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2 Research Methods
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1. What are the elements of the scientific method?
2. How do social psychologists design studies?
3. How do social psychologists analyze their results?
4. How can research be analyzed in terms of quality?
Like all sciences, social psychology usually moves like snail: steady but slow. It is slow, in
part, because what social psychologists study is usually invisible—and therefore difficult to
measure. For example, prejudice, persuasion, altruism, and romantic love are all scientific
constructs, theoretical ideas that cannot be directly observed. Although the scientific
process is slow, social psychology is growing fast. It is growing fast because so many
students are attracted to Kurt Lewin’s vision of an applied science.
Perhaps social psychology’s popularity explains why so many passengers were carrying long
plastic or cardboard tubes on a recent plane ride. The plane was full of people presenting at
a conference sponsored by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), which
happens at the end of every winter. The tubes contained rolled-up posters summarizing the
most cutting-edge research in the field. This chapter describes how the professional
scientists, graduate students, and even a few undergraduates created those studies—and it
invites you to join us.
Ask the Experts: Keon West on Research Methods in Psychology
2.1 Describe how the scientific method creates knowledge.
2.2 Compare the logic behind preexperiments, true experiments, quasi-experiments, and correlational
2.3 Summarize the most common ways to analyze and interpret data.
2.4 Describe reliability, validity, replication, and ethical standards for research in social psychology.
Basic researchers: Psychologists who increase our understanding of psychology by creating and improving
the theories that predict social behavior.
Applied researchers: Psychologists who translate the findings of basic researchers into social action and
apply psychological ideas to the real world.
What Are the Elements of the Scientific Method?
— LO 2.1: Describe how the scientific method creates knowledge.
Social psychologists tend to describe themselves as belonging to one of two groups. Basic
researchers increase our understanding by creating and improving the theories that predict
social behavior. Applied researchers translate those theories into social action. Applied
research is where theory confronts reality—but with the understanding that reality always
wins. If a theory does not describe reality, then the theory has to change. Basic research is
important because, as social psychology’s pioneer Kurt Lewin famously said, “There is
nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin, 1951, p. 169). Applied research has to have a
theoretical foundation—and a “good” theory has to describe and explain the real world.
How does this balance play out in actual scientific research?
The Cycle of Science: The Scientific Method
Most of the research stories on those conference posters followed the same, easy-to-follow
formula. The scientific method is a systematic way of creating knowledge by observing,
forming a hypothesis, testing a hypothesis, and interpreting the results. Your results lead
you to generate a new hypothesis that starts the process all over again. As you can see in
Figure 2.1, it cycles endlessly through the same steps (or phases) and demands a willingness
to change your mind if the data surprise you. Even though properly following the scientific
method is sometimes a challenge, the rewards of exploring the fascinating topics within
social psychology make it all worthwhile.
Figure 2.1 In the scientific method, scientists observe the world and notice patterns, then
formulate a hypothesis. Next, they create a procedure to scientifically test their hypothesis.
After interpreting the results, the process begins again as the hypotheses become more
refined or complicated or as they are applied to a wider variety of settings or people.
There are four phases in the scientific method:
Phase 1: Observe a pattern of behavior. Imagine that you are in a coffee shop quietly
observing other customers. You notice that men frequently interrupt people during
conversations—and that seems to be especially true when their conversation partner is a
woman. Welcome aboard; you’ve started the scientific journey. Your simple observation got
you started as your curiosity prompted you to ask, Is this a pattern? (By the way, this exact
observation was tested in coffee shops and drug stores back in 1975 by Zimmerman and
West.) Phase 1 of the scientific method occurs when we observe a reliable pattern of
Phase 2: Generate a hypothesis. After you identify what looks like a pattern, you move on
to Phase 2 by generating a formal hypothesis, or a specific statement of what you believe
will happen in an experiment that tests your observation. Perhaps your hypothesis is that
men are more willing to interrupt others than women are, especially in cross-sex
interactions. In other words, you expect that (1) men interrupt more than women in
general, and (2) men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. Hypotheses are
never stated as questions (such as, “Who interrupts more, men or women?”). As we
discussed in Chapter 1, hypotheses are always falsifiable statements that can be proved
Consider the following hypotheses: (1) Every man on Earth has interrupted someone else at
least once, and (2) men have always been more likely to interrupt than women, in every
culture throughout history. Neither of these hypotheses stands up to the “falsifiability” rule
because they can’t be tested and proved wrong. The first hypothesis is untestable because it
simply can’t be done. Even a crack team of well-funded researchers couldn’t locate every
single man on the face of the planet and then observe him in an objective social setting.
