Psychology is a Science

Defining and Analyzing Research Methods in Social Psychology

Psychology: The Science of Human Thought and Behavior

Psychology as defined by David Myers (2013) is the “science of behavior and mental processes” (p. 6) which is grounded in empirical research and utilizes the scientific method. Through the systematic testing and gathering of both observable and unobservable data, psychologists seek to understand the forces which drive human thoughts and behaviors. One field of psychology, social psychology, is defined as the scientific study of individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a social context (Kassin, Fein, & Marcus, 2012). This field, as a psychological science, applies the scientific method in understanding the behavior of the individual in the group or social context which may be a real situation or a perceived one (Kassin et al. 2012).

Research Methods In Social Psychology

In aiming to understand human thought processes and behaviors in social contexts, social psychologists must scientifically investigate and empirically study worthwhile research questions in order to see whether they can yield reliable data, and apply and generalize their findings. After producing a research question and developing a hypothesis, a researcher must choose the best approach to examine their question, either by conducting a study or an experiment. While some methods, specifically observational studies, allow researchers to describe phenomena, other methods, such as an experiment, allows researchers to explain phenomena. The three most commonly used research methods in social psychology are descriptive, correlational, and experimental (Santrock, n.d.).

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Descriptive Methods

Descriptive methods involve the systematic observation and recording of behaviors (Santrock, n.d.). Researchers conduct objective descriptive research through case studies, observations, and surveys (Myers, 2013).

Case Studies

A case study involves the in-depth analysis of one individual. Because of the intensive nature of this method, researchers are sometimes able to gather and assess revealing data. Furthermore, case studies have the ability to show researchers what can happen and leads to the suggestions for future lines of research (Myers, 2013).

Although the case study method can provide in-depth information about an individual one drawback is that the findings may be misleading, especially if the person is atypical. Furthermore, as Santrock (n.d.) discusses, the results may not be generalized to others and information that is unrepresentative may lead to inaccurate judgments and false conclusions (Myers, 2013).

Observational Methods

As MacLin & Solso (2008) define, observation methods include the systematic observation and measurement of behavior. Observational studies are able to provide a wealth of information about behaviors which include but are not limited to physical actions, verbal behaviors, nonverbal behaviors, expressive behaviors, interpersonal spacing, gestures, and mannerisms (Zikmund, 2013). An advantage of the observational methods is that natural behaviors are being watched and recorded. Thus, there is no need to rely on memory of past events or distorted interpretations of past behaviors (Kassin et al., 2012). Furthermore, it is less likely that participants will demonstrate demand characteristics or act more favorably in order to please researchers if they do not know that they are being observed. However, if individuals know that they are being observed, they may distort their behaviors to present themselves more favorably, thus demonstrating behaviors inconsistent with their “natural states”. This, in turn, affects the researchers’ findings (MacLin & Solso, 2008). Furthermore, observation methods may present erroneous findings if observations are not correctly interpreted or coded by all observers (inter-observer reliability) and if there is evidence of researcher bias – that is, if the observer/researcher has an expectation of what will occur, he or she may influence the study’s results by reporting that they observed exactly what they expected (Cordaro & Ison, 1963). Nonetheless, observation methods are a viable option for researchers and can be divided into three categories: sampling behavior, direct observational methods, and indirect observational methods. (Shaughnessy, Zechmeister, & Zechmeister, 2011) In quantifying behaviors, researchers incorporate elements of time and frequency by using three distinct methods: the frequency method, the duration method, and the interval method (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

In sampling behaviors, researchers use time sampling and situation sampling. In time sampling, researchers use time intervals and conduct observations of specific behaviors that occur within the given time period. An advantage of using this method is that the researcher is able to control the context to which generalizability shall occur; that is, whether the results are able to be generalized within a particular time period (systematic time sampling) or whether they are able to be generalized across the duration of the observation (random time sampling). A disadvantage of this method is that the researcher may not be able to observe particular behaviors which occur infrequently or unpredictably (Bakerman & Gottman, 1997).

