Research Methods: Data

Features of Science

Objectivity and the empirical method: Psychologists should aim to be objective in their work. This means not letting their personal biases affect the results of studies. The research method which tends to be the most objective is the laboratory experiment, as the impact of variables is closely controlled. The empirical method refers to using observable evidence to draw conclusions and propose theories.

Replicability: This is the ability to repeat psychological studies in order to check that the findings are reliable. This is an important aspect of science, as it means that the findings can be repeated at different times, in different places, with different participants. If similar results are seen each time, the results are generalizable, and the validity is strengthened.

Falsifiability: The philosopher Karl Popper (1934) argued that in order for a theory to be truly scientific, it must be falsifiable- in other words, be possible to be proved wrong. It is very difficult to prove that something is true but it is possible to prove something is false. Popper used the example of swans. If the theory is that all swans are white, then no amount of observations of white swans would ‘prove’ this, as there might be a black swan out there that hasn’t been observed. Therefore, the researcher should try to find the black swan. If one is found, the theory is false, and would need to be modified. Theories which survive repeated attempts to prove it wrong can be accepted as being very likely to be true. They can never be fully ‘proved’, which is why researchers would not say that the results of a study ‘prove that’ a theory is correct.

Theory construction and hypothesis testing: A theory is a set of general laws or rules to explain events or behaviours. A theory might be put forward about a particular aspect of behaviour, such as memory, social influence or attachment behaviour. This forms the basis of a hypothesis- a testable prediction of what will happen in a research study investigating the theory. Once the study is conducted, the hypothesis can be accepted or rejected, leading to acceptance of the theory or modification of the theory. This process is known as deduction.

Paradigms and paradigm shifts: A paradigm is a particular set of assumptions or a generally accepted way of thinking within a subject or discipline such as science. Philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1962) suggested that psychology and other social sciences are not scientific, as they do not possess a single paradigm- they have a number of competing assumptions (for example, the various approaches to psychology each emphasise a different explanation of human behaviour). Subjects such as biology on the other hand do have an accepted set of assumptions, which according to Kuhn makes them truly scientific. Kuhn also said that every so often a paradigm shift takes place, where a new way of thinking takes over. This happens once enough evidence emerges to challenge the current paradigm. An example of a paradigm shift would be when Einstein’s theory of relativity changed the accepted assumptions within physics.

It could be argued that, despite Kuhn’s views, psychology does have a paradigm- for example, the acceptance of the scientific method to test theories- and has gone through paradigm shifts- for example Wundt’s structuralism, to behaviourism, to the cognitive neuroscience model being dominant in the subject. In addition, science itself is characterised by internal conflict, so may not have a paradigm of its own.

Research Methods: Data, figure 1

Is Psychology a Science?

Arguments in favour include:

  • Theories are based on empirical evidence.
  • Empirical evidence sometimes produces unexpected results, showing that psychology is more than just ‘common sense’
  • It has arguably gone through paradigm shifts.
  • Theories developed have led to treatments for abnormal behaviours, which have greatly helped people.

Arguments against include:

  • The methods used in psychology are prone to bias, for example demand characteristics from participants.
  • It may not be possible to produce universal laws in psychology, as research studies will be drawn from samples which might not apply to all
  • Some psychological theories are not directly testable (cognitive, evolutionary, psychodynamic explanations) so can’t be objectively measured.
  • There are a number of competing explanations and theories for human behaviour- there is not one accepted paradigm.

Reporting Psychological Investigations

When psychologists publish research, it is validated by other psychologists (peer review) and becomes part of the permanent scientific record. Psychological reports are formal documents that are composed of a series of sections. Each section is governed by conventions which allow for the information to be conveyed clearly, precisely and effectively:

  • Title: this will determine who reads the full report. It should be as concise as possible, yet at the same time it should be informative. Anyone reading the title should know exactly what the report is about.
  • Abstract: a brief (150-200 words) summary of the report. If a psychologist finds the title to be useful the next step is for them to read the abstract. This is a concise summary of the study covering the aims/hypothesis, method/procedure, results and conclusions.
  • Introduction: designed to introduce the reader to the topic area and background to the study. This is made up of the relevant theories and past studies/research relevant to the research question. This allows the reader to place the study in context. This will then allow the researcher to introduce the actual study and to explain the ideas behind it before going into the specific research hypotheses.
  • Method: this section will describe how the study was conducted. It should have enough information to allow for replication. This serves two important functions. If the method cannot be replicated, then the findings cannot be checked to see if they are (1) reliable and (2) valid. This section should include the design, participants, apparatus/resources/materials, pilot study (if applicable) and procedure.
  • Results: will report the findings of the study clearly and accurately. It may report the findings in words, or use visual interpretations of the data in the form of graphs, tables, and so on. It usually also includes the results of inferential analyses to determine whether results are significant.
  • Discussion: this section begins with a summary of the findings of the results before going on to offer explanations of the behaviours observed and may also consider the implications of the research and make suggestions for further research.
  • References/Bibliography: complete details of all research documents, journals, internet resources and books that were mentioned and used for additional background research. An example of how this might appear for a book used would be:
  • Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and Human Behaviour. New York: MacMillan
  • The format therefore is: Author (Year). Title of Book. Place: Publisher
  • Appendices: comprised of a copy of all resources/materials used within the study, raw data and statistical calculations.

Research Methods: Data, figure 1

Identify and outline the sections of a psychological report. (6 marks- 2-3 paragraphs)
Your answer should include: Title / Abstract / Introduction / Method / Results / Discussion / References / Appendices