The second hypothesis also can’t be falsified because there is no archive of historical records
that enables us to ask the question about every historical period for the past thousands of
Phase 3: Test the hypothesis. Now that we have a hypothesis, we set up a specific
methodology or procedure to test it. For our current example, we might observe people in
public places (like the coffee shop) in a more structured way, such as by making a
spreadsheet of all the men and women and making tallies for each time someone interrupts.
We might also ask people to come to a classroom or lab on a college campus and set them
up in groups with a certain number of men and women and then observe who interrupts
Either way, we can gather real, measurable data that will support our hypothesis, allowing
us to modify it and move to the next step, or data that cause us to throw it out. We have to
be careful, of course, not to ruin our own experiment by staring as we eavesdrop on some
innocent couple drinking coffee (later we will discuss this issue in more depth, as well as
ethics in research).
Phase 4: Interpret the results and refine your hypothesis. Notice that the final stage of
interpreting results is not the end of the road. Once we have our data, we aren’t done with
science—in fact, we’ve only just begun! The scientific method cycles back so that we can
explore our topic in more complicated and refined ways. Perhaps we found support for the
basic idea that, overall, men are indeed more likely than women to interrupt someone.
Scientific method: A systematic way of creating knowledge by observing, forming a hypothesis, testing a
hypothesis, and interpreting the results. The scientific method helps psychologists conduct experiments and
formulate theories in a logical and objective manner.
Hypothesis: A specific statement made by a researcher before conducting a study about the expected
outcome of the study based on prior observation. Hypotheses are falsifiable statements that researchers
believe to be true (see falsification).
Constructs: Theoretical ideas that cannot be directly observed, such as attitudes, personality, attraction, or
how we think.
Operationalize: The process of specifying how a construct will be defined and measured.
However, this general pattern probably varies greatly based on the people involved and the
circumstances. In other words, our results have become a new hypothesis that requires us to
begin again. Consider the following possible new hypotheses as examples:
Women with more assertive personalities are more likely to interrupt others,
compared to women with less assertive personalities.
Men are less likely to interrupt women they find physically attractive, compared to
women they don’t find attractive.
Men interrupt others more in friendly or informal settings, compared to formal
settings such as at work.
Men from cultures with more traditional gender roles are more likely to interrupt
women than are men from more egalitarian cultures.
Can you see why the scientific approach is a constantly unfolding story? That story can
only move forward if we remain as objective as possible when forming hypotheses and
interpreting results. An individual research study, like the posters at a research conference,
is a very small piece of a very big puzzle. But every step we take brings us a tiny bit closer to
understanding the complicated world of social interaction.
Creating and Measuring Constructs
Many of the things social psychologists are interested in are abstract ideas or constructs,
theoretical ideas that cannot be directly observed; examples are attitudes, personality,
attraction, or how we think. Those measurement challenges—and the passion to conduct
meaningful social research—are what has made social psychologists so creative in designing
Because constructs are abstract and sometimes relatively broad ideas, the first step in using
them in research is to operationalize your variables by specifying how they will be defined
and measured. The process is called operationalizing because you must describe the specific
operations you will perform to measure each of the variables in your study. If a researcher
wanted to investigate the construct of “love,” for example, she could operationalize it in a
wide variety of ways such as (1) scores on a survey asking people to rate how much they
love someone on a scale of 1 to 10; (2) how long they have maintained a committed,
monogamous relationship; or even (3) how much their heart rate increases and their pupils
dilate when the other person comes into the room.
The myth of Sisyphus says that he’s constantly trying to roll a heavy boulder uphill. The
scientific method can sometimes feel like an uphill battle—but progress requires constant
small steps. The top of the scientific mountain may not even exist, but moving up remains
Sisyphus by Titian, 1549
Once we’ve operationalized the variables in our hypothesis, we have to decide how to
proceed. Here are common methodologies that you’ll see in several of the studies featured
in this book. It’s not a complete list of every possible study design, but it will give you a
good idea of how social psychologists do business.
