General Psychology

Introduction to Psychology & Research in Psychology

© 2009

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One of the most important things to do at the beginning of any course is to define the subject matter. Since this is a course on Psychology, this means defining what Psychology is. Although Psychology can be defined in many ways, we will define it as the science of behavior and mental processes for the purposes of this course. In Psychology, we study human beings as well as many other organisms. We observe their behaviors as well as try to figure out what is going on in their minds.

Everything we will learn in this course is based on research. The reason why we have all of these concepts and theories about Psychology is because someone conducted some research on this topic. Because we rely heavily on research, one important thing we need to know is how people conduct this research to find out all of these interesting things about Psychology. Even though there are many ways we can conduct research, research methods can generally be divided into three categories. Let's look at these three different types of research methods that people commonly use.

The first method is known as using observations in a laboratory. This is when we observe organisms in a controlled setting to see how it responds to various types of stimuli and situations. Although Psychologists study a wide variety of organisms in laboratories, the most commonly observed organisms in the field of Psychology are humans. When humans are the organisms we are observing, we typically ask them to come to a laboratory at a certain time, and instruct them to do certain types of things such as press some buttons on a machine, solve a puzzle, or complete a survey. This is how we commonly conduct experiments on people.

The second common type of research method is known as naturalistic observations. This method of research involves observing organisms in their natural everyday environment. This research method is most commonly used on non-human organisms because of ethical issues concerning research on humans. Since ethical guidelines require the consent of human participants prior to participating in any type of research, it is almost impossible to observe completely naturalistic human behavior in formal research. As you may know from your experiences, we tend to behave less naturally when we know we are being observed. Although some researchers still attempt to make naturalistic obsevations on humans after obtaining permission from the people they are examining, it is probably safe to say that the behavior being observed is never completely naturalistic.

The third and last type of research method is known as surveys and interviews. This method is usually restricted to the observation of humans because it requires the use of language. Survey is the most commonly used method of research because of its convenience. Surveys allow us to obtain information from many people in a short amount of time with relatively little effort. Though interviews are more time consuming, they allows us to obtain more information because they are usually conducted on one person at a time. Interviews often allow us to receive non-verbal responses. They also allow us opportunities to ask unique follow up questions depending on the responses made by each person being interviewed.

The information we collect using these research methods must be analyzed in some way to make general conclusions about the research question. In order to analyze this information, researchers can design their research in numerous ways. Although research can be designed in a wide variety of ways, we can categorize research design into three different groups. The first category is known as the case study. The case study method allows us to make intensive observations on one organism or event. Case studies in Psychology are usually intensive observations on one person. This type of research design is very useful to investigate rare and unique conditions such as unusual cases of brain damage as well as unusual psychological disorders.

The second type of research design is called correlational research. The correlational research design is used to examine the relationship between two or more variables. In contrast to the case study, this research design requires making observations on a large number of cases. The correlational research design not only enables us to tell whether there is a relationship between two or more variables, it also enables us to figure out the type of relationship and how strong the relationship is. Correlations can be divided into two general types. If one variable has a tendency to increase when the other variable increases, it is called a positive correlation. If one variable has a tendency to decrease when the other variable increases, it is called a negative correlation. Furthermore, various statistical calculations can be made to determine how strong the positive or negative correlation is. If there is a relationship between two variables, we can predict the value of one variable if we know the value of the other variable. The stronger the correlation, the more accurately we can predict the value of the other variable. We must remember though, that correlation does not mean causation. Even if two variables are correlated with each other, we can not conclude that one variable causes the other. This is because both positive and negative correlations can occur even if two variables are not directly causing each other. If you would like to learn more about correlations, please refer to Dr. Boeree's webpage on corrrelations.

In contrast, the third type of research design known as experimental research allows us to make conclusions regarding the causal relationships between two variables. In experimental research, the researcher manipulates one variable and then observes the effect of the manipulation on another variable, while holding all other variables constant. The variable manipulated by the experimenter is called the independent variable. The variable that is measured following this manipulation is called the dependent variable because we expect that it will depend on the independent variable. With the experimental research design, participants are randomly divided into two or more groups. This is called random assignment. The group that receives some experimental treatment that is expected to influence the dependent variable is called the treatment group or experimental condition. The group that does not receive the treatment that is expected to influence the dependent variable is called the control group or control condition. Control groups are generally used for comparison purposes. It is used to find out what would happen if we did not administer the treatment. Comparing the outcome of the treatment group to the control group enables us to figure out if the treatment had any effect on the dependent variable. If the outcome of the treatment group and the control group is different, we can conclude that the independent variable is what caused that difference. To examine whether the difference between the two groups was meaningful, there are various statistical procedures that researchers can use. These statistical procedures determine the probability that the difference between the two groups was caused purely by chance. If you would like to learn more about experimental research please refer to Dr. Boeree's webpage on experiments.

When researchers plan their project, they must also consider the ethics of their research procedure.  In any research institution (such as Shippensburg University), there is an ethics committee to make sure that the research is being conducted in an ethical manner.  Any researcher who would like to conduct research on humans, animals, and other organisms must submit their research proposal to this committee.  The reseacher may only begin the research project after this committee accepts the proposal and grants him/her permission to conduct this research.  When making this decision, this committee must weigh the potential benefits of the project against the risks that the research participants and the environment may be exposed to.  Research with human participants is the most restrictive.  There are three general rules about research with human participants:  (1) No pain can be inflicted on the participants.  (2) Before they participate, the researcher must provide a general explanation of the research study (i.e., what the research study is about, how long it takes, what will the participants be asked to do, etc.) and notify these potential participants of their rights as a participant (e.g., they may discontinue participation at any time if they begin to feel uncomfortable).  The participant must then clearly indicate that s/he understands these things and is willing to participate.  This process is called "receiving Informed  Consent from the participant."  (3) After the participant completes his/her participation, the researcher must provide a detailed explanation of what the research project was about answer any questions that the participant may have.  This is called the "Debriefing process."

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