Ask an Expert: Can Human Behavior Be Studied Scientifically?

Ask an Expert Can Human Behavior Be Studied Scientifically

For our blog series Ask an Expert, we asked National University Associate Professor Paul Jenkins, Can Human Behavior Be Studied Scientifically?


Dr. Jenkins is the coauthor of Research for the Psychotherapist and seven published papers. He has worked in clinical psychology for more than 30 years with specialties in forensic psychology and mental illness. Jenkins is the regional lead of National University’s Rancho Cordova Master of Arts in Counseling Program, teaching both online and in-person classes.

The study of human behavior relies on the scientific method in the same way other areas of research do. Human behavior researchers posit theories and then design experiments to test those theories empirically.

“The scientific method is absolutely the bedrock of how people in the academic world study human behavior,” says Jenkins, adding that scientific approaches can take many forms and can interrogate many facets of human behavior. “We study human behavior through many different fields in the social sciences. What we tend to do is to choose techniques, practices, types of statistical analysis, differences in how we report our findings, and we adjust all that based on our specialty and what kind of human behavior we’re studying.”


A Brief History of Human Behavioral Psychology

Jenkins says that the science of human behavior began as a reaction to the work of Sigmund Freud. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Freud was working with human behavior in his own unique way, focusing on unconscious motivation. Freud’s view was that our eventual behavior was only a sign to the unconscious motivations driving it. In reaction to that, academic psychology in the early 20th century developed what we call behaviorism.

“What those folks said was, ‘All this psychoanalytic, theoretical mumbo jumbo is just that—a bunch of mumbo jumbo,’” says Jenkins. “They believed we should be looking at, if we’re serious academics, is what we can measure and actually prove to be true. So what can we academically, scientifically prove? We can observe behavior and we can control certain basic factors that drive that behavior. For instance, the use of reward or punishment. They simplified the whole thing down in order to make it objective, empirical, scientific. And that extended into treatment because people figured out not just how to understand behavior but to actually shape behavior, to actually change behavior.’’

Jenkins goes on to say that some efforts to apply research findings were met with a backlash from academia. “One of the first successful practical applications of psychology in the early 20th century was big business saying ‘Hey, there’s this new academic field about how to control people’s behavior.’ Big advertising firms hired psychologists to help develop ad campaigns and the kind of imagery and messaging that would be most effective in getting people to purchase products.” For many researchers, this was ethically problematic.

“It became sort of an in-house phenomenon within the field to ask whether we should really move out of academia and put this information to use in the real world,” he says.  “I think today the battle has calmed down because 99 percent of the applied use of the information is for doing good, not making money.”


Are Human Behavior Studies and Behaviorism Synonymous?

“On one level, yes,” says Jenkins. “If you’re focused specifically on behavior itself, separate from the underlying cognitive or emotional factors, then behaviorism is the root to that. On another level, if you think of the term human behavior in the wider picture, then you really need to take into account other factors: underlying motivations, cognitive factors, emotional factors. So typically if you’re talking to a psychologist and you say, ‘Hey, I’m looking at human behavior,’ most of them are probably going to be automatically thinking about a range of different factors that lead to any particular behavior. Now if you’re talking to someone within the actual subspecialty of behaviorism, then they may say, ‘Ah, you’re talking about rewards and punishments.’ So think of behaviorism as a subspecialty within the field of psychology.”


The Measurement of Intangibles

Human behavior can be studied scientifically, but the methods for doing so differ depending on whether you are investigating the behaviors or the hows and whys behind them. But even if the answer to our initial question, “Can human behavior be studied scientifically,” is yes, that doesn’t imply it can be studied easily.

“Behavior is the part of psychology that is the easiest to operationalize and study scientifically, but underlying cognition and emotion are very difficult,” explains Jenkins. “I don’t think it’s impossible to find imaginative, creative ways to measure those concepts, it’s just difficult, and it’s a great challenge to people with an interest in doing research into human behavior.”

Many of the findings in behaviorism have been made by studying other animals, such as rats, and it wouldn’t be unfair to wonder how observing non-human behavior can illuminate human behavior. According to Jenkins, the most basic mammalian responses can, in fact, be assumed to be common across species. But finding the invisible motivations behind observable behaviors challenges researchers to design highly complex tests, often questionnaires, given to large numbers of people over long periods of time.

