Perceptions of Psychology as a Science: The Effect of Citations within Introductory Textbooks

By Collisson, Brian; Kellogg, Jeff et al. | North American Journal of Psychology, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Psychology as a Science: The Effect of Citations within Introductory Textbooks


Collisson, Brian, Kellogg, Jeff, Rusbasan, David, North American Journal of Psychology


In a Los Angeles Times article, psychologist Timothy Wilson (2012) described his experience being a scientist at the University of Virginia. Wilson stated,

"Once during a meeting at my university, a biologist mentioned that he was the only faculty member present from a science department. When I corrected him, noting that I was from the Department of Psychology, he waved his hand dismissively, as if I were a Little Leaguer telling a member of the New York Yankees that I too played baseball."

Unfortunately, Timothy Wilson is not alone. In a global study of psychologists and physicists, psychology was perceived as less scientific and its core content less agreed upon than physics (Howell, Collisson, & King, 2014). The extent to which psychology wishes that its field had more scientific prowess is referred to as "physics envy," or more appropriately named "hard science envy" (Clarke & Primo, 2012; Fish, 2000).

Psychologists are rightfully defensive about the scientific nature of their field. In recent years, psychology has been scrutinized for its cases of fraud (e.g., Diederick Stapel, Dirk Smeesters, and Lawrence Sanna, 2014), study of non-scientific phenomena (e.g., extrasensory perception, Bem, 2011) and difficulty replicating its findings (e.g., automaticity, Bargh, 2011). In response, psychologists have defended their field's scientific nature in a variety of newspaper (e.g., Wilson, 2012), magazine (e.g., Carter, 2012), and journal articles (e.g., Asendorpf et al., 2013).

Psychology's reputation as a science may depend on the way it is first introduced in introductory psychology textbooks (Morawski, 1992). Introductory psychology textbooks play a key role in presenting psychology as a science. Each psychological finding is supported by in-text citations (Gorenflo & McConnel, 1991; Griggs, Proctor, & Cook, 2004) which subtly remind readers that psychology is indeed a science supported by research. (1)

Psychology's reputation as a science may (counter intuitively) be related to its over use of citations within textbooks (Smyth, 2004). Unlike the hard sciences, psychology presents its findings as empirical statements nested within a larger literature (Smyth, 2001b). This includes in-text citations which reference specific researchers and the presence of at least one supportive research study.

Some have argued that frequent use of citations may invite skepticism about its scientific nature (Smyth, 2004). A reader may question a finding because a citation was needed to support it (Smyth, 2001a; 2004). If a statement was so scientifically sound and largely agreed upon (e.g., the Earth is round), there would be no need for a citation. The author could let the statement stand alone without having to convince the reader that it is true. This is how scientific findings are typically presented in the hard sciences (Smyth, 2001a, 2001b, & 2004). One may argue that psychology's frequent use of citations causes readers to question whether the cited study was replicated by others, scientifically sound, or generally agreed upon by experts in the field.

On one hand, psychology may draw less skepticism regarding its scientific nature and agreement if it included fewer citations. Indeed, introductory textbooks in the hard sciences contain few citations, yet they are perceived as more scientific than psychology (Smyth, 2001a, 2001b, 2004). On the other hand, psychology is still a burgeoning field and does not yet view itself as a canonical science (Howell, Collisson, & King, 2014). Perhaps, psychology would be best to cite excessively and therefore highlight its scientific nature and agreement upon its findings.

To test whether citations act as a cue for psychological science, the current research assessed people's perceptions of psychology after reading a brief passage from an introductory psychology textbook which contained zero, a regular amount, or an excessive amount of citations. …

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