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Psychological research

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Psychological research

Psychological research refers to research that psychologists conduct to research and analyse the experiences' and behaviours of individuals or groups. Their research can have educational, occupational, and clinical applications.


See also: History of psychology, Timeline of psychology

Philosophical foundations

See also: Philosophy of mind, Philosophy of psychology

Ethical considerations

Main article: Human subject research, Animal testing


Psychologists use many research methods, and categorical distinctions of these methods have emerged. Methods can be categorized by the kind of data they produce: qualitative or quantitative—and both these are used for pure or applied research.

Psychology tends to be eclectic, applying knowledge from other fields. Some of its methods are used within other areas of research, especially in the social and behavioural sciences.

Experimental methods

Main articles: Experiment, Experimental psychology

The field of psychology commonly uses experimental methods in what is known as experimental psychology. Researchers design experiments to test specific hypotheses (the deductive approach), or to evaluate functional relationships (the inductive approach).

The method of experimentation involves an experimenter changing some influence—the independent variable(IV)— on the research subjects, and studying the effects it produces on an expected aspect—the dependent variable (DV)— of the subjects behaviour or experience.[1] Other variables researchers consider in experimentation are known as the extraneous variables, and are either controllable or confounding (unavoidable).

Confounding variables sometimes produce unexpected and unreliable results. For example, the psychologist Seymour Feshbach conducted an experiment to see how violence on television (the independent variable), affected aggression in adolescent boys (the dependent variable). He published his results in a paper called Television and Aggression in 1971. The paper showed that, in some cases, the lack of violence on television made the boys more aggressive.[2] This was due to a confounding variable, which in this case was frustration.[3] This means that extraneous variables are important to consider when designing experiments, and many methods have emerged to scientifically control them. For this reason, many experiments in psychology are conducted in laboratory conditions where they can be more strictly regulated.

Alternatively, some experiments are less controlled. Quasi-experiment's are those that a researcher sets up in a controlled environment, but does not control the independent variable. For example, Michael R. Cunningham used a quasi-experiment to "...measure the physical in physical attractiveness."[4] On the other hand, in field experiments the experimenter controls the independent variable, but does not control the environment where the experiment takes place. Experimenters sometimes apply fewer controls, as away to lessen potential biases. In a true experiment, participants are randomly chosen to remove the chance of experimenter's bias.[5][6]

See also, Natural experiment

Observational methods

Observational research, (a type of non-experimental, correlational research), involves the researcher observing the ongoing behaviour of their subjects.[7] There are multiple methods of observational research such as participant observations, non-participant observations and naturalistic observations.[7]

Leon Festingers, publication of When Prophecy Fails, (1964 edition.) In this book he published research that relied on participant observations.[8]

Participant observations are methods that involve a researcher joining the particular social group they are studying. For example, the social psychologist, Leon Festinger and his associates, joined a group called The Seekers in order to observe them. The Seekers believed they were in touch with aliens, and that the aliens had told them the world was about to end.[8] When the foretasted event didn't happen, Festinger and his associates observed how the attitudes of the group members changed. They published their results in a 1956 book called When Prophecy Fails. David Rosenhan in 1973 published a journal that involved research by participant observations.[7] see: on being sane in insane places.

The other method of observational research is non-participant observation. In particular naturalistic methods are methods that simply study behaviours that occur naturally in natural environments—with no manipulation by the observer.[9][10] The events studied must be natural and not staged. This fact gives naturalistic observational research a high ecological validity.[7] During naturalistic observations, researchers can avoid interfering with the behavior they are observing by using unobtrusive methods,[11] if needed.

Both types of observational methods are designed to be as reliable as possible. Reliability can be estimated using inter-observer reliability,[12] that is, by comparing observations conducted by different researchers. Intra-observer reliability means estimating the reliability of an observation using a comparison of observations conducted by the same researcher. The reliability of conducted studies is important in any field of science.[13]

For a statistical perspective of reliability, see also Reliability (statistics).

Descriptive methods

All scientific processes begin with a description based on observation. Theories may develop later to explain these observations[14] or classify associated phenomena.[15] In scientific methodology, the conceptualizing of descriptive research precedes the hypotheses of "explanatory research".[16]

An example of a descriptive device used in psychological research is the diary, which is used to record observations. There is a history of use of diaries within clinical psychology.[17] Examples of psychologists that used them include B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) and Virginia Axline (1911–1988). A special case of a diary in this context, that has particular importance in development psychology, is known as the baby biography,[18] and was used by psychologists such as Jean Piaget.