Archival data: Stored information that was originally created for some other purpose not related to research
that can later be used by psychologists, such as census data.
Types of Research
Once you’ve noticed a pattern and generated a hypothesis, there are a lot of different ways
you can set up a scientific methodology or procedure to test that hypothesis. This book
isn’t about research methods, so we’ll just cover a few of your options here—these are the
most popular methods you’ll see throughout the rest of the book and in the field of social
psychology. Four options are (1) archival studies, (2) naturalistic observation, (3) surveys,
and (4) experiments. We’ll cover the first three methods here, and experiments will be
discussed in depth in the next section.
One of the sources of information available to social psychologists requires (almost) no
work because the data already exist. Archival data are stored information that was
originally created for some other purpose not related to research. Newspapers, census data,
Facebook posts, and even pop culture are all examples of archival data.
Archival data are being collected every day in every community, and it’s up to social
scientists to think about hypotheses that might be tested. For example, researchers
interested in patterns within domestic violence can look at police records to test hypotheses
about whether different types of people report this crime, whether couples who report once
are more likely to report again, whether demographic variables such as socioeconomic status
or certain neighborhoods have higher or lower rates of violence, and so on.
Another approach is naturalistic observation, or scientific surveillance of people in their
natural environments. By “natural,” we don’t mean in a cornfield or a forest—we mean
people doing the behavior of interest where it normally would occur. Observing people in a
coffee shop is a good example. If we were interested in whether teachers are nicer to
physically attractive children, then we might go to an elementary school to observe classes.
If we were interested in leadership styles, we might go to a large corporate office and
observe how workers react to different types of managers. Either way, we’re simply
observing behavior in its natural setting.
You might be thinking, “If some scientist came to my workplace and followed me around,
writing down everything I do, then I probably wouldn’t react very naturally.” If that
thought occurred to you, then congratulations—you are thinking like a good scientist. The
presence of the researcher is one of the biggest challenges for naturalistic observations.
Naturalistic observation: A research design where scientists gather data by observing people in the
environment within which the behavior naturally occurs (for instance, observing leadership styles in a
When people change their behavior simply because they’re being observed, it’s called
reactivity. But social psychologists are clever people. How do you think they get around
One creative solution is a technique called participant observation, in which scientists
disguise themselves as people who belong in that environment. It’s kind of like going
undercover. You pretend you’re not doing research at all and hope to fade into the
background—and still find some discreet way to record your observations. For example,
when observing schoolchildren, we might pretend to be substitute teachers. If we want to
observe people at work, we might pretend to be interns at the company. One set of
researchers wanted to photograph boys enjoying themselves at a summer camp (that was
secretly run by psychologists). So, one of the camp counselors played the role of a “shutter
bug”—someone who is taking pictures all the time. The boys quickly learned to ignore the
shutter bug, and the researchers came away with some beautiful, authentic photographs (see
the Sherif study described in Chapter 9).
Participant observation may create some ethical problems, so be careful. After all, you are
deceiving people about why you are there. And it may be an ethical violation to observe
people when they don’t know they are being observed. The advantage of this technique—
or any form of naturalistic observation—is that hopefully, we get to observe authentic social
In the movie Never Been Kissed (Isaac, Juvonen, & Gosnell, 1999), Drew Barrymore’s
character is a reporter who wants to write about the life of high schoolers. To get the “true
scoop,” she pretends to be a high school student herself. In Imperium (Taufique, Lee,
Ragussis, Walker, & Ragussis, 2016), Daniel Radcliffe works for the FBI and infiltrates a
White supremacist group, pretending to be racist. If either one of them had been social
psychologists in a real setting, then their technique would have been called participant
AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo & Atlaspix / Alamy Stock Photo
Survey: A research design where researchers collect data by asking participants to respond to questions or
Self-report scale: A type of survey item where participants give information about themselves by selecting
their own responses (see survey).
Social desirability bias: The tendency for participants to provide dishonest responses so that others have
positive impressions of them.