In situation sampling, researchers study the behaviors of individuals in different locations under different circumstances and conditions. In using this method, researchers are able to reduce the likelihood that the data and results they find are attributable to certain circumstances or conditions by sampling a wide variety of situations. Moreover, situation sampling can increase the diversity of the subjects being observed. For these reasons, situation sampling can be advantageous, in that, it increases the external validity and the generalizability of the observational findings (Shaughnessy et al., 2011).

Direct observation methods include but are not limited to naturalistic observations and field-based studies. Naturalistic observations are defined as studies of individuals in native, natural settings. Researchers do not attempt to change the environment; instead, they rely on the social context and the subjects to provide their data. This is one of the advantages of naturalistic observation, in that, individuals are unaware of the presence of observers and thus, behave in a more natural manner. In addition, researchers are able to observe a more diverse sample. This, in turn, increases external validity and because data are gathered from the natural world, researchers are able to apply and generalize their findings to the larger population. Naturalistic observations are time consuming and involve the systematic recording of perceived information (MacLin & Solso, 2008) and this may be a potential problem with this method. It is imperative that researchers make objective and systematic observations to “guard against distorting information through personal prejudices, feelings, and biases” (MacLin & Solso, 2008, p.21). On the same note, observers must be able to correctly interpret the human behaviors that they see. Incorrect interpretations may lead to inaccurate data. Furthermore, naturalistic observations do not allow researchers to make causal statements about their observations; behaviors can only be described (Shaughnessy et al., 2011). Another disadvantage concerns whether or not the observations made are ethical since individuals are watched without their consent. Lastly, although researchers are able to have a diverse sample, they are not able to employ any methods of control on the participants (such as having a control group) since there are no independent variables being manipulated. Thus, researchers are unable to further control for confounding variables or subject variables (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

Indirect observational methods may be used if a researcher wants to use a completely unobtrusive method. This method allows researchers the ability to study potentially sensitive topics without having to worry that participants would change their attitudes or behaviors in order to present themselves more favorably or in order to satisfy what it is that the researcher is studying (demand characteristics) (MacLin & Solso, 2008). One indirect observational method is archival research, where researchers rely on existing records such as statistics, documents, or photographs. This method is advantageous because researchers can find large amounts of data which can provide them with information about trends, relationships, and outcomes. In addition, archival research is less expensive than other methods of research, as some data may be accessed from free archives or databases (Cherry, n.d.). Although this method may be less time consuming, in that researchers do not need to gather and record their own data, archival records are less reliable in studying cause-and-effect relationships. Moreover, it is difficult to establish what variables affect the dependent variable because they could be attributable to the independent variable, extraneous variables or both; in other words, the researcher had no control over data collection from the study and the research methods and findings may be unreliable (Cherry, n.d.). Furthermore, there is even a possibility that the results occurred by chance (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

An example of the observational research method was used in studying relationships in Julien, Chartrand, Simard, Bouthillier, and Begin’s (2003) study. The researchers were interested in examining how positive and negative communications affect relationship quality and whether findings in heterosexual males could be generalized to homosexual couples. In investigating their interests, the researchers developed four hypotheses: negative behaviors which decrease relationship satisfaction and positive behaviors which are associated with connectedness and cohesion will be associated with relationship quality. Second, positive behaviors in the conflict task will not increase relationship quality beyond that afforded by negative behaviors. Third, positive behaviors in the support task will account for variance in relationship quality. Last, couples’ perceived help in the support task will account for variance in relationship quality (Julien et al., 2013).

Heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples were recruited by media advertisements. Couples completed questionnaires and participated in 20 minute videotaped interactions in which couples role played in the support task as “helper” and “helpee” and discussed their personal problems with one another. After the session, the couples had a break and then examined a list of relationship problems. After choosing one, the couples had 20 minutes to complete a problem solving task (Julien et al., 2013). The researchers coded their negative and positive behaviors.

