Scientific Method in Psychology

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Psychologists and other social scientists regularly propose explanations for human behavior. On a more informal level, people make judgments about the intentions, motivations and actions of others on a daily basis. While the everyday judgments we make about human behavior are subjective and anecdotal, researchers use the scientific method to study psychology in an objective and systematic way. The results of these studies are often reported in popular media, which leads many to wonder just how or why researchers arrived at the conclusions they did.

In order to truly understand how psychologists and other researchers reach these conclusions, you need to know more about the research process that is used to study psychology and the basic steps that are utilized when conducting any type of psychological research. By knowing the steps of the scientific method, you can better understand the process researchers go through to arrive at conclusions about human behavior.

What Is the Scientific Method?

The goals of psychological studies are to describe, explain, predict and perhaps influence mental processes or behaviors. In order to do this, psychologists utilize the scientific method to conduct psychological research. The scientific method is a set of principles and procedures that are used by researchers to develop questions, collect data and reach conclusions.

What are the goals of scientific research in psychology? Researchers seek not only to describe behaviors and explain why these behaviors occur; they also strive to create research that can be used to predict and even change human behavior.

Key Terms to Know
•Hypothesis: An educated guess about the possible relationship between two or more variables.

•Variable: A factor or element that can change in observable and measurable ways.

•Operational Definition: A full description of exactly how variables are defined, how they will be manipulated, and how they will be measured.

Before a researcher can begin, they must choose a topic to study. Once an area of interest has been chosen, the researchers must then conduct a thorough review of the existing literature on the subject. This review will provide valuable information about what has already been learned about the topic and what questions remain to be answered.

A literature review might involve looking at a considerable amount of written material from both books and academic journals dating back decades. The relevant information collected by the researcher will be presented in the introduction section of the final published study results. This background material will also help the researcher with the first major step in conducting a psychology study – formulating a hypothesis.

Step 1 � Forming a Testable Hypothesis

The first step of a psychological investigation is to identify an area of interest and develop a hypothesis that can then be tested. While a hypothesis is often described as a hunch or a guess, it is actually much more specific. A hypothesis can be defined as an educated guess about the relationship between two or more variables.

For example, a researcher might be interested in the relationship between study habits and test anxiety. They would then propose a hypothesis about how these two variables are related, such as “test anxiety decreases as a result of effective study habits.”

In order to form a hypothesis, you must start by collecting as many observations about something as you can. Next, it is important to evaluate these observations and look for possible causes of the problem. Create a list of possible explanations that you might want to explore. After you have developed some possible hypotheses, it is important to think of ways that you could confirm or disprove each hypothesis through experimentation.

In the scientific method, falsifiability is an important part of any valid hypothesis. This does not mean that the hypothesis is false; instead, it suggests that if the hypothesis were false, researchers could demonstrate this falsehood.

Step 2 � Devise a Study and Collect Data

The second step in a psychology study is to select the research methods that will be used and then collect the data. The research method a researcher chooses depends largely on exactly what they are studying. There are two basic types of research methods-descriptive research and experimental research.

Descriptive Research Methods

Descriptive research such as case studies, naturalistic observations and surveys are often used when it would be impossible or difficult to conduct an experiment. These methods are best used to describe different aspects of a behavior or psychological phenomenon. Once a researcher has collected data using descriptive methods, a correlational study can then be used to look at how the variables are related.

Experimental Research Methods

Experimental methods are used to demonstrate causal relationships between variables. In an experiment, the researcher systematically manipulates a variable of interest (known as the independent variable) and measures the effect on another variable (known as the dependent variable). Unlike correlational studies, which can only be used to determine if there is a relationship between two variables, experimental methods can be used to determine the actual nature of the relationship. That is to say, if changes in one variable actually cause another to change.

Step 3 � Examine Data and Reach Conclusions (Drawing Conclusions)

Once a researcher has designed the study and collected the data, it is time to examine this information and draw conclusions about what has been found. Using statistics, researchers can summarize the data, analyze the results, and draw conclusions based on this evidence.

So how does a researcher decide what the results of a study mean? Not only can statistical analysis support (or refute) the researcher’s hypothesis; it can also be used to determine if the findings are statistically significant. When results are said to be statistically significant, it means that it is unlikely that these results are due to chance.

Step 4 � Report the Findings of the Study

The final step in a psychology study is to report the findings. This is often done by writing up a description of the study and publishing the article in an academic or professional journal. The results of psychological studies can be seen in peer-reviewed journals such as Psychological Bulletin, the Journal of Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology, and many others.

The structure of a journal article follows a specified format that has been outlined by the American Psychological Association (APA). In these articles, researchers:

•Provide a brief history and background on previous research,

•Present their hypothesis,

•Identify who participated in the study and how they were selected,

•Provide operational definitions for each variable,

•Describe the measures and procedures that were used to collect data,

•Explain how information collected was analyzed, and

•Discuss what the results mean.

Why is such a detailed record of a psychological study so important? By clearly explaining the steps and procedures used throughout the study, other researchers can then replicate the results. The editorial process employed by academic and professional journals ensures that each article that is submitted undergoes a thorough peer review, which helps ensure that the study is scientifically sound. Once published, the study becomes another piece of the existing puzzle of our knowledge base on that topic.


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