The Scientific Approach
Welcome to the research enterprise! In this class, you will be exposed to a variety of issues in the process of conducting empirical research in the behavioural sciences. By the end of this unit, you should have enough knowledge at your disposal to read, conduct, and evaluate simple empirical research studies in the behavioural sciences and, indeed to some extent, in virtually any discipline.
If I were to ask you why you decided to take this class, most likely youÕd respond by saying "I have to!" or "ItÕs a requirement for my degree!" Ok, true, most of you are doing this because someone said you must. Perhaps the question is better rephrased as "Why are we making you take this class?" The essential answer to this is that psychology is a research-based discipline dedicated to the development of a knowledge base about human behaviour. Information about human behaviour comes to us from many sources. Words of wisdom and advice are showered upon us from parents and grandparents, from well-meaning teachers and TV commentators and religious leaders, from books, movies, stories and anecdotes, from old wives tales and pithy sayings, and from our own experience. The question becomes who do we believe? And what do we believe? What is true? What is important? The argument in psychology, as in all research-based disciplines, is that our beliefs about what is true should be based on evidence that has been accumulated by rigorous application of scientific principles. The underlying assumption is that in the long run we are more likely to be right if we base our beliefs on testable theories and factual evidence. Obviously, to accomplish this, we need research.
Some more specific reasons for conducting research:
- To Understand Psychology.
- Your understanding of the discipline of psychology will be very limited if you donÕt understand the methods by which the knowledge base is established, and the assumptions that are made when using those methods.
- So You Can Read Research.
- As a student of psychology, and perhaps later as an actual psychologist, you will want to be able to understand and apply the findings of previous research, as well as new research as it becomes available. To do so, you need to be able to make sense of scientific reports of that research. Without an understanding of methods and statistics, you wonÕt be able to do so. You should not rely on textbooks, magazines, and newspapers for that information. These sources typically only provide sketchy summaries of research findings. Furthermore, most people who write for the popular media donÕt have a good knowledge of the scientific method and thus often report research findings incorrectly or overgeneralise the findings to areas that they shouldnÕt be applied. Like it or not, if you want the real facts, you will have to find and read empirical research articles.
- So You Can Evaluate Research.
- Just because a research paper has been published, that doesnÕt mean that the research is good. The research journals where research findings are published differ widely in terms of the screening processes they use to filter the good from the bad. There are even some journals that will publish almost any research regardless of its quality, so long as you pay for it! (For example, the journals called Perceptual and Motor Skills and Psychological Reports). You need to understand research methodology in order to evaluate the existing literature and distinguish the good from the bad.
- To Improve Your Thinking.
- The process of reading, conducting, and evaluating research is very much like exercising your brain. It takes a cool, collected mind, objectivity, and critical thinking to design good studies and evaluate existing ones. As you become more and more familiar with research methods, it will become easier for you to see flaws in your own thinking or in the thinking of other people. Indeed, there is some research suggesting that learning about research methodology can improve thinking in other areas of life (see Lehman, Lempert, & Nisbett, 1988).
- Because Authority is Fallible.
- Up until very recently, and perhaps even now, you have probably relied on authority for much of your knowledge. You may have assumed that things about the world, your life, etc. are that way because someone has told you so. For example, you may be attending uni because parents or teachers that without a good education, you wonÕt find a job have told you. Perhaps this is true. But if you always trust authority without questioning it, you eventually will be led astray or otherwise manipulated into believing or acting in particularly inappropriate ways. For example, until very recently, authority told the world that boys should be circumcised at or near birth for health reasons. Now, the medical community as a whole rejects such claims and believes that many children have been needlessly and painfully circumcised. So if you followed past authority and circumcised your son, you subjected your child to pain that he didnÕt need to experience. Of course, there is a certain value to authority, particularly if that authority is justified. For example, it is still reasonable to follow the directions of your GP because he or she is educated, experienced, and typically knows what he or she is talking about, and probably knows more than you. But even authorities disagree. Knowledge of the research process will allow you to formulate your own opinions and beliefs by using the evidence available, rather than blindly trusting what others tell you. Even experts have biases and hidden agendas in the knowledge that they convey.
- To Protect Yourself From False Intuitions, Over-reliance on Your Subjective Experiences, and Quacks Who Try To Take Advantage of You.
- Many of the things that we have come to know we know because of our own experience in the world or because it just feels right. In interacting with the world, we have essentially collected our own data and, from that data, we make decisions, entertain beliefs, and formulate theories about behaviour based on our subjective experiences and evaluations of these data. But research indicates that people have many biases in how they make sense of the information available to them and this often leads them into making erroneous judgments and decisions. For example, people are very poor at assessing the degree to which things co-occur and, as a result, often end up believing in things that just arenÕt so or for which there is little supporting evidence. Furthermore, such biases and over-reliance on our everyday experiences can render us susceptible to work of charlatans who give evidence for how doing what they say you should do will result in fame, health, or riches. For example, feeling ill and getting no relief from your doctorÕs advice, you may try some special herbs or a new "cure potion" and find that, the next day, you are feeling fine. From this and perhaps other similar testimonials, you may conclude that these alternative practices work. With knowledge of the research process, you will understand why this "evidence" isnÕt sufficient to make such a claim. (For a good introductory treatment of how we often mentally goof up, see Gilovich, 1990). Additionally, many of our intuitive theories or subjective experiences contradict each other. For example, of course we know that "birds of a feather flock together." That is, people who are similar to each other tend to attract and like each other. But isnÕt it also said, "opposites attract?" Similarly, you might believe that long distance relationships just canÕt work because "out of sight, out of mind." Right? But donÕt we also know that "absence makes the heart grow fonder?" Which is correct? And in what circumstances? While you may believe you have the answers to such questions, chances are they are nothing but guesses, and probably uneducated ones based on your own intuitive theories and subjective experiences.
The message here is that we arenÕt the best users of the information that we collect as we interact with the world. We often misuse information and arrive at erroneous judgments and decisions. Furthermore, our own intuitions and common sense theories often contradict each other. Knowing that it is easy to trick a person into believing something that isnÕt true, tricksters and con men can easily manipulate us. Knowledge of the research process can help you to, if not avoid common pitfalls of human judgment, at least become aware of how we can sometimes fall into those pits.