The findings suggest that variance in relationship quality may be attributed to the variables of positive behaviors in conflict tasks, positive behaviors in support tasks, and perceived levels of help. Moreover, the results were consistent with the researchers’ hypotheses –that couples’ relationship quality is associated with negative and positive behaviors in the conflict and support tasks. There were no differences found between heterosexual, gay male, and lesbian couples in communication behaviors and all couples were found to display similar levels of positive and negative behaviors (Julien et al., 2013). The researchers were surprised that the results suggested both negative and positive behaviors in the conflict task independently contribute to the variance in relationship quality, which did not support their initial hypothesis regarding the conflict task. That is, relationship quality was found to be sensitive to the variability “of partner’ co-involvement in the task” (Julien et al., 2013).

Though the findings of the study suggest that there is a relationship between positive and negative communication and relationship quality, the study establishes a correlation and does not prove causality due to the nature of the study’s design. In addition, because the definition of relationship quality used was that considered “normal” for “American, English-speaking, heterosexual couples” and because not everyone may share the same opinion on the definition of relationship quality, that may affect the results found. In addition, the generalizability of the findings to all couples may not be possible, as their sample was limited and only included Caucasian, middle class couples from a metropolitan area. Furthermore, as Julien et al. (2013) discuss, because the support task was open-ended with no explicit instructions as to what behaviors should be performed by the couples, there is not much evidence supporting that the task is a valid measure of interactional social support in couples or that the coding system used was a valid measure of social support in couples relationships. Lastly, the researchers never controlled whether or not the couples in the sample have children, which may potentially affect the nature of their interactions or communications with one another (Julien et al., 2013). Although these limitations should be considered, this study is able to provide descriptive data on heterosexual and homosexual couples’ communication during support and conflict tasks and how it ultimately affected their view on the quality of their relationships. Lastly, this study provides clinicians and psychologists with empirically based observations which may be applied towards the development of enhancement of prevention programs and therapeutic approaches in couples’ therapy.


In this method, participants complete a survey, test, or questionnaire that relates to the researcher’s question of interest (Cherry, n.d.). Researchers ask participants to report their behavior or opinions (Myers, 2013). In addition to surveys, researchers can also administer standardized tests in order to measure participants’ behaviors or mental processes and compare results of the participants (Santrock, n.d.).

To ensure the generalizability of the results, it is important that random sampling techniques are used, which includes a representative sample (MacLin & Solso, 2008). This method may be advantageous to researchers because it is fast, less expensive, and can provide large amounts of data in short periods of time (Cherry, n.d.). Also, because there is the possibility of anonymity, participants may be more likely to answer questions honestly, without having to make themselves seem more presentable. The disadvantages of the survey method include nonresponse, that is, if surveys are distributed, it is possible that individuals may not ever respond back. In addition, if individuals believe they know what researchers are looking for, they may respond the questions inaccurately due to demand characteristics (MacLin & Solso, 2008). Moreover, participants may lie to present themselves more favorably or may not have accurate memories (if they are being asked about past behaviors) (Cherry, n.d.). Concerning inaccuracy of answers, it is also possible that individuals presented with multiple choice items may just randomly choose their answers without even reading, just “to get it over with.” Lastly, if survey questions are not written in a clear manner, questions are prone to wording effects (Myers, 2013), misinterpretations, or even researcher bias (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

Correlational Studies

As Cherry (n.d.) defines, correlational studies seek to determine whether or not variable share a relationship. Researchers are able to determine whether or not variables are correlated by using a statistical test which yields the correlation coefficient, or the degree to which variables are related (MacLin & Solso, 2008). Three possible results may be produced: a positive correlation, negative correlation, or no correlation. In a positive correlation, both of the variables examined increase or decrease at the same time. The closer the correlation coefficient is to +1.00, the stronger the correlation. In a negative correlation, as one variable increases the other decreases. The closer the correlation coefficient is to -1.00, the stronger the negative correlation. Lastly, if no relationship exists between the variables, there is no correlation. This is indicated by a correlation coefficient of 0 (Cherry, n.d.). Although results of these studies may establish that relationships exist between variables, they do not determine the direction of cause and effect; that is, correlation does not prove causation (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

Correlational studies can come in many forms as researchers are interested in determining whether relationships exist between variables. Oftentimes, correlational studies take the form of naturalistic observations, archival research, and surveys which were previously detailed. Again, as David Myers (2013) stresses, "Association does not prove causation...correlation indicates the possibility of a cause and effect relationship but does not prove such" (p.32).

