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Exploring Research Methods in Psychology

Reviewed by Jacob Imm

Aug 11, 2023

Exploring Research Methods in Psychology

Each day, more than 100,000 licensed psychologists in the United States work to unearth the mysteries of the human mind so that we may all better understand our behaviors and ourselves. A primary avenue to that understanding is psychological research.

Research allows psychologists the opportunity to ask questions about the innermost workings of the human psyche, interpret the responses they exhibit, and arrive at conclusions that enable them to improve people’s everyday lives. To do such important work efficiently and effectively, they rely on a range of research methods.

The research methods in psychology are commonly grouped into three primary classifications: correlational research, descriptive research, and experimental research. Each one is suited to a unique field of study, accounts for human complexities, and zeroes in on acute details of the brain’s inner workings. 

The Scientific Method in Psychology

Many of us learned about the scientific method—the process of developing, researching, and proving a hypothesis—early on in our education. And that’s because it is chiefly important to advancing scientific knowledge worldwide. 

Each of the three research methods in psychology is grounded in the scientific method. It allows psychology researchers to advance and improve existing notions of human psychology and build tools and strategies that help improve the lives of many. 

Psychologists rely on the standards of the scientific method to ensure: 

  • Historical data and background research is collected before experimentation
  • The initial research question is defined, testable, and measurable
  • The hypothesis is grounded in data-backed, reasonable information 
  • The experiment is designed to answer the specific question and hypothesis
  • The final data can be organized into theories that help people and psychologists

Understanding Correlational Studies 

One of the research methods in psychology that is most commonly employed is the correlational method or correlational studies. This is a statistics-based, non-experimental method in which scientists seek to determine whether there is a relationship between two variables and the extent of the relationship, if it exists, without interfering with other variables. 

The correlational method leads to three possible outcomes:

  • Positive correlation – The relationship between variables is considered positive when both variables move in the same direction at the same time. The variables may increase or decrease.
  • Negative correlation – When the value of one variable increases as the other variable decreases, the correlation is considered negative.
  • No correlation – An outcome of “no correlation” suggests that the study presented no observable relationship between the two variables. 

In many cases, the results of correlational studies are documented using what’s known as the correlation coefficient. This is a numerical value between -1.00 and +1.00 that indicates the strength of the correlation between variables. When there is no correlation between variables, the correlation coefficient is assigned a value of zero. 

Correlational research methods in psychology are often used as a baseline of understanding to gain further insight into human behavior. Many researchers start with broad correlational studies to gather information and draw connections. Then, they build upon those connections with more specific studies, as correlational studies alone do not prove causation in either direction. 

Types of Correlational Studies 

There are three distinct research methods that are often used in the service of correlational studies. 

Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation involves passive observational research and documentation of the variables in their natural setting. Scientists exert no influence over the variables and don’t manipulate them in any way, which provides insight into how the variables act without intervention. 

However, there are factors that researchers must watch out for in this method, like: 

  • Behavior modification by participants who are aware of being observed 
  • Potential biases of the researchers involved 


Under the survey method, a random sample of participants is selected to fill out a poll, answer a questionnaire, or complete a test that reflects the subject of the study. 

Surveys are among the most common types of research methods in psychology, prized for their easy, quick, and relatively inexpensive accessibility and their ability to collect large amounts of data. Depending on the study, survey research may be conducted in person, over the phone, or online.

Regardless of the medium, however, the most effective surveys share the following characteristics: 

  • A randomized group of participants 
  • Clear, well-written questions
  • Intuitive design and delivery   

Archival Research

When performing archival research, scientists look at a range of materials, including historical records, past studies, and case study reports related to their own research. In doing so, psychologists must understand how to interpret studies that may not adhere to the ethical standards of the present day. 

Often, psychologists must navigate studies that are incomplete or irrelevant based on modern information.

Understanding Descriptive Studies

Descriptive studies are unique among research methods in psychology because, rather than focusing on questions of why and how, they tune into questions of who, what, and where. 

In other words, descriptive studies seek to describe certain human behaviors or psychological traits and patterns without drawing conclusions about their causes. 

Descriptive studies are often conducted without a hypothesis. Instead, like some correlation studies, the results of descriptive studies often lead researchers to form a hypothesis that inspires an additional study, such as an experimental study.

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Types of Descriptive Studies 

Descriptive studies may take the form of surveys, observations, or case studies. 

In studies that rely on observations or surveys, the procedures are much the same as in correlational studies. For example, observational descriptive methods in psychology strive to observe participants in their natural setting without influencing any of the variables or introducing new variables. 

Likewise, survey research methods in descriptive research use a list of randomized respondents who are interviewed or asked to respond to a series of questions in writing. 

Case Studies 

In a case study, a researcher provides a description of a subject in a certain setting over a given period of time. The details of the description may be gleaned from observation, subject interviews, and the subject’s own reports.

Case studies also require a natural setting free from researcher interference. However, unlike surveys and observation, case studies are often centralized on single subject research–a single person, small groups of subjects, or singular events.

Consider these benefits and drawbacks of case studies: 

  • Glean more detailed information – Case studies in descriptive research enable psychologists to present highly detailed information about very specific subjects.      
  • May not apply to a larger, general population – That small sample size often makes it difficult for researchers to generalize too greatly about their findings, which can limit the applicability of the results to large groups of people. 

See related: The Benefits of Studying Psychology

Understanding Experimental Design Studies 

The last of the three main types of research methods in psychology is the experimental method. Unlike descriptive and correlational methods, the experimental method intentionally interferes with the test subjects, making adjustments to at least one variable to determine a casual relationship with another variable.

In general, experimental research methods in psychology are conducted according to the following procedure

  • Step 1 – Researchers define the study’s key variables, known as the “dependent variable” (which isn’t manipulated) and the “independent variable” (which is manipulated). 
  • Step 2 – Researchers hypothesize the relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variable (or variables). 
  • Step 3 – Researchers manipulate the relevant variable and observe the results, collecting and documenting data. 

There are several planning stages that an experimental study goes through before it’s formally conducted. In addition to defining variables and forming a hypothesis, researchers must also devise a research protocol, including how they will manipulate the independent variable and which type of experimental design they’ll use. 

Types of Experimental Design Studies 

Within the experimental design, psychologists tend to employ three primary research methods at their disposal. Those include: 

  • Independent measures – Also known as “between groups,” independent measures call for a different participant or set of participants for each variable condition.
  • Repeated measures – Also known as “within groups,” this type of experimental design features participants who are exposed to each of the study’s variable conditions. 
  • Counterbalanced – In counterbalanced designs, all participants experience each variable condition, but they experience them in different orders. This is to account for order effects, or the idea that the order in which variable conditions are experienced potentially impacts subject behavior. 

Hone Your Research Skills with Hands-On Psychology Education

If research methods in psychology turn your wheels and appeal to your innate curiosity, research psychology could be an excellent professional field for you. Every psychology researcher starts as a student in a degree program to acquaint them with the knowledge, skills, and research practice they need to break through to new understanding. 

For aspiring research psychologists, the best programs offer coursework in ethics in psychology, research design and experimentation, plus a range of experiences that take you beyond the classroom, like internships and co-ops. That’s the kind of real-world experience that shapes the formative research psychologists of the future. 

Jacob Imm is the associate director of communication in the North Central College Office of Institutional Communication. He has 13 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.



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