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Psychology and Research Methods

Psychology is defined as the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. To study
behavior and mental processes, psychologist employ research methods that aid in their quest.
Three methods used in this field that make psychology scientific include: descriptive,
experimental, and correlational methods.

The main goal of descriptive methods is to describe the behavior or mental process being
studied. To achieve this goal, researchers may employ several descriptive methods. These
methods include: naturalistic observation, laboratory observation, case study, and survey. When
using naturalistic observation, researchers observe a behavior or mental process in a natural
setting. Laboratory observation is similar to naturalistic observation in that it too uses
observation as it’s many way of gathering information, however, the observation occurs in a
laboratory setting. One reason to use laboratory observation is because it provides more control
over the behavior or mental process being observed. Case study is used primarily to study
unique, uncommon, or rare behaviors and mental processes. This is used in situations where a
physician or psychologist may encounter a condition that they have never experienced before, is
new to their profession, or rare. This method can provide the basis for theories and a hypothesis
that can be tested later. Finally, the survey method is one many of us are familiar with. We
receive phone calls or questionnaires from organizations seeking our opinions, beliefs, and
experiences, sometimes for marketing purposes or political reasons, and sometimes we are asked
to complete satisfaction questionnaires in hospitals, schools or restaurants. When using the
survey method, researchers must first determine who their population is, or the group of interest
to researchers, which is also those individuals to whom the findings will be generalized. Since
the population may be quite large, it may be impossible to survey all individuals, so researchers
select a sample or a small portion of the population who is surveyed and from which
generalizations are made. Finally, since the sample may not be a mirror image of the population,
we may need to refine the sample a bit more, therefore we need a select a representative sample.

The main goal of the experimental method is to explain the conditions under which a given
behavior or mental process occurs. This enables the researcher to state the causes of the behavior
or mental process they are studying. Therefore, in the experimental method we attempt to
establish that a cause-effect relationship exists. Experiments are meant to test a hypothesis about
the causal relationship between variables being tested in the study. These variables are called the
independent and dependent variables. The independent variable is a factor that is manipulated to
determine its effects on another behavior or condition. This behavior or condition is referred to
as the dependent variable and is measured at the end of the study. Sometimes the dependent
variable is referred to as the outcome of the study. Research participants are randomly assigned
into 2 groups. These groups are referred to as the experimental group and the control group. We
need the control group as a point of comparison. Sometimes the control group is given a placebo
to help control for the placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs because sometimes participants
respond according to their expectations of the study and not to the independent variable. Other
problems that may occur include experimenter bias, in which the experimenter’s expectations
influence the subject’s responses.
Finally, the correlational method is the research method that analyzes data in order to predict the
methods or conditions in which a behavior or condition may occur. It also analyzes data in order
to discover the relationships between variables (other than cause and effect). When using this
method, researchers use a correlational coefficient to analyze the data gathered. The correlation
coefficient is a numerical value that enables the researcher to determine the kind of relationship
that exists (positive or negative) and the strength or weakness of that relationship (.01 to 1.00).
When using the terms positive or negative in regard to the correlational method, we need to
change our thinking and understanding of those terms. Most of us think of the term positive as
something that is good, more, or better and the term negative as less, worse, or bad. But when
discussing the correlational method, the term positive means a kind of relationship in which the
variables move in the same direction, either up or down. An example of a positive relationship is
the more one smokes, the greater their risk for lung cancer, the less one smokes, the lower their
risk for developing lung cancer. You may want to point your thumbs in the same direction when
understanding this concept. A negative relationship, is one where the variables move in opposite
directions. For example, the more one exercises, the lower their cholesterol level, the less one
exercises, the higher their cholesterol level. Again, in this situation point your thumbs in opposite
directions. There is an inverse relationship between variables.

One other issue that is important regarding research, is the use of ethical guidelines. Researchers
are required to follow guidelines to ensure the safety of their human subjects. Therefore, prior to
beginning the study, all participants are required to sign an informed consent. If they do not sign
this form, they cannot participate. Also, we must be truthful with our participants regarding the
purpose of the study. If we are not, and we use deception, we must debrief or discuss with our
participants the purpose of the study at completion.

The field of psychology is very grateful to Wilhelm Wundt, how developed the first
psychological laboratory in 1879 in Leipzig, Germany. We are studying psychology as an
academic discipline due to his hard work. Amongst the perspectives in psychology are the
biological, neuroscience, psychoanalytic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, evolutionary, and
sociocultural perspectives. Each perspective brings a unique understanding to the scientific study
of behavior and mental processes.