Descriptive Research

There are many research methods available to psychologists in their efforts to understand, describe, and explain behavior. Some methods rely on observational techniques. Other approaches involve interactions between the researcher and the individuals who are being studied—ranging from a series of simple questions to extensive, in-depth interviews—to well-controlled experiments. The main categories of psychological research are descriptive, correlational, and experimental research. Each of these research methods has unique strengths and weaknesses, and each method may only be appropriate for certain types of research questions.

Research studies that do not test specific relationships between variables are called descriptive studies. For this method, the research question or hypothesis can be about a single variable (e.g., How accurate are people’s first impressions?) or can be a broad and exploratory question (e.g., What is it like to be a working mother diagnosed with depression?). The variable of the study is measured and reported without any further relationship analysis. A researcher might choose this method if they only needed to report information, such as a tally, an average, or a list of responses. Descriptive research can answer interesting and important questions, but what it cannot do is answer questions about relationships between variables.


Video 2.4.1. Descriptive Research Design provides explanation and examples for quantitative descriptive research. A closed-captioned version of this video is available here.

Descriptive research is distinct from correlational research, in which researchers formally test whether a relationship exists between two or more variables. Experimental research goes a step further beyond descriptive and correlational research and randomly assigns people to different conditions, using hypothesis testing to make inferences about causal relationships between variables. We will discuss each of these methods more in-depth later.

Table 2.4.1. Comparison of research design methods

Research design Goal Advantages Disadvantages
Descriptive To create a snapshot of the current state of affairs Provides a relatively complete picture of what is occurring at a given time. Allows the development of questions for further study. Does not assess relationships among variables. May be unethical if participants do not know they are being observed.
Correlational To assess the relationships between and among two or more variables Allows testing of expected relationships between and among variables and the making of predictions. Can assess these relationships in everyday life events. Cannot be used to draw inferences about the causal relationships between and among the variables.
Experimental To assess the causal impact of one or more experimental manipulations on a dependent variable Allows drawing of conclusions about the causal relationships among variables. Cannot experimentally manipulate many important variables. May be expensive and time consuming.
Source: Stangor, 2011.