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Study Notes

Issues & Debates: The Scientific Approach and Determinism


Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Science is heavily deterministic in its search for causal relationships as it seeks to discover whether X causes Y, or whether the independent variable causes changes in the dependent variable. For example, in Loftus and Palmer’s (1974) research, they manipulated the verb used in the critical question (IV), to measure the effect on the participant’s estimate of speed (DV). In Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment, he manipulated the condition in which the children were exposed (aggressive role model, non-aggressive model and no role model) to examine the effect on the behaviour of the children.


Even in the natural sciences, it is now accepted that there is no such thing as hard determinism. This type of determinism seemed more appropriate in the 18th and 19th centuries when most physicists believed they would eventually be able to make very precise and accurate predictions about everything relevant to physics. However, discoveries in the 20th century suggested they were unduly optimistic. For example, according to chaos theory (Hilborn, 1994), very small changes in initial conditions can produce major changes later on. Theoretically, the flap of a butterfly’s wing in one part of the world could ultimately change the whole weather system in a different part of the world. Such a chain of events doesn’t lend itself to prediction, and so it is impossible to show that an approach based on hard determinism is appropriate.

While experiments are keen to establish causation, where X causes Y, they typically discount or minimise the importance of extraneous variables that have not been controlled. Furthermore, experiments often make sweeping generalisations about human behaviour and don’t acknowledge that at a different time, in a different place, our behaviour may not be influenced by X. There are so many variables that influence human behaviour that it is impossible to control them effectively.

Finally, according to Baumeister (2009), psychological causality as revealed in psychology laboratories is arguably never deterministic. Statistical tests show the probability that something occurred by chance. This means that our entire statistical enterprise is built on the idea of multiple possibilities rather than a single cause.

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