Research in Psychology



This section explains why psychologists use scientific research methods, and the goals and methods associated with science. This page will help you understand where the information in the other pages "comes from." Or in other words, this is how we psychologists know what we know.

Why Use Scientific Research Methods?


Psychologists use scientific research methods in order to understand people's feelings, actions and thoughts. We do this for several reasons. Scientific research, if done well, gives us a relatively objective perspective of the object we are studying. Although some people use science to buttress their own personal beliefs and biases, the process of doing scientific research includes several check-points built in to guard against a person's reaching conclusions that are not warranted. For example, when a scientist seeks to publish the results of a research project, the project is reviewed by the editor of a journal and several other experts, who check to see that the work meets the standards of the discipline. They also examine the project to see that people were treated fairly, and that any conclusions that are made are reasonable.

Another advantage of scientific research is that it is performed under public scrutiny. That is, the methods of the research as well as the conclusions are published in a fairly complete report. This enables other researchers to examine the methods and check them for biases or errors that may have contaminated the conclusions that were reached. In this sense, science is a very public way of gaining knowledge, which makes it easier for all people to benefit from knowledge gained using scientific methods.

It also allows for what is called "replication." This is when one scientist conducts research, and others repeat it to see if they get the same results. In this way, scientists confirm each others' results. Replication of research is a very powerful way that scientists can refine their understanding of something.

Goals & Methods of Science


Scientists are like other people: we are curious about why things are the way they are. We want to know why things happen, so that we can predict it in the future or perhaps change things so that somethingbetter happens. This is true whether we are studying plants or people.


There are different levels of questions that scientists want to answer. One way of thinking of them is by asking ourselves how well we understand the thing that we are studying. The most superficial level of understanding begins with a basic question, such as "What is a educated person like?" or "What are the similarities and differences between educated and non- educated people?" This is basic in the sense that we need to be able to answer "what" before we go on to answer a "when" or "where" question. Likewise, we need to be able to say when and where people are educated before we have a reasonable chance of understanding why people are educated. So, if we list these questions in order of the depth of understanding that they convey, we would have something like this:

 	When? or Where?		


Associated with each of these questions are goals that we wish to accomplish. When we ask "What," we are trying to describe the object of our study. "When" and "Where" are the questions we ask when we seek to predict something. These goals all prepare us for the most interesting goal of all, understanding the phenomenon we are studying. Again, we begin with simpler goals, such as description, so that we can later predict and eventually understand the object we are studying. Adding these to our chart, we get a picture something like this:

 	What?			Describe	
 	When? or Where?		Predict		
 	Why?			Understand	


What are the methods that we use to achieve these goals? Scientists use measurements in order to describe something. If you wanted to describe a person, you might measure their height (about 6 feet), weight (175 lbs.), and maybe count the number of hairs on their head. Similarly, if you we wanted to measure someone's level of education, you might find out how many years of schooling they have had or what specific courses they may have taken. Of course, these would be simple measurements, but they give you an idea of what the person is like.

Measurement is an important step in psychology because we need to do it well in order to achieve our goals of predicting and understanding the thing that we are studying. In order to predict something, we use a statistical technique called correlation. In correlation, we measure two variables and see how they relate to one another. (For example, tall people tend to weigh more than short people weigh. Height is correlated with weight.) In the case of the educated person one such relationship is that people who have attended formal schooling frequently tend to have a higher degree of literacy.

Correlations such as this give us a better understanding of what we are studying, but they don't tell us everything that we want to know. For example, the correlation doesn't tell us whether one{years of schooling ) causes changes in another thing (level of literacy). On one hand, it might be that people attend school because it is required of them . On the other hand, people might attend school because they want to learn. It might even be the case that some third factor is causing both school attendance the level of literacy. Correlational research doesn't help us explain why two things are related--it only tells us that they are related.

In order to understand why things happen, we need to do an experiment. Simply put, an experiment is when you change one thing in order to see how it affects another thing. The key to a good experiment is that there is only one thing that is different between the various groups in your study. For example, if you want to find out how how a particular course might influence a person's literacy, you might have one half of the people in your experiment take a particular course , and give the other another course. Then, you might give them an objective test to see what differences occur. If people who took a particular course gained significantly in some literacy test the and those taking another course did not then you can conclude that a particular course influenced a groups literacy . Of course, this is a very simple example, but it illustrates the basic process.

So, now we have completed the table illustrating the questions, goals and methods that scientists use:

 	What?			Describe	Measurement
 	When? or Where?		Predict		Correlation
 	Why?			Understand	Experimentation


Let's summarize this. Scientists ask several levels of questions. We do this because we have different goals in mind, and we use various methods in order to achieve these goals. We begin by asking the most simple questions, describing the object we are studying. Next, we measure several things so that we can see how they are associated with one another. This tells us if we can predict one thing by knowing another. After we are able to predict, we conduct experiments so that we can better understand why things are the way they are.

This process should be guided by a theory, a kind of map of the way things work. One theory might be that religion leads people to help others. With this as our theory, we make a prediction that people who read the parable of the good Samaritan will be more likely to donate their time to the local homeless shelter than do people who do not read the parable. We conduct the experiment, carefully recording the amount of time that each person donates to the homeless shelter. Next we compare the amount of time people in each group donated. We use statistics to help us determine whether one group, on average, donated more time than the other. And finally, we evaluate our theory in light of the experiment. If the results of the experiment are consistent with the theory, we gain confidence in the theory. If they are inconsistent, we look carefully for flaws in the experiment, and for flaws in the theory. This might lead us to modify the theory, and repeat the experiment to see if we get consistent results.



Psychologists use scientific research methods in order to describe, predict, and understand people's religious behavior and thoughts. We use scientific methods because they are reasonably objective, public, and can give repeatable results. Scientific research progresses best through experiments because they allow us to test our theories. Ideally, we begin with a theory about why things happen, and conduct an experiment to test the theory's usefulness. If the results support the theory, we gain confidence in it. If they fail to support the theory, we search for flaws in the experiment and in the theory that might account for the results. Experiments are important to science, and until experiments become more common in all areas of psychology we will have a relatively superficial understanding of human thought and behavior.