We use research methods to find out information about the world. We try to collect information that will help understand our world a bit better. The alternative is to make information up- just guess why things happen; but this is less likely to help our understanding.
The first way to find out things is to look at what is happening around you - and record it. To start with we tell a story about what we see and then we try to put things into categories. This is the process of observation; we all use it in everyday life to make sense of our world. This intuitive method of “research” has been developed by psychologists to increase our knowledge of the world. Sometimes they record things that are usual in everyday life, such as people’s behaviour in a library, and sometimes they record unusual things that are rarely experienced, such as response to emergencies.
The main subject for psychological research is the behaviour and experience of people, and if you want to know what someone thinks, feels or does the first thing to do is to ask them. This gives us first hand accounts called self-reports. These are excellent sources of data, but not necessarily accurate. We are not always the best witnesses of ourselves, because we forget what we did or want to put over a good impression of ourselves, or because sometimes we just don’t know why we do things.
As we build up our evidence (from observations and self reports) we start to develop theories which we want to test to see if they are right or not. For example observations of autistic children led to the theory that children with this condition had a specific deficit in their way of interpreting the world. The study by Baron –Cohen et al. tested this theory using the “eyes task” that examines how accurate we are at reading emotion in another person. They compared the judgement of people with autism against the judgements of other people. Psychologists use experiments to see if one factor (in this case autism) causes a difference in behaviour (in this case difficulty interpreting emotion). These results can then be used to challenge or support theories.
Some issues can be explored by looking at differences between groups while others are better by looking for associations between scores. For example, we might measure a person’s level of stress and also their sense of control over their behaviour (locus of control) .Our hypothesis might be that the more control we feel we have over our lives the less stress we will experience. We can examine this hypothesis using a test of correlation.
We shall look at these four ways of collecting data and comment on the relative strengths and weaknesses of them in the next few units.
Scientific research starts with theories which explain things in the world about us. For a theory to be any good it must stand up to being tested. For example, the science of phrenology was based on the idea that the shape of the brain determined personality. However this has not been supported by any evidence.
If a result is sound it ought to be possible to repeat it. It is not possible to get the same result again it raises a question about the original study. Sometimes studies are not repeated because of ethical issues, for example Milgram’s study of obedience but still the question remains.
If we are objective then we try to remove as much bias as possible from our study (the opposite is to be subjective and personal). We can do this by using controls and by, for example, recording exactly what we observe rather than our interpretations. Freud’s study is a very subjective account of Little Han’s fears.
Psychological research doesn’t have to have direct benefit to the general public but many people think it should make a contribution to our understanding of ourselves and others. In other words it should be useful. Whatever criticisms of Milgram’s study, it has provided a useful insight into human behaviour.
Think about how you might conduct your own research, and then share your ideas with a partner in class. The topic is television adverts. The question is “What are the most effective”.
Why not use your phone or iPod to carry out some research?
You can observe people’s behaviour with an iPod; do they make less eye contact in the street? Do they hum out loud, or move in rhythm? You can experiment whether people do better at simple tasks when listening to an iPod than when not listening. Or you can compare the effects of different types of music on performance. You can make a questionnaire about iPod play lists or attitudes to people who have iPods. You might want to ask about how much people use the shuffle (compared to listening to the whole album) with some personal variable such as extraversion (look for a questionnaire on the web)
The mobile phone has pushed us to develop a whole new range of behaviours. Do people make hand gestures when they are on the phone? Why? You could compare the gestures and facial expressions of mobile phone users with the gestures and facial expressions of face to face conversation. What about asking people how and when they use it, how many texts they send, and whether they save any texts, if so, from whom? You could send the sane message to males and females and look at different answers. People love to talk about their phones so a questionnaire should be easy enough.
So get a mobile and/or iPod and start to think how you can use it for psychological investigation.
A key element of any psychological enquiry is the collection of data. This commonly, though not always, involves measuring the VARIABLE we are interested in. We don’t just want to say what something is; we want to compare it to similar things. How many? How big? How often? How strong? How unusual? These are all questions we might ask.
BUT, what do we want to ask about in psychology and what do we want to measure? Well, the big questions in psychology are?
We usually phrase the questions to focus on other people rather than ourselves, e.g. Why do people think like this?, but the same principles apply. Let’s look at these areas of human behaviour and consider how we might get data and measure them.
THINKING: How can we measure what people are thinking? We can’t see thinking although sometimes we believe we can. “I know what you’re thinking" we sometimes say, but what gives us that belief? It comes from our own observation of their behaviour: the changes in their facial expression or the pose they adopt. We can’t read their thoughts but we can make an intelligent guess about what’s going on in their heads. We can measure thinking by asking about what is going on in their heads. Some time we ask people to say out aloud what they are thinking.
FEELING: Measuring feelings is no easier than measuring thoughts. We can see some of the physical changes that emotions bring about, but as adults we are very skilled at hiding our emotions so people don’t know what we are really feeling. If you know somebody quite well you can often tell their mood by observing them. You are able to compare how they look with how they usually look, so you can spot whether their eyes look harder than usual or their jaw is set tighter than usual. When you observe these changes you are making a basic form of measurement, e.. looks more or less tense than usual. Observations like these are one way of measuring emotions. Another way is simply to ask them how they feel. We might get measures here by asking them to rate themselves on some emotion scales or respond to a standard list of questions. Thigpen & Cleckley asked their patient to look at ink blots and say what she thought they looked like; her answers were supposed to reveal her inner feelings.
BEHAVING: This ought to be an easy one to measure. We can observe what people do and what people produce, and we can record this behaviour. With thinking and feeling we have to use other measures to try and estimate the variables we are interested in, but with behaviour we can measure the thing we are studying. But that is never quite that easy because just recording behaviour is sometimes not quite enough. In the Bobo doll experiment by Bandura et al. the behaviour of the children was observed and recorded. But there is more to aggression than behaviour alone. We often give people a thump in a friendly way, but if we did the same thing in anger we might not hit them any harder but the experience would be very different. Another issue is that some behaviour is hidden from view. For example we behave differently when we are being watched to when we are alone and by definition it is impossible to observe someone when they are alone (unless we don’t tell them we're there, spying on them).
Use your common sense to suggest how you might investigate the following questions:
To understand any evidence you have to understand how that evidence was collected. You might ask the question “How do they know that”. The 15 Core studies that you will be studying illustrate a wide range of data collection techniques in psychology. As you study each of the 15 Core studies, make sure you know how the evidence was collected and then you can make up your own mind about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the methods used.