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The Scientific Method vs. Types of Research

Think of the years you've spent in science classes and the hundreds of hours you've faced teachers drilling you on the "scientific method" (who can forget the poor lima beans squished into dirt-filled paper cups and shoved into dark closets while their siblings enjoyed sunny places on the first-grade window sill?). Do you understand the difference between the "scientific method" and the "types" of research methods?

Think of the scientific method as having four goals (description, prediction, explanation and control). It is important to remember that these goals are the same for anything that can be studied via the scientific method (a chemical compound, a biological organism, or in the case of psychology, behavior). Each goal can be understood in terms of the question that it answers about the entity under investigation. For psychology, each goal answers a particular question with respect to behavior:

  1. Description: What are the characteristics of the behavior?
  2. Prediction: How likely is it that the behavior will occur?
  3. Explanation: What causes the behavior?
  4. Control: Can I make the behavior happen/ not happen?

Each research type or method attempts to achieve at least one of these goals. The research methods that satisfy the goal of description are naturalistic observation, case history, and survey. The research method that satisfies the goal of prediction is correlation: It attempts to predict one observed variable based on another observed variable. The research method that satisfies the goals of explanation and control is the experiment. The true experiment is the only methodology that can determine causation; "correlation does not equal causation."

This framework should help you interpret the results of research presented in the popular press. Very often the specific methodology used by the researcher is not reported in brief television or newspaper clips. This is problematic because the methodology indicates the goal. This in turn determines how the results should be interpreted and used. For example, if the methodology is correlational, then it satisfies the prediction goal, but causation should not be inferred. Sometimes the words used to describe the results of a study will provide a hint about the methodology used and the appropriate use of the results, but writers and reporters for the popular press don't always give details of how research is carried out. (For example, they may call studies "experiments" when those studies do not involve any manipulation of an independent variable.)

The following examples will give you practice in identifying types of research and corresponding goals of the scientific method. The correct answers are given below.

  1. Researchers spent six months watching toddlers in day care and home settings. They have concluded that normal children combine words in simple sentences by age two.
  2. By comparing people assigned to one of three groups--no treatment, traditional treatment, and newly developed virtual reality therapy--psychologists have concluded that you can overcome fear of spiders by using a virtual reality system to gradually raise your comfort level in the presence of spiders.
  3. Studies done in randomly selected suburban neighborhoods across the United States have shown that the higher the income level, the fewer the average number of years that a family has lived in the neighborhood.
  4. Scientists examine an individual whose right and left hemispheres have been disconnected to control severe seizures. They find that the right hemisphere tends to integrate or synthesize information and the left hemisphere tends to analyze information.


  1. naturalistic observation; description
  2. experiment; explanation and control
  3. correlation; prediction
  4. case study; description