In this slide from his lecture on science and research, Gabrieli presents how scientific psychology differs from common sense. (Image courtesy of John Gabrieli.)
There are many introductory courses in psychology and I’ve tried to tailor this course to people with a more scientific leaning toward understanding psychology. I feel this goes over well with the MIT students.
I think people worry in psychology that it’s really easy to assert things about how to be happy or how to be self-confident, and we can all say these kinds of things. But the culture of MIT, which the students embody, is to be a little scientifically skeptical, in a good way. What is the evidence that something is true or accurate and ought to be believed, as opposed to just somebody’s opinion?
I try as much as possible in this course to show the way that psychologists approach measurement and theory testing, and the kind of data that supports their claims, and to make it feel like a scientific exercise. If more complicated in its answers, I always feel it’s part of my task to convince students that psychology can be every bit as rigorous of an approach to understanding human nature as physics studies the atom.
We develop writing assignments where students can think about things, but they can also form their own opinion. We try to pick topics where they can take their knowledge from the course and try to relate it to real world topics. For example, are recovered memories real? Are they false? How should we think about them in legal systems? We try to get students to think about how laboratory research, which is relatively well-controlled psychology, can apply to societal concerns and problems.
We want students to really process the readings and really think though the evidence that is presented, but come to their own conclusions. We want them to try to formulate an argument based on the evidence. A danger in psychology is since so many topics are common sense intuitive points that all kinds of people have opinions about, it’s so easy to say “oh, I know it should be this way or that way” about almost any topic. These are the ideas we have coming into the course.
What we want students to do is to take their idea to start with and then carefully think about the evidence where there is objective, scientific evidence. They might come to the same intuition or conclusion they had before, or they might be influenced to think about it differently. We want students to try to use objective evidence and then relate it to their own judgment.