An alternative approach is simply to ask people to tell us about their own thoughts,
emotions, and behaviors in surveys. Psychological surveys typically ask people to react to
statements about themselves by choosing a number on a scale. It might range from 1
(strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). These self-report scales ask people to give us
information about themselves in a straightforward, explicit manner (hence the name “self-
report”). There are self-report scales throughout this textbook, so you can see how you
score on a variety of social psychological concepts. Those scales will help you understand
just how interesting and complicated you are as you navigate your social world.
There are several considerable advantages to the survey method of research. One is that it is
relatively inexpensive and you can get hundreds of participants in your study relatively
quickly, especially if you put your survey online. This also allows for you to get a wider
diversity of participants as you can send your survey’s URL to people all over the world.
Self-report surveys also can ask people personal questions about their intimate lives that you
would never have access to (at least, not legally!) through naturalistic observation.
However, recall that one common problem with naturalistic observation is reactivity, or
people changing their behaviors because they know they are being observed. Self-report
surveys have their own concerns, and one of the big ones is dishonesty. For example, you
might not tell the truth if you were asked whether you’ve ever treated a romantic partner
badly, cheated on a test, stolen something, or had “bad thoughts” about another person.
The dishonesty problem is often attributed to the social desirability bias, the idea that
people shape their responses so that others will have positive impressions of them. (This
problem is also sometimes known as impression management.) For one creative way to get
around the social desirability bias in survey research, see the Applying Social Psychology to
Your Life feature.
Reactivity: When people change their behavior simply because they’re being observed (see social desirability
bias and good subject bias).
Participant observation: A technique used during naturalistic observation where scientists covertly disguise
themselves as people belonging in an environment in an effort to observe more authentic social behaviors.
In the first three common methods for testing hypotheses—archival studies, naturalistic
observation, and surveys—most studies will have several people who serve as the
participants. However, before we move on to discuss experiments, there’s one more term it
would be good for you to know.
Applying Social Psychology to Your Life: Measuring Social Desirability
Sometimes when people fill out self-report scales in research studies (or on job interviews, or anywhere else),
they aren’t completely honest. Instead, they answer in a way that they think makes them look good; this
tendency in people is called the social desirability bias. One creative way that social psychologists test for
this tendency in people is to give them the scale shown here, which is specifically designed to catch people
in small lies. Most people have done many of the bad behaviors listed here—so if research participants don’t
admit to them, they are probably showing the social desirability bias; they are changing their answers to
Instructions: Listed below are a number of statements concerning personal attitudes and traits.
Please read each item and decide whether the statement is true or false as it pertains to you personally.
Circle “T” for true statements and “F” for false statements.
T F 1. Before voting I thoroughly investigate the qualifications of all the candidates.
T F 2. I never hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.
T F 3. I sometimes feel resentful when I don’t get my way.
T F 4. I am always careful about my manner of dress.
T F 5. My table manners at home are as good as when I eat out in a restaurant.
T F 6. I like to gossip at times.
T F 7. I can remember “playing sick” to get out of something.
T F 8. There have been occasions when I took advantage of someone.
T F 9. I’m always willing to admit it when I make a mistake.
T F 10. There have been occasions when I felt like smashing things.
T F 11. I am always courteous, even to people who are disagreeable.
T F 12. At times I have really insisted on having things my own way.
Scoring: Give yourself 1 point if you said TRUE for Item 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, or 11. Then, give yourself 1 point if
you said FALSE for Item 3, 6, 7, 8, 10, or 12. The more points you have, the more you are trying to
manage your impression on others.
Source: Crowne and Marlowe (1960).
When a single example of an event or a single person is used to test a hypothesis or refine it
further, it’s called a case study. A case study represents a single example of the phenomenon
of interest. For example, one case study you’ll see later (in Chapter 11) describes the level of
violence in The Great Train Robbery, a 1903 movie that was the first film to tell a story
(Porter & Porter, 1903). The case study summarized the story in the film and computed
the ratio of violence per minute to analyze how much violence was shown in the movie.
Note that this case study used archival data. The movie itself was preexisting information,
sitting in YouTube and waiting to be analyzed. Case studies can be archival, but we might
also use naturalistic observation to record behaviors in a particular person over time, or we
might give one person a survey to complete—or we might even ask a single person to
engage in an experiment (see the next section). So, case studies can be used in any of the
forms of research we’ve covered here.
