- Define nonexperimental research, distinguish it clearly from experimental research, and give several examples.
- Explain when a researcher might choose to conduct nonexperimental research as opposed to experimental research.
What Is Nonexperimental Research?
Nonexperimental researchResearch that lacks the manipulation of an independent variable or the random assignment of participants to conditions or orders of conditions. is research that lacks the manipulation of an independent variable, random assignment of participants to conditions or orders of conditions, or both.
In a sense, it is unfair to define this large and diverse set of approaches collectively by what they are not. But doing so reflects the fact that most researchers in psychology consider the distinction between experimental and nonexperimental research to be an extremely important one. This is because while experimental research can provide strong evidence that changes in an independent variable cause differences in a dependent variable, nonexperimental research generally cannot. As we will see, however, this does not mean that nonexperimental research is less important than experimental research or inferior to it in any general sense.
When to Use Nonexperimental Research
As we saw in Chapter 6 "Experimental Research", experimental research is appropriate when the researcher has a specific research question or hypothesis about a causal relationship between two variables—and it is possible, feasible, and ethical to manipulate the independent variable and randomly assign participants to conditions or to orders of conditions. It stands to reason, therefore, that nonexperimental research is appropriate—even necessary—when these conditions are not met. There are many ways in which this can be the case.
- The research question or hypothesis can be about a single variable rather than a statistical relationship between two variables (e.g., How accurate are people’s first impressions?).
- The research question can be about a noncausal statistical relationship between variables (e.g., Is there a correlation between verbal intelligence and mathematical intelligence?).
- The research question can be about a causal relationship, but the independent variable cannot be manipulated or participants cannot be randomly assigned to conditions or orders of conditions (e.g., Does damage to a person’s hippocampus impair the formation of long-term memory traces?).
- The research question can be broad and exploratory, or it can be about what it is like to have a particular experience (e.g., What is it like to be a working mother diagnosed with depression?).
Again, the choice between the experimental and nonexperimental approaches is generally dictated by the nature of the research question. If it is about a causal relationship and involves an independent variable that can be manipulated, the experimental approach is typically preferred. Otherwise, the nonexperimental approach is preferred. But the two approaches can also be used to address the same research question in complementary ways. For example, nonexperimental studies establishing that there is a relationship between watching violent television and aggressive behavior have been complemented by experimental studies confirming that the relationship is a causal one (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001). Similarly, after his original study, Milgram conducted experiments to explore the factors that affect obedience. He manipulated several independent variables, such as the distance between the experimenter and the participant, the participant and the confederate, and the location of the study (Milgram, 1974).
Types of Nonexperimental Research
Nonexperimental research falls into three broad categories: single-variable research, correlational and quasi-experimental research, and qualitative research. First, research can be nonexperimental because it focuses on a single variable rather than a statistical relationship between two variables. Although there is no widely shared term for this kind of research, we will call it single-variable researchResearch that focuses on a single variable rather than on a statistical relationship between variables.. Milgram’s original obedience study was nonexperimental in this way. He was primarily interested in one variable—the extent to which participants obeyed the researcher when he told them to shock the confederate—and he observed all participants performing the same task under the same conditions. The study by Loftus and Pickrell described at the beginning of this chapter is also a good example of single-variable research. The variable was whether participants “remembered” having experienced mildly traumatic childhood events (e.g., getting lost in a shopping mall) that they had not actually experienced but that the research asked them about repeatedly. In this particular study, nearly a third of the participants “remembered” at least one event. (As with Milgram’s original study, this study inspired several later experiments on the factors that affect false memories.)
As these examples make clear, single-variable research can answer interesting and important questions. What it cannot do, however, is answer questions about statistical relationships between variables. This is a point that beginning researchers sometimes miss. Imagine, for example, a group of research methods students interested in the relationship between children’s being the victim of bullying and the children’s self-esteem. The first thing that is likely to occur to these researchers is to obtain a sample of middle-school students who have been bullied and then to measure their self-esteem. But this would be a single-variable study with self-esteem as the only variable. Although it would tell the researchers something about the self-esteem of children who have been bullied, it would not tell them what they really want to know, which is how the self-esteem of children who have been bullied compares with the self-esteem of children who have not. Is it lower? Is it the same? Could it even be higher? To answer this question, their sample would also have to include middle-school students who have not been bullied.