An example of a correlational study is Dennis Johnson and Caryl Rusbult’s (1989) investigation as to how commitment in a relationship is affected by attractive alternatives which exist outside the relationship and whether or not devaluation occurs due to current relationship satisfaction or sense of commitment. They predicted that couples who were more committed to their relationship would demonstrate the tendency to devalue alternative partners who are “exceptionally attractive” and pose a threat to their current relationship. In examining their interests, the researchers conducted a three part study.

In Study 1, Johnson and Rusbult (1989) reanalyzed data that was previously obtained in Rusbult’s (1983) longitudinal study of college students’ relationships. Participants were recruited through flyers placed in their mailboxes. Those who responded received questionnaires which asked about rewards and costs of being in a relationship, attractive alternative others, commitment in the relationship, and relationship satisfaction. It was found that evaluations of alternative others are negatively related to commitment and satisfaction. The results were consistent with the hypothesis that couples who were more committed devalue alternative others to protect their current relationship.

In Study 2, the researchers further examined devaluation under conditions of threat. Participants were recruited from psychology courses at University of Kentucky. By using a computer dating service paradigm, individuals were faced with realistic possibilities of forming relationships with highly attractive alternative others. Participants were also asked to complete a questionnaire which asked about their satisfaction in their current relationships. It was found that those who were highly committed to their relationships reported lower attraction to the highly attractive alternatives, which was again, consistent with their hypothesis (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989).

In Study 3, the researchers wished to extend their findings from Studies 1 and 2 and created a simulation role-playing experiment. Participants were recruited from psychology courses at Illinois State University. In this study, individuals read fictional situations and were asked to assume the position of the protagonist they read about. Manipulations were made in commitment and satisfaction, where the protagonist of the situation would either display behaviors of high or low commitment and satisfaction in the relationship. Participants were also presented with a questionnaire which assessed the devaluation of alternatives and assess commitment and satisfaction. It was found that regardless of relationship satisfaction, individuals who were highly committed to their relationships devalued attractive alternatives. Thus, all three studies showed a correlation between commitment and negative evaluation of alternatives. However, as the researchers mention, alternative explanations may exist for their findings. For example, behaviors observed in Study 3 may have been influenced by stereotypes; that is, participants may have been role-playing in a way that is deemed appropriate for committed relationships (Johnson & Rusbult, 1989).

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Experimental Method

In the experimental method, researchers use the scientific method and seek to determine if manipulations made to a variable (independent variable) can cause a change in the dependent variable (Kassin et al., 2012). In this method, researchers rely on controls, random assignment, and the manipulations of variables to test a hypothesis. In terms of controls, researchers attempt to isolate effects of variables by manipulating the variables of interest and holding all other conditions constant. To examine the effect of the independent variable on subjects, researchers often randomly assign individuals to an experimental and control group. The experimental group receives some version of the treatment/independent variable while the control group is not. By excluding the control group, researchers are able to assess the effect of the treatment by making comparisons between groups (Myers, 2013).

Experiments are advantageous because they allow researchers to have control over the variables and may allow for easier replication (Cherry, n.d.). However, because many experiments occur in a laboratory or controlled setting, researchers may not get an accurate “real world” response from their participants. Furthermore, participants may change their “normal” behaviors because they know they are being watched, to present themselves more favorably, or because they know what the researcher is studying. In addition, researchers may unknowingly affect the outcome of their studies with researcher bias. To reduce the possibility of any of the aforementioned from occurring, researchers may conduct blind or double blind studies, use control groups, administer placebos, or even use a field-based design (MacLin & Solso, 2008; Cherry, n.d.).

In a single-blind study, only the participants are unaware of their treatment status.

Single-blind trials are often used in evaluating the efficacy of new drugs or newly developed therapy programs. Participants are randomly assigned to groups, where one group receives the treatment (medication or therapy program) and another group receives a placebo (a pseudotreatment), or no treatment. In contrast, in a double-blind procedure, neither the participants nor the experimenters know which group is receiving the treatment. This may reduce the effects of experimenter bias and can control for the placebo effect (Myers, 2013).