Other recording methods can include video or audio. For example, forensic psychologists record custodial interrogations to aid law enforcement.[19]

Case studies

A case study—or case report—is an intensive analysis of a person, group, or event that stresses developmental factors related to the context. Case studies may be descriptive or explanatory. Explanatory case studies explore causation to identify underlying principles.[20][21] However, there is a debate to whether case studies count as a scientific research method. Clinical psychologists use case studies most often, especially to describe abnormal events and conditions, which are particularly important in clinical research.[22] Sigmund Freud made extensive use of case studies to formulate his theory of psychoanalysis.

Famous case studies include: Anna O. and Rat Man of Freud's Genie, who is one of the most severe cases of social isolation ever recorded,[23] and Washoe, a chimpanzee who was the first non-human that had learned to communicate using American Sign Language.[24]


Interviews and questionnaires intrude as a foreign element into the social setting they would describe, they create as well as measure atti- tudes, they elicit atypical role and response, they are limited to those who are accessible and who will cooperate, and the responses obtained are produced in part by dimensions of individual differences irrelevant to the topic at hand. Webb et al—Unobtrusive methods: Nonreactive research in the social science (1966).

Bradburn et al. (1979) found a tendency for survey respondents to over- report socially desirable behaviours when interviewed using less anonymous methods.[25]

Psychometric methods

Archival methods

Cross-sectional methods

Longitudinal methods

Cross-cultural methods

Cohort methods

Computational methods

Unobtrusive methods

The term unobtrusive measures was first coined by Eugene Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, and Sechrest in a 1966 book, Unobtrusive methods: Nonreactive research in the social science,[26] in which they described methods that don't involve direct induction of data from research subjects. For example, the evidence people leave behind as they traverse their physical environment is unobtrusive. Unobtrusive methods get around biases, such as the selection bias and the experimenter's bias, that result from the researcher and his intrusion. Consequently, however, these methods reduce the researcher's control over the type of data collected.[27]

Web and others regard these methods as an additional tools to use with the more common reactive and intrusive methods.[26]

See also


  • Stangor, Charles. (2007). Research Methods for the Behavioral Sciences. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Weathington, B.L., Cunningham, C.J.L., & Pittenger, D.P. (2010). Research Methods for the Behavioral and Social Sciences. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  1. ^ Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Random House, Inc. 2001. Page 534, 971. ISBN 0-375-42566-7.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b c d
  8. ^ a b Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, & Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the End of the World (University of Minnesota Press, 1956).
  9. ^ Cherry, Kendra. "What Is Naturalistic Observation?". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  10. ^ "Psychology 202Q Lab: Naturalistic Observation". University of Connecticut. Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  11. ^ "Naturalistic Observation". Retrieved 15 May 2011. 
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^,articleId-25309.html
  15. ^ Babbie, Earl.1989. The Practice of Social Research. 5th edition. Belmont CA: Wadsworth
  16. ^ Shields, Patricia and HassanTajalli. 2006. Intermediate Theory: The Missing Link in Successful Student Scholarship. Journal of Public Affairs Education. Vol. 12, No. 3. Pp. 313-334.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Springer 1995, The Role of Emotions in Social and Personality Development: History, Theory, and Research Volume 1 of Emotions, Personality, and Psychotherapy
  19. ^
  20. ^  
  21. ^ Robert K. Yin. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Fourth Edition. SAGE Publications. California, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4129-6099-1
  22. ^ Christensen, L. B. (1994).“Experimental methodology"( 6th ed).,Simon & Schuster:Needham Heights, MA. ISBN 978-0-205-15506-4.
  23. ^ Reynolds, Cecil R., Fletcher-Janzen, Elaine, ed. (2004). Concise Encyclopedia of Special Education. John Wiley and Sons. p. 428.  
  24. ^ Livingston, John A. (1996). "other selves". In Vitek, William & Jackson, Wes. Rooted in the land: essays on community and place. Yale University Press. p. 133.  
  25. ^ Norman M Bradburn et al Improving interview method and questionnaire design. The University of California: Jossey-Bass, 1979
  26. ^ a b Webb, Eugene J. et al. Unobtrusive Measures: nonreactive research in the social sciences. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966
  27. ^
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