Psychology of Science



Type of instruction






Recommended in

Semester 3

Typically offered in

Autumn semester

Course description

Main Topics of the course

Scientific Thinking and its Mental Infrastructure

In the Western (academic) world scientific thinking is generally viewed as the most powerful means to tackle different problems and to find the most effective solutions for them. The ability to create good theories in order to describe and explain the phenomena is acknowledged as central to scientific thinking. Accordingly, a kind of objectivity and pure rationalism are attributed to it. But scientific thinking is neither a pure cognitive process nor does it take place in an empty space. In this chapter it is argued that scientific thinking just like any other normal every day type of thinking is to be understood as a cognitive-affective process embedded in a mental infrastructure. This thesis will be elaborated in detail. Every scientist engaged in constructing a theory (or a model or a hypothesis) starts from some kind of pre‑knowledge in order to formulate his or her first considerations concerning a scientific problem. These considerations have to be transformed into a consistent pattern so that they are amenable to further elaboration. Scientists have their own special theoretical orientation (e.g., a psychodynamic or behavioral one in psychology) which constitutes the explicit frame for their reasoning, and provides the major components which function as a guide for research. But there is something more behind the explicit theoretical orientation affecting theory building. Researchers have adopted various ways of thinking (e.g., formalistic, mechanistic, organismic and contextualist thinking), have developed basic belief systems (mindscapes, root metaphors) about how things are (e.g., man as machine or man as a living organism), have made decisions in regard to a special epistemology (e.g., objectivist or constructivist), have demonstrated preferences for a special philosophy of science (e.g., positivism, critical rationalism or hermeneutics) and its corresponding scientific methodology (quantitative and/or qualitative) and methods (e.g., observation, experiment, simulation, biography). These mental characteristics of researchers may be conceived and conceptualized as the mental infrastructure of theory building. The mental infrastructure is characteristic for the individual and reflects his or her cognitive, motivational, affective and personality characteristics. The basic argument is that every kind of theory building needs an infrastructure of this kind which, on the one hand, enables theory building, and on the other hand, constrains theory building. Thus, the mental infrastructure of theory building represents the basic ingredients of all researchers' theorizing. In this chapter an attempt is made to reconstruct these ingredients in detail and to render them explicit. This is necessary since most scientists most of the time are not aware of their mental infrastructure. Becoming aware of it may enable the investigator to recognize its impact on one's theorizing. This may be helpful for overcoming scientific dead ends and for finding new solutions to problems.

Altered States of Consciousness, Scientific Creativity, and Possible Benefits of State-Specific Knowledge

It is argued that there exists a trans-cultural natural trance capacity in every human that renders possible the experience of different states of consciousness and awareness, regardless of whether they are produced spontaneously or voluntarily. These induced altered states of consciousness often show not only dramatic alterations in subjective experiences, but also include from time to time some kind of knowledge, different from our normal day by day knowledge. Since this special kind of knowledge often appears only in altered states of consciousness, we will refer to it as "state-specific knowledge". In this lecture criticism will be levelled against the still often practised stance of interpreting knowledge produced by altered states of consciousness as trivial and unimportant. Alternatively, an approach regarding knowledge produced by altered states of consciousness with special reference to Charles Tart’s concept of state-specific sciences as a potentially meaningful resource for human development and personal growth will be presented. First, an integrative account of altered states of consciousness, states of awareness and emerging patterns of experience will be provided. After considering the manner in which people induce altered states, the various kinds of emerging experiences will be classified into a typology of knowledge patterns. Finally, the potentialities of these knowledge types to contribute to human development and personal growth will be outlined and discussed. Various experiential phenomena and types of knowledge produced by altered states of consciousness may function as important resources for human development and personal growth. Thus, the devaluation of this knowledge is rejected. It depends on the individual's ability to critically reflect on the emerging contents of consciousness and to integrate them into every life or scientific practice.

