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How might someone apply the scientific method to psychological research? We will review the steps of the scientific method and how they applied to one of the most famous psychological studies ever conducted.

Defining the Scientific Method

The scientific method is a logically stepped process used for investigating and acquiring or expanding our understanding. I threw around some odd terminology, so let us take a look at what it means. ‘Logically stepped’ is a fancy way of saying there is a step-by-step process from beginning to end, and the steps make sense when you put them together. You start at one, go through six and voila – you have the truth. Starting at step two, three or six means you will more than likely come to an incorrect truth, and your findings will be erroneous.

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Steps of the Scientific Method

Some of you may be familiar with the scientific method, so this should act as a good reminder of the basics and provide additional information on how psychological research is conducted. If you are unfamiliar with the method, or it has been a long time, don’t worry, as I will put enough information and detail in the following descriptions of the steps to explain what’s going on.Step 1: Ask a question.

You can’t research something and learn about it if you don’t have a question to answer. Where you draw your question from can be anywhere, such as personal observations of the natural world, professional literature or previous experiments.We will look at a famous experiment, so you can do some additional research if you so choose. In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram posed the question, ‘What could a person in authority make another person do?’ He was inspired by the Jewish Holocaust and the soldiers of the concentration camps. Could a person in authority order another person to kill someone?Step 2: Background research.

There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Looking into background research and consulting with peers helps inform you of what has been done before, how it has been done, what gaps there are in the literature and what still needs to be done.Stanley Milgram drew from many sources on obedience and following instructions. He asked his peers, ‘How many people would kill a person if instructed to do so?’ His peers estimated that less than 1% of the population would follow the authorities’ orders and kill someone. He also looked historically, since Milgram was inspired by the Nazi concentration camps.Step 3: Form a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a type of prediction, an if-then statement.

This is where you have an idea of which part of the question will be tested, how it will be tested and what you expect the results to be. In addition, this is where you begin to design your experiment, because your experiment is supposed to test the accuracy of your hypothesis.One of Milgram’s hypotheses stated, ‘If a person is instructed by an authority figure, such as a psychologist in a lab, then they will follow the instructions even if the instructions might lead to harming another individual.’ I say ‘one of the hypotheses’ because there were several variants to the original design, but we don’t need to focus on them.

Milgram’s hypothesis is an if-then statement (IF a person with authority instructs another individual to harm someone, THEN they will do it), predicting what he believes will happen in the experiment.Step 4: Test the hypothesis and collect data. At this step, you conduct your study and test whether your hypothesis is correct. This can take many forms, from simple observations to elaborate experiments that span years.Milgram’s experiment required three people. They would arrive at about the same time and the experimenter would designate the second person as a teacher and the third as the learner. The learner was placed in a chair in room A and hooked up to electrodes.

The learner would also explain that he had a prior heart condition, but the experimenter in the lab coat would say the shocks are not dangerous.The teacher would then be seated in front of a large box with switches ranging from 15 volts to over 400 XXX dangerous. The teacher would then read word pairs, and the learner would try to repeat them back, and if he was incorrect, he would receive a shock and the teacher would hear a loud BZZ. Every incorrect word pair would increase the shock.The trick was, the experimenter and the learner were in on the experiment. The learner would intentionally get words wrong and only pretend to be shocked. At a certain point, the learner would complain of his heart condition.

At a later point, he would stop responding. All the while the experimenter would stand behind the teacher and say things like, ‘The experiment requires you to continue,’ and ‘I will take full responsibility for what happens,’ if the teacher ever faltered or hesitated.Step 5: Analyze data. This is where you try and make sense of everything you’ve collected.

Another way of looking at this is as a confirmation of your hypothesis. Was your prediction correct, or do you need to go back to step three and rework it? Note, you do not just skip back to step three to make your hypothesis correct; you then need to go back through step four because your study may be different now.So, how many people would shock their fellow human being to death if a person in authority said to? One percent? Five percent? Twenty percent? A stunning 65% of people would shock someone to death because an authority figure asked them to. Milgram’s hypothesis was correct.Step 6: Reporting. What good is learning something if you don’t share it? The scientific community needs new information, so future studies can be planned. Your research may answer another’s question or could inspire a string of studies that lead to a revolutionary idea.

This typically takes the form of publication in a respectable, peer-reviewed journal.Sometimes, it is even presented at conferences in a poster board style we’re more familiar with. Milgram would go on to publish his results, and due to the implications and findings, they are continually republished in textbooks and as references in other articles.

Lesson Summary

The scientific method is a logically stepped process used for investigating and acquiring or expanding our understanding. The step-by-step process uses common sense to establish a question, use background research and develop a hypothesis, or prediction.

This hypothesis is tested and the subsequent data analyzed. Once everything is together, the results are reported, so others can read and further their own research.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the steps of the scientific method
  • Detail how questions in psychological research can be answered by the scientific method

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