Introduction to Approaches to Research

What you’ll learn to do: describe the strengths and weaknesses of descriptive, experimental, and correlational research

Three researchers review data while talking around a microscope.

If you think about the vast array of fields and topics covered in psychology, you understand that in order to do psychological research, there must be a diverse set of ways to gather data and perform experiments. For example, a biological psychologist might work predominately in a lab setting or alongside a neurologist. A social scientist may set up situational experiments, a health psychologist may administer surveys, and a developmental psychologist may make observations in a classroom. In this section, you’ll learn about the various types of research methods that psychologists employ to learn about human behavior.

Psychologists use descriptive, experimental, and correlational methods to conduct research. Descriptive, or qualitative, methods include the case study, naturalistic observation, surveys, archival research, longitudinal research, and cross-sectional research.

Experiments are conducted in order to determine cause-and-effect relationships. In ideal experimental design, the only difference between the experimental and control groups is whether participants are exposed to the experimental manipulation. Each group goes through all phases of the experiment, but each group will experience a different level of the independent variable: the experimental group is exposed to the experimental manipulation, and the control group is not exposed to the experimental manipulation. The researcher then measures the changes that are produced in the dependent variable in each group. Once data is collected from both groups, it is analyzed statistically to determine if there are meaningful differences between the groups.

When scientists passively observe and measure phenomena it is called correlational research. Here, psychologists do not intervene and change behavior, as they do in experiments. In correlational research, they identify patterns of relationships, but usually cannot infer what causes what. Importantly, with correlational research, you can examine only two variables at a time, no more and no less.

Watch It: More on Research

If you enjoy learning through lectures and want an interesting and comprehensive summary of this section, then click on the Youtube link to watch a lecture given by MIT Professor John Gabrieli. Start at the 30:45 minute mark and watch through the end to hear examples of actual psychological studies and how they were analyzed. Listen for references to independent and dependent variables, experimenter bias, and double-blind studies. In the lecture, you’ll learn about breaking social norms, “WEIRD” research, why expectations matter, how a warm cup of coffee might make you nicer, why you should change your answer on a multiple choice test, and why praise for intelligence won’t make you any smarter.

You can view the transcript for “Lec 2 | MIT 9.00SC Introduction to Psychology, Spring 2011” here (opens in new window).

Learning Objectives

  • Differentiate between descriptive, experimental, and correlational research
  • Explain the strengths and weaknesses of case studies, naturalistic observation, and surveys
  • Describe the strength and weaknesses of archival, longitudinal, and cross-sectional research
  • Explain what a correlation coefficient tells us about the relationship between variables
  • Describe why correlation does not mean causation
  • Describe the experimental process, including ways to control for bias
  • Identify and differentiate between independent and dependent variables


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