Reality Testing and Knowledge Production: A Psychological View of the Realism-Antirealism Controversy

There are two basic positions in regard to knowledge about the world and reality which can be traced as far back as the times of the philosophers of ancient Greece. On the one hand, there is the position of those who believe that there exists a way of knowing allowing an objective access to the structures of the world and reality beyond observation. On the other hand, there is the position of those who argue that no such way of ontological knowing exists. The former is known as (scientific) realism, the latter as antirealism. Both positions provide a lot of good reasons for their stance and against the contrary one. From a philosophical point of view the disputation seems to be held on a pure rational level. However, empirical evidence shows that in (scientific) reasoning emotional factors are always involved and that pure rationalism is nothing but a big myth. Starting with a psychological analysis of human reality testing ability as an important adaptation principle in every day life, an attempt is made to identify the implicit emotional factors underlying scientific reasoning and co-determining the preferences for epistemological positions.

World Views and the Meaning of Truth: Dogmatic versus Hypothetical Interpretations

Every human being needs a kind of orientation to cope with the challenges of life. This general frame, the subjective world view helps to bring order into the complexity and variety of events and things. With regard to the individual’s world view two basic differences may be distinguished. On the one hand, more and more people become able to recognise that their personal world views have to be understood as mental constructions offering different accesses to reality, and that there doesn’t exist a last absolute kind of truth which can be grasped rationally. On the other hand, more and more people tend to become convinced that their personal world views (e.g., political or religious belief systems) represent the absolute truth. This kind of polarisation can be observed all over the world, in all cultures and societies and leads to conflicts or even wars. It is argued that the preference of dogmatic or hypothetical world views with respect to the meaning of truth cannot be understood in a poor rational way. In this lecture an attempt is made to reconstruct the underlying generating mechanisms being responsible to produce and maintain dogmatic or hypothetical meanings of truth.

Systematic Self-Reflection for Scientists: Transformations of Belief Systems

Every scientist needs some kind of philosophical orientation to guide his or her research intentions and projects. This orientation is based on some fundamental assumptions about the world and its phenomena. Assumptions of this kind, often called root metaphors, are considered to be largely implicit. Thus, most scientists are unaware of their basic belief systems in regard to science. Various authors have stressed the function of these belief systems as structuring and simultaneously limiting research and theory construction. With respect to scientific creativity researchers are advised to take an interest in transcending their mental scope, gaining new insights into problems and finding new solutions for them. Since root metaphors are below the level of conscious awareness it is necessary to make some special effort or apply a specific method to render them explicit. Such a method, systematic self-reflection, will be presented in this paper. Systematic self reflection is regarded as a special way to tackle important areas of science systematically, characterized by intentionality and regularity. Following a survey of the theoretical background, the rationale of systematic self-reflection will be discussed, thereby focussing on its goals ("What should be reached via self-reflection?"), contents ("What should one reflect about?") and formal aspects ("How should one reflect?"). Finally, possibilities and limits of systematic self-reflection are considered.

The Anti-Science Phenomenon: Psychological Roots of Risky Developments Concerning Science

In recent years we have been witnessing various movements attacking the position of science. These attacks originated in different domains, such as political and religious fundamentalism, esotericism, or relativism. They all share a more or less radical rejection of science emphasizing their own brand of world view as absolute truth. Some of these attacks on science (e.g., the New Age Movement) may be considered as a reaction against the extreme version of science – scientism. Viewing science as the only way of gaining genuine (true) knowledge, scientism has provoked and promoted anti-scientific movements. Unsatisfied with the position of scientism, even many students and young graduates in the Western culture have become susceptible to modern versions of superstition and pseudo-science. The obvious side-effects are the loss of the ability of critical thinking and the increase of superstitious thinking. This lecture offers an attempt to analyse and to understand these movements from a psychological perspective.

Learning outcome, competences

  • knows the most important expressions and phenomena of Psychology of Science


  • is sensitive to and interested in noticing psychological phenomena and problems;


  • creative thinking

Learning activities, learning methods
Lectures and interactive discussions

Evaluation of outcomes
Learning requirements, mode of evaluation, criteria of evaluation:


  • attendance

mode of evaluation: examination



  • Gholson, B., Shadish, W.R., Neimeyer, R.A., & Houts, A.C. (Eds.) (1989). The psychology of science: Contributions to metascience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Maslow, A. (1966). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row or Maslow, A. (2002). The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance. (eBook ed.) Chapel Hill: Maurice Bassett.
  • Feist, G. J. (2006). The Psychology of Science and the Origins of the Scientific Mind. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.