What Happens in a Psychology Laboratory?

psychology lab

Posted November 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 6 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on psychology labs? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

The first experimental psychology laboratory was opened by Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig in 1879.

In the nearly 150 years since, psychologists have been researching human behavior in these controlled settings with great success, garnering much insight into human behavior.

But beyond “studying human behavior,” what happens in a psychology laboratory?

What is a Psychology Lab?

To explain what happens in a psychology lab, we must first answer the question, “What is a psychology lab?” The answer to this question really depends on the type of lab that’s being discussed.

As you well know, psychology is a widely varied discipline with dozens of areas of specialty. This means that there are many different areas of psychological research, each of which requires a lab environment that might vary from one specialty to the next.

We’ll get into some of the different types of psychology labs in a moment, but for now, just understand that the general purpose of any psychology lab is to create a controlled environment in which researchers can study human behavior. This level of control is of the utmost importance in psychology laboratory work.

This is because psychology labs are founded on the notion of the scientific method – that a hypothesis must be formed, tested, and accepted or rejected under very strictly designed conditions.

The goal, of course, is to manipulate the independent variable (the factor that causes behavior) and measure the dependent variable (or the effect caused by the independent variable) in a setting that minimizes confounding conditions.

The goal of doing so is to establish a better understanding of why people do the things they do. Of course, this is the whole purpose of psychology – to study human behavior. But to do so in an environment in which researchers have pinpoint control over what happens and when allows psychologists to study very fine details of human behavior and thought.

What Kind of Psychology Laboratories are There?

As noted earlier, psychology is a widely varied field, so depending on the research under study, psychology labs might have a very different look.

For example, let’s assume that the research being conducted is on cognition and brain functioning.

This being the case, the psychology lab might be equipped with a functional MRI machine that allows psychological researchers to measure and record a subject’s brain activity.

These measurements rely on the changes in blood flow in the brain – movement of blood in the brain goes hand in hand with the activation of neurons. That means that depending on the task the subject is performing, a different area of their brain will be activated. The fMRI shows this by highlighting the active areas of the brain.

So, a lab like this uses very sophisticated equipment to answer questions about how people think, factors that influence attention, and that might lead to insights on how people can improve their ability to focus as they complete a task.

On the other side of the spectrum is a psychology lab built to simply observe what the subject or subjects are doing.

For example, some labs have a room set up with a two-way mirror. This allows researchers behind the mirror to silently observe what’s going on on the other side. A lab like this might be used by developmental psychologists to observe the playmaking activities of toddlers in a social setting.

Likewise, many labs have small interview rooms in which a researcher can meet with a subject in a one-on-one setting for things like interviews or for administering a questionnaire or a test of some kind, like an IQ test.

There are even virtual psychology labs today where psychology students can engage in learning about classic psychology research, see how to design and carry out experiments, and learn about the science of investigation.

In other words, no two psychology labs are alike.

What Equipment is Used in Psychology Labs?

As you might have guessed, the psychology lab equipment list will be different from one lab to the next.

Most labs will have basic office equipment like computers and computer software, writing utensils, desks, chairs, and so forth. But as the type of research becomes more specialized, different kinds of lab equipment are necessary.

For example, if the research question relates to how attractive a person’s face is perceived to be based on the symmetry of the person’s face, researchers would need the appropriate software to create sample images of faces with varying degrees of symmetry. What’s more, they would need a computer and screen to display the faces of the experimental subjects.

As another example, if the research question relates to how viewing violent videos or video games affects one’s physiological functioning, researchers might utilize machines like an electrocardiogram to record the subject’s heart activity, or they might use a Biopac system, which records both the heart rate of the subject and their skin conductance, or the activity of sweat glands in response to arousal and stress.

Some labs look more like classroom settings, while others have more of an office feel. Yet others are full of complex machinery that’s used to collect or interpret data.

Despite these examples being quite different from one another, the ultimate goal of the lab is the same – to collect data from subjects in an environment that is as controlled as possible from outside variables or influence.

By controlling possible confounding variables in a lab setting, researchers can more clearly establish a cause and effect relationship between the independent and dependent variables.

What is the Importance of Psychology Laboratory Research?

As noted earlier, laboratory research allows psychologists to more clearly link cause and effect, thus pinpointing why certain behaviors occur in certain conditions. And since experiments are undertaken in a controlled environment using standardized procedures, they are much more easily replicated by other researchers.

This replication component is crucial, as it allows researchers to:

  • Identify potential mistakes in the original research
  • Provide an opportunity for other researchers to review the work
  • Publish their research (published work must have a section on experimental methods that allow others to replicate the study)
  • Check for confounding variables, or variables that unintentionally influenced the results of the study
  • Avoid retractions (if research is replicated and confirmed, the likelihood that a researcher has to retract their findings is minimized)

Aside from the research components above, psychology laboratory research is important for developing a better understanding of human behavior.

While other research methods like naturalistic observation and self-reporting are extremely valuable tools for psychological research, they cannot offer researchers nearly the same level of control over the environment as laboratory studies.

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