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Authors: Adam Cash

Tags: #Psychology, #General, #Body; Mind & Spirit, #Spirituality

Psychology for Dummies (6 page)

BOOK: Psychology for Dummies
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Applying the Scientific Method without a Bunsen Burner

We all have an opinion about the behavior and mental processes of others and ourselves. “She left you because you’re emotionally unavailable.” “If you don’t express yourself, it just stays bottled up inside.” We’re full of answers to the why, how, and what questions regarding people. But how do we really know that not talking about feelings leads to bottling them up? I may think that not expressing feelings allows them to drift away like clouds on a windy day. Who’s right? You may be thinking that it doesn’t matter, but we’ve got this whole group of psychologists that claim to be experts on these matters. But on what grounds can they make this claim to expertise?

Psychologists strive to maintain their expertise and knowledge through the use of three forms of knowledge acquisition or ways of knowing:

Authority:
Utilized to transmit information, usually in a therapy setting or the education and training process. Patients and students don’t have time to go out and research everything that they’re told. They have to take someone’s word for it at some point.

Rationalism/logic:
Used to create theories and hypotheses. If things don’t make logical sense, they probably won’t make sense when researchers use the scientific method to investigate them.

Scientific method:
Used as the preferred method of obtaining information and investigating behavior and mental processes. Psychologists implement the scientific method through a variety of different techniques.

 
 

Let me be perfectly clear: Not everything that psychologists do, talk about, and believe is based on scientific research! A lot of stuff is based on the authority of well-known personalities in the field. Other knowledge is based on clinical experience without any systematic investigation. Finally, a good-sized chunk of information that’s out there is purely theoretical, but it makes sense on rational/logical grounds.

The vast majority of psychologists prefer to use the scientific method when seeking truth because it’s seen as a fair and impartial process. When I do a research study, I’m expected to outline exactly what I’m doing and what it is that I claim to be looking for. That way, if people want to try to prove me wrong, they can repeat my work, step by step, and see if they get the same results. If knowledge is based on authority alone, I can never be sure that the information I receive is unbiased and trustworthy. When the scientific method is in place, a theory that doesn’t match the empirical results “experienced” in a research study is labeled inaccurate. Time for a new theory! Scientists should never change their experimental data to match their original theory — that’s cheating!

Developing a Good Theory

Because a fair amount of psychological knowledge is based on theory, it may by helpful to know what a theory is exactly. If you already have a handle on what a theory is, indulge me for a moment. A
theory
is a set of related statements about a set of objects or events (the ones being studied) that explains how these objects or events are related.

Theories and hypotheses are similar but not exactly the same thing. Psycho-logists test theories by studying their logical implications. Hypotheses are specific predictions based on these implications. We can add new information to theories, and we can use existing theories to generate new ones.

 
 

Not every theory is a good theory. In order for a theory to be good, it must meet three criteria:

Parsimony:
It must be the simplest explanation possible that still explains the available observation.

Precision:
It must make precise, not overly large or vague, statements about reality.

Testability:
It must lend itself to scientific investigation.

Researching for the Truth

Psychologists use two broad categories of research when they want to scientifically evaluate a theory:

Descriptive research:
Consists of observation and the collection of data without trying to manipulate any of the conditions or circumstances being observed. It’s a passive observation of the topics being investigated. Descriptive studies are good for developing new theories and hypotheses and are often the first step for a researcher investigating things that haven’t been studied much. However, they don’t help much if you’re interested in cause and effect relationships.

If I’m only interested in the content of bus-stop conversations, I may videotape people talking to each other at a bus stop and analyze the video. But, if I want to know what causes people to talk about certain subjects at bus stops, I should conduct an experiment.

Experimental research:
Involves the control and manipulation of the objects and events being investigated in order to get a better idea of the cause and effect relationships between the objects or events.

Say I have a theory of bus-stop conversations called the “five-minute or more rule” that states, “Strangers will engage in conversation with each other only after having been in each other’s presence for five or more minutes.” My hypothesis would be, “After five minutes, apparent strangers will engage in a conversation beyond the simple pleasantries and greetings afforded to strangers.” That is, I am hypothesizing that once strangers at a bus stop have been there for five minutes, they will start having a conversation. How can I test my hypothesis?

I could just hang out at a bus stop and watch to see if it happens. But how could I know that my five-minute-or-more rule is behind my observations? I couldn’t! It could be any number of things. This is a problematic issue in research I like to call the z-factor. A
z-factor
is something affecting the hypothesis that I am unaware of or not accounting for; it is an extraneous variable that I need to control in order to have confidence in my theory. Some possible z-factors in the bus stop study might be culture, age, and time of day. Good research studies try to eliminate z-factors or extraneous variables by controlling for their influence and factoring it out of the explanation.

A descriptive or observational study won’t account for z-factors, so instead I set up an experiment in which I approach people at bus stops and try a variety of things to test my hypothesis. I might go up and try to talk to someone after two minutes. I might wait for ten minutes. I might conduct studies during a thunderstorm or while dressed in particular ways, and I would try to prove my hypothesis wrong! I would seek to find that people have conversations at bus stops before five minutes. If this is the case, then the five-minute rule would be inaccurate. The more often I failed to prove my five-minute-or-more rule wrong, the more it would deserve my confidence.

Is this confusing you? Why would I try to disprove my hypothesis instead of just proving it right? In any scientific investigation, I can never really prove a hypothesis true. Instead, I set out to disprove the opposite of my hypothesis. For example, we once thought the earth was flat. Everything we observed at that time was consistent with this idea. However, someone came along and provided evidence that disputed this idea, which showed the flaw in this thinking. If I have a hypothesis and I keep finding evidence for it, I can be more and more confident in my hypothesis but never really know for sure. But if I can find just one example that contradicts my hypothesis, then this casts doubt on my hypothesis. If I say all swans are white, what happens when I find one black swan? The notion that all swans are white is false!

The rest of this book introduces you to various theories and research. There’s a lot of stuff in here! Because psychology is about people, some people might argue that everything about people is “psychology.” I couldn’t write a book about everything. This is not
Everything About People For Dummies.
I established a way to decide what to put in the book and what not to so I used scientific research and theory as my measuring rod. The information you find in this book is considered part of legitimate psychological science and theory. Are you ready? Here we go.

BOOK: Psychology for Dummies
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