In field-based study, researchers manipulate one or more independent variables in a natural setting to determine how behaviors are affected (MacLin & Solso, 2008; Shaughnessy et al., 2011). This method can be advantageous to researchers because unlike naturalistic observations, field-based studies allow the researcher to exert some form of control over the variables in the study and its participants. Furthermore, in using this method, researchers are able to make causal inferences from their results, which increase external validity. Like naturalistic observations, a disadvantage of field-based studies is that ethical issues may arise when studying certain topics (Shaughnessy et al., 2011). Lastly, because researchers using field-based studies are not able to exert full control over the characteristics of their participants, other extraneous variables such as subject variables may influence the dependent variable, thus rendering the results of the study to be uncertain due to the potential effects of the extraneous variable, independent variable, or both (MacLin & Solso, 2008).

An example of the experimental method used in the study of relationships is Snyder, Wills, and Grady-Fletcher’s (1991) examination of the long-term effectiveness of behavioral marital therapy (BMT) versus insight-oriented marital therapy (IOMT). 59 couples were randomly assigned to either BMT or IOMT treatment conditions. Those in the BMT condition received treatment which emphasized communication skills, problem-solving skills, relationship enhancement and contingency contracting. On the other hand, those in the IOMT condition received therapy which emphasized the interpretation of intra- and interpersonal dynamics and addressed developmental issues, expectations which were incongruent, and maladaptive relationship rules (Snyder et al., 1991). For the follow-up portion of the study, the participants were sent a questionnaire about marital status, marital problems, and whether or not the couple continued therapy after the study had concluded. It was found that after 6 months, there were no significant group differences found between the two groups. However, after 4 years, the researchers found that couples receiving BMT had a higher percentage of divorce than those in the IOMT group.

One interesting factor that was not included in the study was whether or not the couples in the study had children. As many studies have supported, the presence of children may increase the likelihood of marital dissatisfaction (Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003; Lawrence, Cobb, Rothman, Bradbury, 2008; Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009) and stress (Baca Zinn, Eitzen, & Wells, 2011), which may contribute to the increased divorce rates after the completion of the study. It would be interesting for future studies to compare the long-term efficacy of different types of marital therapy approaches, while also taking into consideration the possibility of the couple’s desire to have children, as it has been found that extensive planning and counseling prior to having a child may reduce the marital dissatisfaction common among new parents (Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrere, 2000).

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Analysis and Interpretation of Data

In analyzing data gathered from descriptive, correlational, and experimental research, statistics are used to organize and interpret findings; from there, conclusions can be drawn (Myers, 2013). Descriptive statistics is a method of describing and organizing data and one technique that is commonly used is the frequency distribution table or graph. Using this method, researchers place data in a table or graph to depict how many individuals or scores are located in a category being measured. Specifically with frequency distribution graphs, a researcher must choose an appropriate graph based on the scale of measurement being used. A histogram or polygon should be used for interval or ratio scales and bar graphs should be used for nominal or ordinal scales (Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014).

In summarizing data, measures of central tendency are used to provide a score that represents the whole set of scores gathered (Myers, 2013; Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014). Measures of central tendency include the mode, the mean, and the median. The mode is defined as the score that occurs the most in a distribution. The mean is the average or the total sum of the scores divided by the total number of scores. Lastly, the median is the middle score in the distribution (Myers, 2013). One concern with measures of central tendency is that a mean may be distorted if there are extreme scores or large variations in scores (Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014).

Another factor to consider in the analysis of data is the variation of scores, which describes the distribution of the scores; that is, whether they are close together or spread out. In addition, measures of variability also allow researchers to determine how well an individual score stands against the entire distribution (Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014). Variability can be measured by the range and the standard deviation. The range of the scores is the gap between the lowest and highest scores and it provides researchers with the ability to crudely estimate variation (Myers, 2013). One concern with using the range is that is found using the two extremes and ignores the scores which fall between in the distribution. On the other hand, the standard deviation is the most commonly used measure of variation and uses the mean distribution point as reference. Variability is measured by “considering the distance between each score and the mean” (Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014, p.92). Standard deviation allows researchers to describe where scores fall: either clustered around the mean or widely scattered (Gravetter & Wallnau, 2014).