Many of us are familiar with personality tests that place us in categories. Thinkers and feelers, expressives and technicals, supporters and controllers. We may take them online or be asked to take them in workplaces. These tests may have some value in helping us reflect on our own thinking styles, but Jenkins avoids any blanket endorsement of these tools. “A lot of people in the field of psychology are not that enthusiastic about those kinds of tests because we question the amount of research that went into their development. Really good psychology tests go through years and years of development, research, and fine tuning.”

Even more challenging to the test designer, Jenkins adds, is to remember that taking a test is itself a behavior. This means that tests need to try to take into account the attitudes of test takers while they are taking the test. “When we’re talking about tests, we’re talking about something that’s self-reported. Where someone sits down and answers questions. That’s not a direct measure of the underlying dynamic, it’s someone’s self-report of the underlying dynamic.” This means some people may answer questions based on how they want to be perceived, rather than how they truly are. To account for inaccurate self-reporting, Jenkins says researchers will sprinkle tests with questions that, if answered in certain ways, will trigger doubt about the reliability of other answers.

One of the most difficult hurdles for researchers observing human behavior is how to deal with the reality that human test subjects are always aware they are being studied and can modify their behavior—purposely or unconsciously—in response.


What Is Intelligence and How Can We Use It Intelligently?

Jenkins cites intelligence as an example of a particularly vexing phenomenon to try to quantify. “First I have to assume there is something called intelligence. Then, if I have some concept about what I think it is — what its makeup is — I have to take the next step and think, ‘How do I measure it?’ This is what we call operationalizing: taking a concept and transforming it into something that can be measured. So we develop these paper-and-pencil tests that people take and we hope that it touches on this underlying concept. But there’s enormous controversy and debate about each of those factors: about what constitutes intelligence and about the validity of the paper-and-pencil tests.”

IQ testing is also subject to another phenomenon observed in psychology called priming. When people are given certain suggestions prior to testing, their test results are likely to reflect the suggestions. Jenkins points to studies showing that if IQ test takers are told in advance that they are not likely to score highly, they actually will get lower scores than people who are not told that. This seems to tell us much less about the hard-to-define concept of intelligence — Jenkins calls it the “raw horsepower of the brain”— and much more about the link between intelligence and attitude. If intelligence scores vary according to an attitude planted in the heads of test-takers, then intelligence may not be some immutable quality, but rather an attribute that should be nurtured.

Jenkins brings up another interesting point, which is that IQ scores have steadily risen over the last few generations, and nobody is sure why. “There’s been a lot of discussion about it and some ideas floated. One is that we are getting smarter in a sense because many more people are getting a good education. But that belies one of the assumptions of intelligence testing, which is that it’s a measure of some innate quality of the brain that could not be improved by education.”

Whatever the explanation for our collective strides in IQ, educators can encourage attitudes and behaviors that lead to positive outcomes in school performance. “We’re finding that it’s most effective to give students feedback not on how smart they are, but on how hard they work. If somebody does well on an assignment, we’re advising teachers to not say ‘Oh, look how smart you are,’ but rather ‘Look how hard you worked on this.’ You want to encourage the effort.”


The Downside of Hard Data

With human behavior experiments being so difficult to design, Jenkins cautions that the quest for measurability can risk steering research efforts down paths that are less than rigorous. A study may show concrete results but that doesn’t necessarily mean the results are meaningful. Jenkins gives the example of a study done on rats who were starved for several days and then offered food on the other side of an electrified floor. The study could elegantly produce datasets comparing the voltage levels the rats were willing to endure based on the number of days starved. But as Jenkins points out, “Who cares? Obviously, if you’re starving you’re going to be more motivated to get food. This is so basic, why are you bothering to study it? Well, we’re bothering to study it because we can measure it. That becomes a distortion in the field of research.”


Future Frontiers

This is not to say aspiring researchers must plan on careers antagonizing rodents. As with other areas of scientific inquiry, technology is providing sophisticated methods to peer into the inner workings of human behavior.

Jenkins points to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) as a potentially transformative tool for localization: identifying the part of the brain that is working when it initiates actions. The limitation, of course, is that it requires people to be encased in giant and exorbitantly expensive machinery. This both limits the kinds of tasks test subjects can do and the number of labs that can afford to watch them doing it.

