As I was looking for a topic to write this journal entry on, I stumbled upon an article called “People Are More Willing to Dismiss Evidence From Psychology Than Brain Science”. As the title indicates, the article is about the bias against psychology as being a “soft science”. As a psychology major, this caught my eye instantly. The article is based on a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology in which participants were asked to read a scenario in which a politician from the participant’s political party is in trouble for “misdemeanors”. Upon assessment, it is revealed that the politician has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For half of the participants, this diagnosis has been made by cognitive tests, and for the other half, the diagnosis has been revealed with MRI scans. Participants were then asked to rate how convincing the evidence was. The results show that 69.8% of the participants in the MRI group believed the evidence to be strong and convincing while only 39.6% of the participants in the cognitive test group did.
This is especially interesting, because in reality, Alzheimer’s is primarily diagnosed using cognitive tests, and MRI scans are used mostly to rule out other causes of dementia. But more importantly, the implications of these results are momentous, and unfortunately, not all that shocking. Studies such as this shed light on why even in this day and age, mental illness is still stigmatized. People simply don’t see psychology as a valid science. Although it is true that sometimes psychological measures can be ambiguous and subjective, reading brain scans can be even more so. In this case, the MRI is arguably more ambiguous than the cognitive test. Most cognitive scales have cut-offs based on statistics and empirical data. Brain scans, however are much more subjective. Different physicians may read the same brain scan differently.
So as psychologists, where do we go from here? Personally, I think the best bet would be to emphasize the connection between psychology and neuroscience. Many of the neurobiological bases for behavior have been identified, and a person’s behavior can tell us a lot about their brain. In many ways, psychology is a system for understanding the human brain using external cues. Focusing on these aspects of psychology will hopefully lead people to see it as a real science, which will hopefully lead to more acceptance for people with mental illnesses.
Original study: Munro, G., & Munro, C. (2014). “Soft” Versus “Hard” Psychological Science: Biased Evaluations of Scientific Evidence That Threatens or Supports a Strongly Held Political Identity. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 533-543.