Standard Deviation Image by David Remahl accessed from Wikimedia Commons

In determining whether or not differences observed are reliable and are able to be generalized, Myers (2013) discusses four principles. First, representative samples are much more reliable than biased samples; cases presenting extremes usually have problems with generalizability. Second, Observations with less variability are more reliable than observations with higher variability. Next, averages which are based off of more scores or cases are more reliable, that is less variable, than averages obtained from smaller scores or cases. Last, when averages from samples are reliable and when the observed difference between them is large, the difference has statistical significance; the difference is not likely due to chance.

Conclusion: Role of Research in Psychology

Applications to the Study of Relationships

Research is such an important aspect of psychology, especially in the field of social psychology. As AllPsych (n.d.) details, research is the means by which psychologists can gain an understanding of individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and actions. In addition, research allows for the analysis of psychological disorders and assesses their impact on individuals and society, helps social psychologists understand how different factors such as intimate relationships, families, peers, and religions can affect individuals and society. One of the most important contributions that research offers psychologists in any field is the fact that it allows for the development and testing of treatment approaches in order to improve the health and lives of individuals (AllPsych, n.d.). Thus, it is imperative for all researchers and practitioners to be familiar with proper research methods in order for them to possess the ability to determine the value and adequacy of research findings (Howitt & Cramer, 2008). Furthermore, in understanding methods and results, and practitioners may be able to apply and incorporate findings (such as new techniques, effective psychotherapy approaches or medications) into their practice.

In analyzing the role of research in social psychology, it is necessary to establish the importance of social psychology. Social psychology is the study of individuals’ thoughts, behaviors, and feelings in a social context. The field of social psychology focuses on social situations because humans are inherently social beings. From the moment of birth, humans rely on interactions with others (parents or guardians) in order to survive and continue to actively seek social interactions throughout their lifespan (Kassin et al., 2012). The field of social psychology is relevant because it is evident in everyday life, for example, in family dynamics, in romantic relationships, in interactions between friends and coworkers, and even between bystanders and groups of individuals who do not know each other. The findings of social psychology research can be especially beneficial to therapists such as family and marital therapists, especially when research focuses on the effectiveness of therapeutic approaches or medications. In analyzing findings from research, therapists can incorporate new techniques or approaches in treating distressed couples or families. By researching the thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes of distressed couples or families, psychologists and therapists can identify risk factors (such as poor communication or frequency of conflict) that contribute to the development of problems in relationships in order to develop screening procedures or preventative techniques for couples or families deemed at risk. Thus, the importance of research in social psychology and therapy becomes quite evident: family and marital therapists use approaches that have been researched and tested for efficacy in treating their patients. Furthermore, research allows for the development of newer and more effective approaches for treatment and helps psychologists further understand individual’s thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes and how it influences others.


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Image Credits (in order of appearance)

  • Human Brain and Skeleton provided by Fotolia; accessed through Microsoft Word Clip Art
  • Scientific Method Chart created through Microsoft Word using information from Santrock (n.d.).
  • Reading Glasses on Open Book provided by Microsoft; accessed through Microsoft Word Clip Art
  • Y/N Choices provided by Microsoft; accessed through Microsoft Word Clip Art
  • Correlation Charts by Spiritia accessed through Wikimedia Commons
  • Researchers Looking at Computer provided by Microsoft; accessed through Microsoft Word Clip Art
  • Experimental Method Word Art created through
  • Standard Deviation provided by Microsoft; accessed through Microsoft Word Clip Art
  • Central Tendency Image created by student through Microsoft Word
  • Frequency Histogram by Jimbotyson accessed through Wikimedia Commons
  • Frequency Distribution Polygon created by student through Microsoft Excel
  • Standard Deviation image created by David Remahl accessed through Wikimedia Commons
  • Hands Connecting Puzzle image by PublicDomainPictures accessed through