equivocal opinion from other researchers, who described his manuscripts as “one of the most philosophically challenging papers in modern scientific psychology” (Robins et al., 2019, p. 686). It appears that this philosophical issue was moved to the laboratory settings to resolve this century-old dispute.
The human mind’s perception of time and place is also the subject for discussion for experimental psychologists and philosophers. In fact, modern laboratory and imaging techniques allowed scientists to understand the neurobiology behind people’s temporal and spatial perception (Robins et al., 2019). However, the followers of philosophical psychology describe time as a metaphysical experience that cannot be measured (Robins et al., 2019).
The latter argue that estimation of time and trajectory is based on an individual’s “internal psychological events” and external circumstances (Robins et al., 2019, p. 678). It is hard to deny that hours, days, and years are concepts introduced by humans. Still, science cannot be based on individual perceptions of temporality and location because there should be an average representation of a phenomenon.
In summary, experimental psychology played a critical role in formulating significant aspects of modern psychological science. Indeed, it allowed to segregate psychology from philosophy and transform it into an independent discipline. Psychology ceased to be theoretical when several German scientists of the nineteenth century started to perform experiments in this field. The essential features of experimental psychology were empiricism, parsimony, replicability, and determinism. Furthermore, researchers had to develop various standards and guidelines for laboratory experiments that over time employed more advanced technologies for measuring the human mind.
However, like other scientists, experimental psychologists faced such challenges as research bias, poor replicability, asymmetrical reasoning, excessive reliance on protocol, and low power of a study. These problems can be partly overcome by proper training, using statistical tools, increasing experimental group sample sizes, and encouraging publication transparency. Still, philosophical issues in psychology pertain because it often has to work with abstract ideas and concepts. Overall, the findings of this research field were crucial not only for patients with emotional challenges but also for understanding people’s behavior in economics, politics, business, and law.
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