The popular conception of psychology is doubtless that of the therapist needling his hapless patient on the couch. This is inaccurate. It belies over a century of advances in applying rigorous methods of scientific inquiry and experimentation to enlarge the body of knowledge about the human mind, affect, cognition and behavior.
Scientific Methods of Inquiry in Psychology
Granted there is a significant body of pure theory about how humans sense, process, and store knowledge; still, mainstream psychology shares with the “hard sciences” a robust reliance on the scientific method, on deriving empirical findings from experimentation and other research techniques.
Just as psychology reaped many lessons from phenomenology in philosophy – how the mind determines what is real and what it knows – so was the discipline of psychology also enriched by logical positivism from philosophy. The result was to put the focus solely on what is observable, concrete, and measurable. This paved the way for materialism, empiricism, and the scientific method. No other cause needs are theorized or searched for except what is evident to human senses and their proxies, scientific instruments.
The scientific method fundamentally starts with some informed guesses, tentative hypotheses, or postulates, if you will, about how organisms, humans, and objects behave and relate to each other. An experiment or other type of research design is then to prove or disprove the hypotheses. The experiment or other research is carefully constructed in such a way that it is valid and reliable. Validity is about seeing to it that a research design or data-gathering instrument does observe or measure what it purports to (Shaughnessy, Zechmeister, and Zechmeister, 2006).
An intelligence test should demonstrably assess mental ability. A study about ways to reduce repeat criminal offenses should employ an accepted measure of recidivism. On the other hand, reliability is concerned with so constructing the sample and controlling for extraneous factors that: 1) the study results can conclusively be taken to deduce that A does provoke B or that if C emerges, D is bound to happen sooner or later; and 2) other psychology researchers can confidently expect to confirm (“replicate”) the outcome or test it for applicability in somewhat different settings.
Quantitative studies in psychology differ little from physical sciences in that data is collected by means of some valid instrument and whatever phenomenon is under study is recorded as having a value of a unit of measurement (Hinkle, Wiersma, and Jurs, 1998).
For example, one might think of displays of obsessive behavior, the number of times subjects will comply with any command by a superior partner, dollars donated to disaster relief by those exposed to philanthropic advertising and press releases, and so on.
Being rigorous about formulating hypotheses, employing instruments with recognized validity, specifying a unit of measure, and collecting data are not ends in themselves. This is because, at the core, researchers follow the scientific method in order to arrive at valid generalizations and thence predict likely outcomes with confidence when similar cases crop up in the future. This is a process of inductive reasoning, arriving at a more or less conclusive generalization from what has been observed. Such is the essence of the scientific method.
But psychology has also flourished employing qualitative research methods.
The qualitative approach is perhaps most easily understood as everything that quantitative methods are not.
Sample sizes are typically much smaller, the information gathered is not quantifiable, expertise is not easily transferable, and results are therefore not easy to replicate.
The more meaningful distinction lies with the methods of data-gathering, the output generated by qualitative research, and the stage at which is qualitative research is most helpful.
Qualitative studies accommodate even unstructured stimuli. For instance, it is possible to pre-test a commercial and gives panelists every opportunity to perceive and respond to the soundtrack, the brand slogan, the setting, the human actors, how the client’s product looked in a direct-comparison format like the “Pepsi Challenge”, the setting, and support claims made. This helps when the advertising agency wishes to learn not just an advertising retention score but what elements of the test ad struck a responsive chord or not. In the Psychology lab, the drive for achievement might be assessed by verbatim written responses to a Thematic Apperception Test or a balloon test.
As may be evident by now, the essential contribution of qualitative studies lies in asking probing questions, typically in the context of in-depth interviews or focus group discussions. A highly trained researcher takes individuals or groups through a core set of questions called for by the study hypothesis. At the same time, the researcher is alert for new ideas and response patterns that respondents bring up and is vigilant about probing these in turn. As to the group discussion format, this sprang from insights developed in the psychology of group dynamics: the interaction possibilities in small groups create synergy and broadens the spectrum of perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, or inhibitions that can be discovered (Schwartz, 2008). And, of course, qualitative research also embraces case studies and other exploratory methods.
The potential for much greater insight does have trade-offs. Qualitative research expertise tends to be inter-disciplinary, i.e. knowing about both marketing and psychology or being conversant with both motivation and organizational theory. Since such combinations of skills, as well as the temperament for carrying out research, are sparse, expert professional costs are high.
Secondly, the processing and analysis of verbatim responses are time-consuming. Hence, qualitative research is typically done with small sample sizes.
On the other hand, greater insight at the exploratory or diagnostic stage of a project is priceless.
This is why qualitative research is very often found complementing quantitative study approaches. Clearly, both contribute to the application of the scientific method in psychology.
- Hinkle, D., Wiersma, W., & Jurs, S. (1998). Applied statistics for the behavioral sciences. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- Shaughnessy, J., Zechmeister, E., & Zechmeister, J. (2006). Research methods in psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company.
- Schwartz, A. (2008). Advantages and disadvantages of the qualitative research methods.