What are scientific methods in psychology? (With 6 steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 12 April 2022

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As an academic field and a profession, psychology applies scientific methods to understand human behaviour. Scientific methods in psychology provide practitioners with a common framework for generating, organising and sharing information. Knowing the methods psychologists use in their work can help you understand this field better. In this article, we define what scientific methods in psychology are, outline basic principles of scientific methods, discuss data collection methods in psychology and review the steps psychologists take to study human behaviour.

What are scientific methods in psychology?

Scientific methods in psychology are the rules, procedures and assumptions that psychologists use to conduct research to help them understand human behaviour, human relationships and solve social problems. The scientific method outlines how psychologists gather and analyse data, how they get results and how they share findings with others. Data can be psychological, physical, physiological or demographical.

The scientific methods in psychology allow psychologists to make observations, formulate theories, test predictions and contribute to the knowledge of human behaviour. Using scientific methods in research also enable psychologists to publish their findings and invite discussion from other psychologists. This discourse is important in building the psychology body of knowledge and in allowing other professionals to investigate scientific findings or claims.

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Scientific principles of research in psychology

As a science, psychological research requires adhering to some principles, including:

  • Objectivity: Psychologists require being objective in their research approach. This means ensuring their personal biases don't interfere with any step in the research process, from selecting research subjects, collecting data, to reporting findings.

  • Replicable: Replicable research refers to the ability of researchers to repeat research to determine whether the results of a previous study hold true.

  • Falsifiable: Psychological research requires grounding in a theory or hypotheses to prevent researchers bias reporting only what confirms their beliefs.

  • Parsimony: The parsimony principle in research allows researchers to use existing theories to explain their findings rather than invent new theories. Parsimony also compels researchers to use the simplest explanations for their findings.

  • Precision: Scientific research uses precise definitions for variables and concepts. Precision in research allows researchers to measure variables relevant to the research and also enables other researchers to replicate the research.

  • Ethical: The primary research subjects in psychology are human beings. Psychologists require being ethical in their work, such as maintaining participant's confidentiality and doing no harm to the research subjects.

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Scientific methods of data collection in psychology

Here are some scientific methods psychologists use to study, explain and predict human behaviour:

Experimental method

In the experimental method, psychologists investigate the relationship between two or more variables. A variable is an element or event which can change in observable ways. Typically, psychologists collect information on two main variables, the dependent and independent variables. It's the independent variable that the researcher manipulates to observe or measure changes in the dependent variable. An experimental researcher makes several assumptions in their experiments. These include the assumption that no other variable influences the dependent variable and that all variables, other than the independent variable, remain constant throughout the experiment.

Experimental researchers in psychology also conduct their research by observing the experimental and control groups and how the groups' behaviour changes. In this approach, the researcher manipulates the experimental group while leaving the control group untouched. At the close of the experiment, the researcher measures and observes changes in the experimental group and compare findings with the control group. Experimental research can also involve lab experiments, where researchers observe variables in controlled settings to mitigate the influence of extraneous variables.

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Observational method

In the observational method, psychologists study the subject's behaviour through systematic observation. Observation is an important technique for psychologists, as it doesn't require special equipment to undertake. Psychologists use observation by following established steps, noting the actual observations and analysing the collected data. Successful observation requires psychologists to select an area of interest, determine what to observe and analyse the findings while avoiding observer biases from interfering. Observational methods fall into the following categories:

  • Naturalistic observation: In naturalistic observation, the researcher observes their research subjects in their natural settings, such as in their homes, schools and cities. A researcher doesn't manipulate the subject, but only gathers what they see spontaneously.

  • Controlled observation: A researcher in a controlled observation collects data from controlled variables. A researcher manipulates the variables and records their observations depending on the research goals.

  • Participant observation: In participant observation, the researcher themselves become part of the research subjects. The researcher acts as a member of the research subjects, which enables them to observe behaviour at close range and more holistically.

  • Non-participant observation: Non-participant observation method involves a researcher observing the research subjects remotely, which allows them to observe the actual behaviour of the subjects. This method can involve the use of discreet cameras.

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Case study

Psychologists use the case study method to conduct an in-depth analysis of their research subject. The case study method involves a researcher using one or several cases to study specific behaviour and using their findings to provide a generalised explanation for the behaviour. The case study approach uses multiple data collection methods, such as observation, interviews, surveys and psychological testing, to obtain detailed data about the research subjects. Clinical psychologists typically use this approach to diagnose and understand the psychological disorders of patients.

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Correlational research

In correlational research, the researcher seeks to establish whether there's a relationship between two variables. Unlike experimental research, where a researcher manipulates a variable, correlational research doesn't vary or change any variable. The researcher simply tries to find out how two variables correlate. Researchers' measure correlation using correlational coefficients, ranging from -1 to +1.

A negative one correlation coefficient shows a negative correlation between the research variables. A correlation coefficient value of one shows a positive correlation between the variables. Zero coefficient value shows no relationship exists between the variables. Correlation coefficients also show how strong or weak the relationship between variables is, depending on how close the coefficient value is to zero.

Content analysis

In content analysis, a researcher reviews various content documents such as texts, interviews, researcher's notes and articles to derive useful data in their area of interest. Typical steps' researchers follow in content analysis are collecting and examining relevant data, coding data, analysing the information and making conclusions. Relational analyses and conceptual analyses are two approaches to content analysis. In relational analyses, researchers try to establish an association among concepts. A conceptual analysis entails establishing the occurrence of a concept, such as a phrase or word, in research data.

Survey research method

The survey research method in psychology allows researchers to understand a real-life situation or an event by collecting and analysing people's views, attitudes, opinions and behaviour. Surveys are important as they enable social scientists such as psychologists to collect data directly from the research subjects and in their own words. There are various survey techniques researchers use to collect data, such as:

  • Direct interviews: Direct interview is a question and answers conversation between a researcher and interviewee or a respondent. Interviews allow a researcher to collect useful data in a structured or unstructured way while observing other pointers, such as body language or tone.

  • Telephone surveys: In telephone surveys, a researcher poses questions to respondents through phone calls or messages. Telephone surveys are cheaper and allow a researcher to collect useful data in a short time.

  • Questionnaires: A questionnaire is a data collection tool where respondents write or mark answers that best represent their opinions or beliefs. Questionnaires can be open-ended or close-ended, depending on the research goals.

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What are the scientific method steps in psychology?

To arrive at empirical findings, psychologists require the following systematic research steps outlined below:

  1. Formulate research question: The initial step involves a researcher asking themselves why certain behaviour takes place. The question can also arise from real-life observations or existing gaps in previous research.

  2. Conduct background research: This step requires the researcher to review data and literature relevant to the research question. Conducting background research enables a researcher to gain more information about the subject, which is essential in formulating the research hypothesis.

  3. Formulate research hypothesis: In this step, a researcher formulates a tentative and testable explanation of the research question. Depending on the topic, a researcher can formulate several hypotheses.

  4. Test the hypothesis: Testing a hypothesis entails collecting and analysing data to prove or disprove the research hypothesis. This involves analysing data using methods appropriate to the research question.

  5. Draw conclusions: The researcher makes verifiable conclusions supported by the results of the data analysis. Statistical methods are typically used to support or reject the research hypothesis.

  6. Publish the results: In this step, a researcher communicates their research methodology and findings to the public. Publishing both the approach and results allows other researchers to interrogate the research process for reliability.


  • A guide to the different psychology research methods

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