Human behavior is the result of many, many factors. Biological, environmental, and social factors are often at play. Our individual capacity for choice is also a significant aspect of why we behave the way we do. But predicting how and why human behavior occurs and explaining the nature of human behavior are both very difficult tasks because human behavior is both unpredictable and subjective. However, mathematical psychology seeks to overcome those barriers to develop empirically and statistically based predictions about how people behave.
What is Mathematical Psychology?
At its core, mathematical psychology is the study of behavior through the lens of mathematics. Mathematical psychologists use formulas, statistics, and other mathematical tools to predict how humans will act in given situations and on specific tasks. Closely related to psychometrics, which uses mathematics to predict the behavior of populations in general, mathematical psychology seeks to predict behavior on an individual level.
Another feature of mathematical psychology is that it attempts to bridge the gap between quantifiable formulas for predicting qualitative human behavior. To do so, mathematical psychologists seek to develop hypotheses that are more focused and precise. Doing so helps them yield empirical validations that are also far more focused, precise, and credible.
What Does a Mathematical Psychologist Do?
Unlike many disciplines in psychology, in which psychologists work with clients to overcome emotional, mental, behavioral, or social issues, mathematical psychologists exclusively conduct research. There is no work done in a clinical setting, rather, mathematical psychologists spend their time developing and testing theories in a laboratory setting.
The primary function of mathematical psychologists is to develop and test theories of human behavior that are quantifiable. These calculable theories explore a variety of areas related to human behavior, from perception and cognition to problem solving and memory to neuroscience and the processes by which humans learn. Because these theories must be measurable, they take the form of computational models, simulations, or mathematical equations.
For example, a mathematical psychologist interested in studying human memory might devise an experiment in which subjects are asked to participate in a memory task, such as viewing an array of cards which are then turned over, and then being tasked to match pairs of cards based on their recall of the cards’ positioning. A mathematical psychologist would collect data on the subject’s performance, such as the number of tries it took them to correctly remember the location of each card.
From there, the mathematical psychologist would devise a formula to gauge and explain the decision-making processes involved in card selection. Statistics would also be used to explain the efficacy of the subject’s memory. Using data such as this, a mathematical psychologist would develop a clearer picture of human behavior, in this case, in terms of both decision-making and memory.
Why is Mathematical Psychology Important?
Mathematical psychology is important because it informs us about the processes that underlie psychological functioning, including decision-making, problem-solving, attention, memory, and other important cognitive processes. This information can then be used by a number of professionals to improve a variety of services, develop more effective educational programs, and inform the development of improved psychological testing.
For example, marketing professionals can use data from mathematical psychology to predict how consumers will respond to an advertising campaign, and thus develop ad campaigns that are more effective. Likewise, educational professionals can use data collected by mathematical psychologists to devise tests, curricula, and other educational products that are more effective in delivering content and assessing students’ understanding of that content.
Mathematical psychology is also important because of its influence on psychological experimentation. Statistics are what psychologists use to determine whether their treatment is helpful or if its success is due merely to chance. Having this insight means psychologists in all disciplines within the field have cold, hard facts upon which to base their theories and future testing.
What are the Career Opportunities for Mathematical Psychologists?
As mentioned above, mathematical psychologists work exclusively in research. But the topics on which they conduct research are widely varied, and, as a result, there are many different career possibilities for someone trained in this discipline.
Naturally, psychological research is a primary area in which mathematical psychologists work. Research might be conducted in an academic setting, at a private research institution, or for a government agency. Common psychological research topics run the gamut from motor performance to social interactions to cognitive reasoning.
Mathematical psychologists can also use their expertise to conduct research in other sectors. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and computer science are emerging areas in the technology sector that benefit from the statistical and experimental expertise of mathematical psychologists. Neuroscience is likewise an area in which there are robust possibilities for mathematical psychologists to apply their research knowledge.
Many mathematical psychologists also work in academic settings to teach. In this capacity, mathematical psychologists would preside over a schedule of courses, usually a mixture of undergraduate and graduate classes, on a variety of psychological topics. Primary among the teaching duties for mathematical psychologists are courses related to experimental psychology, cognitive psychology, psychometrics, and statistics.
What Careers are Similar to Mathematical Psychology?
Mathematical psychology is closely related to several other disciplines within psychology that share a focus on testing, measuring, and predicting human behavior.
Quantitative Psychology – Quantitative psychology is the most closely related career area to mathematical psychology. Essentially, quantitative psychology studies the means by which human behavior can be measured. It incorporates much of the same mathematical and statistical underpinnings of mathematical psychology and seeks to explore statistical models that can be used to predict behavior.
Psychometrics – Another closely related career to mathematical psychology, psychometrics focuses on developing objective tests measure people’s thought processes and mental capacities. As in mathematical psychology, there is a strong emphasis on developing a means by which human behavior can be quantified and predicted.
Experimental Psychology – Like mathematical psychology, experimental psychology is focused on observation and experimentation of human behavior. There is likewise an emphasis on developing and testing quantitative theories of human behavior, although unlike mathematical psychology, experimental psychology also deals with qualitative data collection and analysis.
Cognitive Psychology – Cognitive psychology is the study of how humans obtain, store, and process information. Memory, perception, and neuroscience are primary areas of study, just as they are in mathematical psychology. Also like mathematical psychology, cognitive psychology seeks to collect and analyze data to predict human behavior.