Is Psychology STEM?

August 16, 2023
Nehemiah Markos
James Garcia Alver

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or “STEM,” if you’re lazy, is an umbrella term for disciplines like physics or chemistry, the “hard” sciences. Well, for some people – not us of course – all science is hard, even the “soft” ones. But we’re not here to talk about difficulty, we’re here to talk about respect.

Many fields of study have attempted to elevate themselves to the role of a “science” throughout the years. The central bank of Sweden donated to (bribed?) the Nobel Foundation in 1968 to create a prize in economics in 1968. The field of political philosophy rebranded as “political science” in the late 19th century, a newfangled fad that our founder’s alma mater of Harvard has chosen not embrace until it can prove its longevity. Several different academic disciplines that might traditionally have been considered part of the “humanities” are now united under the umbrella of the “social” sciences. In some cases, like archaeology, it is abundantly clear how a field fits into the framework of rigorous scientific inquiry. In other cases, the line between the humanities and the sciences can be harder to draw. Some fields incorporate scientific methodology or standards of evidence in some ways, but by their very nature must rely on subjective analysis or philosophical reasoning when drawing their conclusions. This helps explain the need for a delineation between the social sciences and the humanities, but it also shows how some fields of study might meet the criteria for being named a social science without necessarily being deemed STEM.

So what exactly is it that allows a social science to sit at the cool kids’ table with the other STEM fields? Many social sciences sit on the border between STEM and non-STEM, and some dip their feet in both without clearly belonging in either category. But others are unequivocally part of the STEM universe. A look at one such field in the latter situation, psychology, offers a glimpse at what exactly makes science, science.

Psychology may not be predominantly concerned with numbers (hence the “softness”), but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the same level of respect as any other discipline that adheres to the core principles of science. Psychology is a complex and multifaceted field that delves into the intricacies of human cognition, actions, and emotions. While it may not always be immediately associated with STEM, it undeniably qualifies due to its scientific methodologies, empirical research, and incorporation of and contribution to technological advancements that have shaped our understanding of human behavior and mental processes. So before you discredit dear psychology, take a look at the facts, and if you only stick around for the cute psychology memes, we can deliver on that too. 

Scientific Methodology and Empirical Research, or SMER (no one calls it that)

At their core, STEM disciplines rely on the scientific method, a systematic approach to gaining knowledge through observation, experimentation, and analysis. Think of it like a religion except it makes sense and it solves problems. And psychologists are no less devoted to these tenets than any other scientist. They adhere to this rigorous methodology, employing a wide range of research designs and methods to study human behavior and cognition. 

Psychologists conduct controlled experiments, longitudinal studies, surveys, and observational research to investigate questions related to personality, learning, memory, perception, “why aren’t they texting you back,” and various psychological disorders. (One of those was a test to make sure you’re paying attention; also, they’re just not that into you.) They collect and analyze data using statistical tools and models to draw valid conclusions and make evidence-based claims about human behavior, just as scientists do in other STEM fields. In fact, psychology was one of the first to even apply these techniques; we’re not new to this, we’re true to this.

Technological Advancements in Psychology (TAP here for another silly little meme)

The digital age has brought about revolutionary advancements in data collection and analysis, making psychology increasingly reliant on technology. It’s almost as if technology has permeated literally every aspect of our lives and psychology isn’t an exception. Gasp. The use of sophisticated brain imaging techniques such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalography, try saying that five times fast) allows researchers to examine brain activity in real-time, unraveling the neural underpinnings of human thoughts and emotions. Gigantic multimillion dollar machines aside, even our phones are getting attuned to psychology. 

Furthermore, the advent of virtual reality (VR) has opened up new possibilities for experimental research. VR enables psychologists to simulate complex social situations and environments to understand how individuals react and interact without resorting to potentially unethical methods like those employed by the Stanford’s psychology department during the infamous prison study or the much maligned techniques utilized by Aperture Science. Don’t take it from us, take it from the National Institute of Health. From computer-based cognitive assessments to cutting-edge software for analyzing large datasets, technology is integral to modern psychological research. And just as technology continues to expand and improve, so does the field of psychology.

Interdisciplinary Connections

What? Did you think psychology existed in a vacuum without strong connections to other STEM disciplines or contributing to a vast array of interdisciplinary research? Did you not realize, for instance, that neuropsychology explores the neurological basis of behavior, forging links with neuroscience? Or that cognitive psychology investigates mental processes, often collaborating with computer science in developing artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms? What? Do you want another real world example? How about health psychology and how it intersects with medicine and biology, studying the psychological factors that impact physical health and vice versa? The interdisciplinary nature of psychology allows it to contribute significantly to solving complex real-world problems and advancements in other STEM fields. What? Oh, you knew that already? Okay, great, moving on then. 

Practical Applications in STEM-related Areas (or PAST’A, I’m getting hungry and losing steam)

I almost wrote “losing STEM” there just to give you an idea of how tiring it can be to defend a discipline that is so clearly deserving of the title. Don’t worry we’re almost done. Beyond theoretical research, psychology has tangible applications that contribute to various STEM-related fields. One particular subfield called human factors psychology focuses on designing systems, products, and environments to enhance human usability and performance. This area collaborates with engineering, ensuring that devices and technologies are intuitive and user-friendly. And finally, industrial-organizational psychology intersects with business and management, using psychological principles to optimize workplace productivity, employee well-being, and organizational efficiency. These practical applications illustrate just how psychology contributes directly to the enhancement and improvement of STEM-related areas.

Psychology, the scientific study of human behavior and cognition, undeniably qualifies as a STEM discipline. Its adherence to rigorous scientific methodologies, empirical research, and innovative technological advancements align it with other traditional STEM fields like chemistry, biology, and physics. Through its interdisciplinary connections and practical applications, psychology enriches our understanding of human nature and contributes significantly to addressing real-world challenges across various STEM-related domains. As we continue to uncover the complexities of the human mind, psychology's rightful place within STEM will only grow stronger, fostering a more comprehensive and holistic approach to understanding the world around us as well as within. And there you have it, if you’re still not sold, I don’t know what else to tell you.

So if psychology is STEM, does that mean everything is STEM? Has this exercise undermined the purity of science? From a certain point of view, maybe. But from another, more accurate point of view, of course not. STEM fields can be identified by their adoption of scientific methodologies, their embrace of testable and falsifiable theories, and their incorporation of the principles of empirical evidence. Plenty of things are STEM under this paradigm, but plenty of things still fall outside of the STEM umbrella. Film criticism? Not STEM. Football? Not STEM. Alchemy? Believe it or not, also not STEM, no matter what that Isaac Newton guy tries to tell you.

But STEM is still a much broader category than many people give it credit for. Some have even argued that the materials science and structural elements of art qualify it as a STEM field, or in the estimation of its proponents, STEAM. This is a claim Hello SciCom will not be evaluating in light of the incident. Nevertheless, it is clear that a wide range of human activities can be understood within the lens of STEM. And as a science communications creative consulting company (SCCCC, just kidding I’m not introducing a new acronym this late in the blog post), we’re going to write about all of them. You’re probably going to hate our upcoming articles about architecture, computer science, business, and kinesthesiology. Yeah that’s right, even kinesthesiology is STEM. Go cry about it to your therapist