As we prepared to write this chapter, we became interested in whether case studies were
being more or less accepted by modern psychologists. We hypothesized that the rate of
referencing case studies had been declining over time, as the use of online survey software
has become more and more popular. To test our hypothesis, we used archival data that
existed in the PsycINFO database. PsycINFO is the most comprehensive database of
research books and journal articles across psychological subdisciplines. It’s like Google or
any other search engine, except your search collects data from books, chapters, or journal
articles published by psychologists around the world. When we searched PsycINFO for
publications that made use of case studies, would we see a decline over time?
Figure 2.2 The frequency and percentage of articles referring to case studies in PsycINFO.
Source: Created using data from the American Psychological Association.
Our hypothesis was not supported—in other words, we were wrong. Instead, we found a
Case study: A type of research where scientists conduct an in-depth study on a single example of an event or
a single person to test a hypothesis.
PsycINFO database: The most comprehensive database of research books and journal articles across
The Main Ideas
The scientific method, which is used by social psychologists who conduct research, includes (1)
observing a pattern, (2) generating a hypothesis, (3) scientifically testing the hypothesis, and (4)
interpreting results so that the hypothesis can be refined and tested again.
Abstract ideas or variables are called constructs, and deciding how to define and measure constructs
is called operationalization.
Three ways to gather data are (1) using archival data, or sources originally gathered or created for a
different purpose; (2) naturalistic observation, or watching behavior where it would have occurred
anyway; and (3) surveys, or asking people directly to report their thoughts, emotions, or behaviors.
Any of these methods can use multiple participants or a single participant; single-participant studies
are called case studies.
trend of increased referencing of case studies (Figure 2.2). Again, these were archival data,
originally created for another purpose, waiting to be mined for insight. (Note: If you do
this study again, you probably will get slightly higher numbers, especially for the most
recent years, as new articles are admitted into the PsycINFO database.)
Critical Thinking Challenge
Think about the classrooms you’ve been inside recently. Consider the physical aspects of the room (such
as size, type of desks, color, art on the walls, and so on). Then consider how people choose to sit in the
room during classes (such as whether they prefer the front or back row, how much they spread out, what
kinds of people tend to sit together, and so on). Generate three hypotheses about how either the physical
environment or the social environment shapes learning.
Imagine that you want to do a study on how companies support leadership within their organizations.
First, describe how you might conduct the study using archival data; then, how you’d do it with
naturalistic observation. Finally, describe how you would conduct the study differently if you decided to
give people who work there a survey. What kinds of questions would you ask? How would you get people
to fill it out honestly?
Identify three different ways you could operationalize each of the following variables: (1) prejudice, (2)
high self-esteem, and (3) empathy toward other people.
How Do Social Psychologists Design Studies?
— LO 2.2: Compare the logic behind preexperiments, true experiments, quasi-
experiments, and correlational designs.
The working world is full of designers. We have fashion designers, graphic designers,
architectural designers, cookware designers, landscape designers, and game designers. To
become a clear-thinking social psychologist, you must become an experiment designer.
If the most famous book about experimental designs were going for a big audience in the
self-help market, then it might be called How to Think Clearly. However, the original book
by Donald Campbell and Julian Stanley (1966) had a less dramatic title: Experimental and
Quasi-Experimental Designs for Research.
Social Psychology in Action: Self-Deception Experiment
Its original target market was the unruly world of education research. Education research
had been (and perhaps still is) like a pendulum clock hanging from a swinging rope,
lurching back and forth between “a wave of enthusiasm for experimentation [that] gave way
to apathy and rejection” (Campbell & Stanley, 1966, p. 2). Campbell and Stanley wanted
to calm things down and remind researchers that experimentation takes time, replications,
and multiple methods. They organized the world of research design into four categories
that we’ll cover here: preexperimental designs, true experiments, quasi-experiments, and
The most basic methodology is called a preexperiment, in which a single group of people is
tested to see whether some kind of treatment has an effect.
One type of preexperimental design is the one-shot case study, which explores one event,
person, or group
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