Is it possible to prove a hypothesis?

A hypothesis is a statement or idea that gives an explanation to a series of observations. Therefore at first glance, one would assume that the ability to prove a hypothesis is not just possible, but a regular occurrence in psychology.

However as psychologists we know this is not entirely correct. In fact, a hypothesis can never be proved, but simply fail to be disproved. This idea comes from Karl Popper, a philosopher who brought in the idea that inherent testing of a hypothesis is what makes it scientific. For example the idea that “All swans are white” seems plausible and supported; however the sighting of one black swan disproves the whole theory.

This idea of disproving theories to develop more advanced replacements can only be done if the hypothesis is falsifiable. This is the notion that a theory can be disproved, and through this method improvements have broadened our understanding throughout psychology. An example of this is through the advances to Atkinson and Shiffrin’s multi-store model (1968) through falsification, as more recent models have shown an improvement upon it’s inadequacies (Baddeley and Hitch’s working memory model).

At the end of every research process new hypotheses are created, thus perpetuating the scientific process. This in itself can be an advantage, as it allows psychology to progress to deeper levels. However the problem arises when a theory isn’t falsifiable. An example of this is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as the vast amount of assumptions of how humans develop is based on Maslow’s interpretations. Therefore if the theory cannot be disproven, some may consider accepting it. This is not scientific as it cannot go through rigorous testing like other theories can. As Popper said, “Those among us who are unwilling to expose their ideas to the hazard of refutation do not take part in the game of science”, and for that reason they cannot be scientifically accepted.

As Einstein said “Under what conditions would I admit that my theory is untenable?” Throughout his career he would continuously put his theory on the line by stating what exactly could falsify his work, as although a hypothesis may seem certain and proven at the time, a single observation in the future can completely change that.

However to many this approach may seem extremely uninspiring, and the idea of never having an accepted hypothesis, instead one that will constantly be falsified doesn’t correspond with the success many psychologists experience due to their ideas. Skinner’s operant conditioning for example has been widely accepted throughout psychology, and although elements of his work have been improved upon by others, is it appropriate to ‘reject’ such astonishing discoveries that have lay the foundations for the behaviourist approach?

Although the idea is pessimistic, the reality is that if one was able to ‘prove’ a hypothesis, it could stilt future research that could have developed from the theory. A hypothesis should not be thought of as labour from an individual, but a development from the previous, and a foundation for the future.

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4 responses

  1. I think you made a really interesting point when you argued that proving a hypothesis would in fact stilt further progress and I have to say I agree, because there would be a danger of complacency amongst the field; if we were all to accept that a psychologist’s findings were correct and accepted their theory we would never challenge it and be in danger of ignoring or not discovering a far greater theory r revealing a fount of knowledge which would push us further into our understanding of certain fields. Does this then mean that a hypothesis is simply the favoured possibilty they wish to rule out first? Surely if this argument does have any validity we could argue that the aim of a hypothesis is to be disproved so we can rule out a certain theory or idea before researching another? I think you really did make an interesting case and I’ve definitely reconsidered by view on hypotheses.

  2. That’s an interesting point! However I think in reality psychologists set out to further their knowledge in a specific area, and the disproval of the hypothesis is an inevitable consequence in the progression of psychology. I suspect it is not one’s aim to find a hypothesis that fails, rather to identify previous faults from other studies, improve on them, then allow another to do the same to you. Although psychologists will always strive for perfection, it is unlikely it exists, and the acceptance of this is vital for critical analysis and scientific development.

  3. This was an incredibly interesting read, as I hadn’t considered -in this much detail -the problems associated with “proving a hypothesis”, and whether a hypothesis could ever be deemed true. This does revolve around the problems that Psychology, in it’s entirety, faces. I was just about to quote from Einstein, but I see you’ve already done that in your post. What about this one ?: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.”
    It certainly is valid for the points you’ve made, and it emphasis the true nature of the field. Advancement, as such, is slow – especially with the consideration of paradigms. What happens when a theory or hypothesis, regarded by many as “fact” (I loathe to use the word in this context) is overturned? A void is created, where new information is needed to fill. This topic certainly makes you think about the approaches to psychology and whether any of them can be discarded. What if all we were learning was a lie? This is psychology. We are taught to question everything and trust nothing.

  4. I have only ever touched on this idea so reading about it in this much detail was really interesting. I’ve never really pondered much over whether we can prove a hypothesis. The first thing that came to my mind when I read the title was Evolutionary theories. They can’t possibly be tested because evolution is such a gradual process, yet they are extremely important in many aspects of Psychology. For this reason, I personally see the aim of Psychological research to be disproving hypotheses, because like you said, there’s the possibility of a “black swan” in every theory or hypothesis that psychologists develop. People are hard to research because we are all unique and individual differences/cultural differences can be a problem. Until a hypothesis is disproved it will be accepted, but I believe that it is hard to find a single hypothesis for everyone.

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