Experimental psychology utilizes scientific methods to research the mind and behavior. While students are often required to take experimental psychology courses during undergraduate and graduate school, you should think about this subject as a methodology rather than a singular area within psychology. Many of these techniques are also used by other subfields of psychology to conduct research on everything from childhood development to social issues.
Experimental Psychology: A Quick Overview
Why do people do the things they do? What factors influence how personality develops? And how do our behaviors and experiences shape our character? These are just a few of the questions that psychologists explore, and experimental methods allow researchers to create and empirically test hypotheses. By studying such questions, researchers can also develop theories that enable them to describe, explain, predict, and even change human behaviors.
In some cases, psychologists can perform experiments to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between different variables. The basics of conducting a psychology experiment involve randomly assigning participants to groups, operationally defining variables, developing a hypothesis, manipulating the independent variables, and measuring the depending variables.
For example, researchers could perform a study to look at whether sleep deprivation impairs performance on a driving test.
The experimenter could control for other variables that might influence the outcome, but then vary the amount of sleep that participants get the night before a driving test. All of the participants would then take the same driving test via a simulator or on a controlled course.
By analyzing the results, researchers can then determine if it was changes in the independent variable (amount of sleep) that led to differences in the dependent variable (performance on a driving test).
Experimentation remains the primary standard, but other techniques such as case studies, correlational research, and naturalistic observation are frequently utilized in psychological research.
Case studies allow researchers to study a single individual or group of people in great depth. When performing a case study, the researcher collects every single piece of data possible about the subject, often observing the person of interest over a period and in a variety of situations. Detailed information about the individual’s background including family history, education, work, and social life are also collected. Such studies are often performed in instances where experimentation is not possible. For example, a scientist might conduct a case study when the person of interest has had a unique or rare experience that could not be replicated in a lab.
Correlational studies make it possible for researchers to look at relationships between different variables. For example, a psychologist might note that as one variable increase, another tends to decrease. While such studies can look at relationships, they cannot be used to imply causal relationships. The golden rule is that correlation does not equal causation.
Naturalistic observation gives researchers the opportunity to observe people in their natural environments. This technique can be particularly useful in cases where the investigators believe that a lab setting might have an undue influence on participant behaviors.
What Do Experimental Psychologists Do?
Experimental psychologists work in a wide variety of settings including colleges, universities, research centers, government, and private businesses. Some of these professionals may focus on teaching experimental methods to students, while others conduct research on cognitive processes, animal behavior, neuroscience, personality and many other subject areas.
Those who work in academic settings often teach psychology courses in addition to performing research and publishing their findings in professional journals. Other experimental psychologists work with businesses to discover ways to make employees more productive or to create a safer workplace, a specialty area known as human factors psychology.