5 Classic Psychology Research Designs

research designs in psychology

Posted November 2019 by Clifton Stamp, B.S. Psychology; M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling, M.A. English; 10 updates since. Reading time: 5 min. Reading level: Grade 11+. Questions on psychology research designs? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Psychology research is carried out by a variety of methods, all of which are intended to increase the fund of knowledge we have concerning human behavior. Research is a formalized, systematic way of deriving accurate and reproducible results. Research designs are the particular methods and procedures used to generate, collect and analyze information.

Research can be carried out in many different ways, but can broadly be defined as qualitative or quantitative.  Quantitative psychological research refers to research that yields outcomes that derive from statistics or mathematical modeling. Quantitative research is centered around testing objective hypotheses. It is based on empiricism and attempts to show the accuracy of a hypothesis.

Qualitative psychological research attempts to understand behavior within its natural context and setting. Qualitative psychological research uses observation, interviews, focus groups and participant observation as its most common methods.

Classic Psychology Research Designs

Research is typically focused on finding a particular answer or answers to a question or problem, logically enough called the research question. A research design is a formalized means of finding answers to a research question. Research designs create a framework for gathering and collecting information in a structured, orderly way. Five of the most common psychology research designs include descriptive, correlational, semi-experimental, experimental, review and meta-analytic designs.

Descriptive Research Designs

  • Case study. Case study research involves researchers conduction a close-up look at an individual, a phenomenon, or a group in its real-world naturalistic environment. Case studies are more intrusive than naturalistic observational studies.
  • Naturalistic observation. Naturalistic observation, a kind of field research, involves observing research subjects in their own environment, without any introduced external factors.  Naturalistic observation has a high degree of external validity.
  • Surveys.  Everyone has taken a survey at one time or another. Surveys sample a group of individuals that are chosen to be representative of a larger population. Surveys naturally cannot research every individual in a population, thus a great deal of study is conducted to ensure that samples truly represent the populations they’re supposed to describe. Polls about public opinion, market-research surveys, public-health surveys, and government surveys are examples of mass spectrum surveys.

Correlational Research Designs

In correlational research designs, groups are studied and compared, but researchers cannot introduce variables or manipulate independent variables.

  • Case-control study. A case-control study is a comparison between two groups, one of which experienced a condition while the other group did not. Case-control studies are retrospective; that is, they observe a situation that has already happened. Two groups exist that are as similar as possible, save that a hypothesized agent affected the case group. This hypothesized agent, condition or singular difference between groups is said to correlate with differences in outcomes.
  • Observational study. Observational studies allow researchers to make some inferences from a group sample to an overall population. In an observational study, the independent variable cannot be controlled or modified directly. Consider a study that compares the outcomes of fetal alcohol exposure on the development of psychological disorders. It would be unethical to cause a group of fetuses to be exposed to alcohol in vivo. Thus, two groups of individuals, as alike as possible are compared. The difference is that one group has been selected due to their exposure to alcohol during their fetal development. Researchers are not manipulating the measure of the independent variable, but they are attempting to measure its effect by group to group comparison.

Semi-Experimental Research Design

  • Field experiment. A field experiment occurs in the everyday environment of the research subjects. In a field experiment, researchers manipulate an independent variable and measure changes in the tested, dependent variable. Although field experiments generalize extremely well, it’s not possible to eliminate extraneous variables. This can limit the usefulness of any conclusions.

Experimental Research Design

Experimental research is a major component of experimental psychology. In experimental psychology, researchers perform tightly controlled laboratory experiments that eliminate external, erroneous variables.  This high level of control allows experimental results to have a high degree of internal validity. Internal validity refers to the degree to which an experiment’s outcomes come from manipulations of the independent variable. On the other hand, highly controlled lab experiments may not generalize to the natural environment, precisely due to the presence of many external variables.

 Review Designs and Meta-Analysis

  • Literature review. A literature review is a paper examining other experiments or research into a particular subject. Literature reviews examine research published in academic and other scholarly journals. All research starts with a search for research similar, or at least fundamentally similar, to the research question in question.
  • Systematic review. A systematic review examines as much published, verified research that matches the researchers’ guidelines for a particular line of research. Systematic review involves multiple and exhaustive literature reviews. After conducting a systematic review of all other research on a topic that meets criteria, psychology researchers conduct a meta-analysis.
  • Meta-analyses. Meta-analyses involve complex statistical analysis of former research to answer an overall research question.

Literature reviews and systematic reviews and meta-analyses all work together to provide psychology researchers with a big-picture view of the body of study they are investigating.

Descriptive, Correlational and Experimental Designs

All research may be thought of as having descriptive or inferential value, although there are usually aspects of both present in all research projects. Descriptive research often comes before experimental research, as examining what’s been discovered about a research topic helps guide and refine experimental research, which has a high inferential value.

Descriptive research designs include literature reviews, systematic reviews and meta-analyses. They’re able to assess and evaluate what the state of a body of knowledge is, but no experimentation is conducted. Correlational designs investigate the strength of the relationship between or among variables. Correlational studies are good for pointing out possible relationships but cannot establish causation, or a cause-and-effect relationship among variables. This leaves experimental designs. which do allow inferences to be made about cause-and-effect. Experimental designs are the most scientifically, mathematically rigorous, but that fine level of control doesn’t always extrapolate well to the world outside the lab.

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