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How Algorithms are Used in Psychology

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  • 0:00 Definition of an Algorithm
  • 0:54 Algorithms Versus Heuristics
  • 1:28 Algorithms in Psychology
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Algorithms are step-by-step logical procedures that, if followed faithfully, always produce an accurate result. In this lesson, we will discuss how algorithms are used in psychology.

Definition of an Algorithm

Imagine for a moment that you are lying in your bed, the room is completely dark, and you suddenly can't remember where the bathroom is located. How would you find the bathroom? One approach might be to apply an algorithm, which is a step-by-step logical procedure that leads inevitably to an accurate answer. First you get out of bed. Then you make a decision: which direction to walk? You reach a wall. Which direction to turn? You find a doorway. Sooner or later, you find the bathroom.

Algorithms are logical procedures that can ensure that you get where you're trying to go. They tend to be thorough, carefully designed, and complete. They include logical steps and decision points, allowing every element of a test or procedure to be considered.

Algorithms Versus Heuristics

The problem with algorithms is that they can be very inefficient. Heuristics are action-oriented mental shortcuts that use what we know and are familiar with to try something, hoping for a positive response. They can save a lot of time, because we don't usually need a complex and comprehensive procedure for the various actions we take in our lives. You could use a carefully designed algorithm to determine the most efficient path to the bathroom, but heuristics allow you to merely take the most familiar route to that same location, which solves the same problem and takes less time.

Algorithms in Psychology

Psychology is an applied science that involves the study of the human mind and how it affects human behavior. It depends heavily upon experiments, or tests designed to establish rules and principles regarding how human minds work. Psychologists will observe the way humans behave by talking to them, listening to them, and watching them under various conditions. They'll apply algorithms to test for each possible variation in an experiment. They may use heuristics to try things, but they will generally use algorithms to establish exact conclusions.

For example, suppose that you are afraid of spiders, and you want to know if seeing images of spiders would cause that fear reaction within you. You don't think so, but you want to be sure. So you collect a series of spider slides, and you implement an algorithm to do a batch test. You will end the test if you have a fear reaction to a picture, or if you run out of spider pictures.

Algorithms are often applied to psychological analyses because the nature of an algorithm means that the psychologist can have confidence in the results. Verification of symptoms, consistency of effects, and effectiveness of treatments can all be determined and recorded through the use of specific algorithms.

Let's first look at the verification of symptoms. People who are struggling with depression, anxiety, or some similar difficulty often don't know what conditions create the emotional response within them. They just know that they often feel depressed or anxious. Although a therapist might have some ideas of the kinds of factors that might be creating the subject's response, an algorithm (somewhat like the spider slide example earlier) will provide a comprehensive set of steps toward verifying the conditions that are causing the depression or anxiety effects. The therapist would use an algorithm to systematically test a complete set of possible stimulants, both external and internal, to determine which causes are the culprits.

Now, let's look at the consistency of effects. One of the problems with any sort of troubleshooting is that the symptoms may be elusive. For example, you might decide that your fear of spiders is caused by webs, which cause a feeling of suffocation or entrapment. You sometimes shudder when you get near a spider web, and you're convinced that webs are your problem.

Well, you're off cleaning house one day and you wander into a little-used room, sweeping the spider webs and dust aside without a thought, and then it strikes you! The dozens of spider webs you just swept aside caused no fear reaction! So where is the problem? An algorithm could be used to establish the consistency of your reactions, providing a complete set of tests that would identify supporting contextual or environmental conditions that are impacting your responses.

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