But Jenkins hopes technological advances will make fMRI more affordable and more portable. “That is the way things are going, and we’re going to have to get to the point that you just wear a little helmet or something.” But even that would be a suboptimal research tool, he reflects, because “the person is still aware that they’re being measured and that changes what they do.” Jenkins envisions a future of human behavior research in which a person could be fitted with a small device that can be worn long-term and forgotten about. This would collect data covering the vast spectrum of everyday human activity, and would be unbiased by the test-taker’s awareness of the test.


The Never-Ending Questioning

Jenkins assures that there will likely always be a place for people who want to study human behavior scientifically. In essence: the more we know the more we know we don’t know. “What happens is that every time you do a study and learn something, it raises then more questions to answer,” Jenkins laughs.

He also notes that since its 19th-century beginnings, the fields of psychology and behavior studies have expanded exponentially, creating specialties to suit almost any interest. “At the turn of the 20th century there were maybe about half a dozen to a dozen professional journals,” he says. “Today there are hundreds and hundreds of professional journals for every specialty you can possibly imagine. Psychology has spread its tendrils into practically every area of human functioning.”

But Jenkins reassures would-be scholars that they need not worry that the explosion of subfields has excessively balkanized academia. Rather, he says there is today an unprecedented amount of cross-discipline and multinational collaboration across the fields of psychology and indeed all the social sciences.


Practical Applications of a Human Behavior Degree

Solving the mysteries of the mind is not the only interesting option for someone who graduates with a degree in human behavior or psychology.

There are countless areas in which to put a human behavior degree to work in a fulfilling way. One possibility is in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), which is based on the science of behaviorism. This arm of human behavior science has a certification process for therapists who wish to use it in their practice. It is known mostly for its widespread use in helping people with autism, but it is used in many other ways including helping people cope with brain injuries and dementia.

The basic principles of behaviorism are also well integrated into the field of education. “Teachers are certainly taught introductory principles of behaviorism, mostly through the lens of classroom management,” says Jenkins. “In schools, especially schools with kids with behavior problems, you’ll typically have that sort of behavior management system in place. They might have something like a classroom store so that if a student exhibits positive behavior, they get points to trade in for actual things like pencils or little toys.”

Human behavior sciences are also used in the corrections system to help reduce recidivism and to evaluate when incarcerated people are ready for parole.

Knowledge of human behavior can also be used in efforts to persuade people to act in ways that improve well-being, whether their own, their community’s, or the planet’s. Examples might include encouraging people to wear seatbelts, eat healthfully, and stop smoking, or to volunteer or donate to charity, or to recycle and drive fuel-efficient cars. Political campaigns and lobbyists might wield human behavior savvy in similar ways.

The workplace is another stage on which knowledge of human behavior has a starring role. Managers and supervisors can encourage team cohesion and enhance staff productivity and motivation by skillfully applying principles of human behavior research. (National University’s Master of Arts in Human Behavior  focuses heavily on this goal.)

Those more interested in the discovery rather than the application of human behavior principles might pursue careers in research and add to the field’s ever-growing knowledge base.


What Can You Do with a Human Behavior Degree

What Can You Do with a Human Behavior DegreeWhen asked who studies human behavior, Jenkins replies emphatically, “We all study it!” Indeed, part of being human is reflecting on our behavior and interacting with others in ways we hope will bring desired results. But if you’re drawn to the kinds of careers that benefit from a comprehensive understanding of human behavior research, such as organizational management and administration, then getting a human behavior degree can help distinguish you from the competition.

National University’s Master of Arts in Human Behavior is designed to prepare students as leaders in organizations, equipping them with a command of human behavioral topics including communication theory and ethics. The program also fosters students’ personal and professional growth and lays the groundwork for those who wish to continue on to doctoral and research work.

Jenkins recommends the National program for its emphasis on research practices. “The professor who runs that program, Dr. Charles Tatum, is a master researcher and he does a fantastic job of teaching students the basics of how we study this stuff.”

Courses in the Master of Arts in Human Behavior at National University are available in person and also online, to meet the needs of students with jobs, family, or other responsibilities. Classes are taken one at a time for four weeks each, allowing for complete immersion in each topic and quick time to graduation. The program can be completed within a year and a half.

To learn how to get started on your path to a human behavior master’s degree, visit the program page for more information.