How Science-Oriented is Psychology?

By Michael Anestis, M.S.

What does science have to do with it?

Clinical psychology is a field full of individuals who share a common desire: to help those suffering with mental illness reclaim their lives. This shared goal, however, is one of the few ideas on which nearly all clinical psychologists agree. One particularly contentious issue is the role of science in our conceptualization of and treatment of mental illness. Some share my belief that our best path toward understanding and successfully treating mental illness is vigorous scientific study. Others believe that science is not capable of answering the questions that bring clients to their offices.

Does the science and psychology debate impact you?

If you are considering a career as a psychotherapist, science will hopefully guide your choice of:

  • Assessment tools to utilize when first meeting with clients.
  • Treatments to use once you have reached a diagnostic decision.
  • Evaluation methods to determine how effective your treatment plan is.

Over the past several decades, research has helped us determine whether particular treatments are more effective than others in addressing certain issues. For example, a number of studies have demonstrated superior results for dialectical behavior therapy for borderline personality disorder, exposure and response prevention for obsessive compulsive disorder, and family-based treatment for adolescents diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Some of the other major scientific discoveries impacting psychology today:

  • Improved understanding of the risk factors for suicide through the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior (Joiner, 2005)
  • Mountains of research demonstrating that individuals engage in a variety of harmful behaviors (e.g., non-suicidal self-injury, binge eating and purging, risky sexual behavior, aggression) due to difficulties regulating their emotions and the immediate relief from such emotions that these behaviors sometimes offer (e.g., Nock & Prinstein, 2004; Smyth et al., 2007).
  • Potential benefits of mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments for a variety of mental health issues (e.g., Hayes, Masuda, Bissett, Luoma, & Guerrero, 2004)

As a clinical psychologist, you will need to be able to read scientific journal articles, learn to interpret statistical data, understand the strengths and weaknesses of particular studies, and then find the appropriate training to bring yourself up-to-speed on the most cutting-edge treatments.

How can you get more involved in psychology research?

Maybe you're interested in becoming a researcher instead of or in addition to working as a psychotherapist? In that case, you'll work to develop treatments, push the field forward through the publication of your studies, and train the next generation as a teacher or an advisor for graduate students. To accomplish this goal, you will need to find a program that conducts research in your area of interest and has relevant faculty members who are taking new graduate students.

Generally speaking, PhD programs in clinical psychology value and teach research more so than PsyD programs; however, this is not always the case. I firmly believe an education centered on science is vital for anyone pursuing psychology, but the bottom line is no matter where your interests lie, it is important that you investigate potential programs closely to make sure they are the best fit for your goals.

References:

Joiner, T.E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hayes, S.C., Masuda, A., Bissett, R., Luoma, J., & Guerrero, L.F. (2004). DBT, FAR, and ACT: How empirically oriented are the new behavior therapy technologies. Behavior Therapy, 35, 35-54.

Nock, M.K., & Prinstein, M.J. (2004). A functional approach to the assessment of self-mutilative behavior. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 885-890.

Smyth, J.M., Wonderlich, S.A., Heron, K.E., Sliwinski, M.J., Crosby, R.D., Mitchell, J.E., & Engel, S.G. (2007). Daily and momentary mood and stress are associated with binge eating and vomiting in bulimia nervosa patients in the natural environment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75, 629-638.

Michael is a doctoral candidate in the clinical psychology program at Florida State University, under the advisement of Thomas Joiner, Ph.D. His research is primarily focused on emotion dysregulation and suicide. He is currently completing his residency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center under the guidance of Matthew Tull, Ph.D., and will serve as a post-doctoral fellow with the Military Suicide Research Consortium beginning in August 2011. Michael is also the co-founder of Psychotherapy Brown Bag (http://www.psychotherapybrownbag.com), a website that seeks to educate readers on the role of science in understanding and treating mental illness.