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2.5 Designing a Research Study

Learning Objectives

  1. Define the concept of a variable, distinguish quantitative from categorical variables, and give examples of variables that might be of interest to psychologists.
  2. Explain the difference between a population and a sample.
  3. Distinguish between experimental and non-experimental research.
  4. Distinguish between lab studies, field studies, and field experiments.

Identifying and Defining the Variables and Population

Variables and Operational Definitions

Part of generating a hypothesis involves identifying the variables that you want to study and operationally defining those variables so that they can be measured. Research questions in psychology are about variables. A variable is a quantity or quality that varies across people or situations. For example, the height of the students enrolled in a university course is a variable because it varies from student to student. The chosen major of the students is also a variable as long as not everyone in the class has declared the same major. Almost everything in our world varies and as such thinking of examples of constants (things that don’t vary) is far more difficult. A rare example of a constant is the speed of light. Variables can be either quantitative or categorical. A quantitative variable is a quantity, such as height, that is typically measured by assigning a number to each individual. Other examples of quantitative variables include people’s level of talkativeness, how depressed they are, and the number of siblings they have. A categorical variable is a quality, such as chosen major, and is typically measured by assigning a category label to each individual (e.g., Psychology, English, Nursing, etc.). Other examples include people’s nationality, their occupation, and whether they are receiving psychotherapy.

After the researcher generates his or her hypothesis and selects the variables he or she wants to manipulate and measure, the researcher needs to find ways to actually measure the variables of interest. This requires an operational definition—a definition of the variable in terms of precisely how it is to be measured. Most variables that researchers are interested in studying cannot be directly observed or measured and this poses a problem because empiricism (observation) is at the heart of the scientific method. Operationally defining a variable involves taking an abstract construct like depression that cannot be directly observed and transforming it into something that can be directly observed and measured. Most variables can be operationally defined in many different ways. For example, depression can be operationally defined as people’s scores on a paper-and-pencil depression scale such as the Beck Depression Inventory, the number of depressive symptoms they are experiencing, or whether they have been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Researchers are wise to choose an operational definition that has been used extensively in the research literature.

Sampling and Measurement

In addition to identifying which variables to manipulate and measure, and operationally defining those variables, researchers need to identify the population of interest. Researchers in psychology are usually interested in drawing conclusions about some very large group of people. This is called the population. It could be all American teenagers, children with autism, professional athletes, or even just human beings—depending on the interests and goals of the researcher. But they usually study only a small subset or sample of the population. For example, a researcher might measure the talkativeness of a few hundred university students with the intention of drawing conclusions about the talkativeness of men and women in general. It is important, therefore, for researchers to use a representative sample—one that is similar to the population in important respects.

One method of obtaining a sample is simple random sampling, in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected for the sample. For example, a pollster could start with a list of all the registered voters in a city (the population), randomly select 100 of them from the list (the sample), and ask those 100 whom they intend to vote for. Unfortunately, random sampling is difficult or impossible in most psychological research because the populations are less clearly defined than the registered voters in a city. How could a researcher give all American teenagers or all children with autism an equal chance of being selected for a sample? The most common alternative to random sampling is convenience sampling, in which the sample consists of individuals who happen to be nearby and willing to participate (such as introductory psychology students). Of course, the obvious problem with convenience sampling is that the sample might not be representative of the population and therefore it may be less appropriate to generalize the results from the sample to that population.

Experimental vs. Non-Experimental Research

The next step a researcher must take is to decide which type of approach he or she will use to collect the data. As you will learn in your research methods course there are many different approaches to research that can be divided in many different ways. One of the most fundamental distinctions is between experimental and non-experimental research.

Experimental Research

Researchers who want to test hypotheses about causal relationships between variables (i.e., their goal is to explain) need to use an experimental method. This is because the experimental method is the only method that allows us to determine causal relationships. Using the experimental approach, researchers first manipulate one or more variables while attempting to control extraneous factors, and then they measure how the manipulated variables affect participants’ responses.

The terms independent variable and dependent variable are used in the context of experimental research. The independent variable is the variable the experimenter manipulates (it is the presumed cause) and the dependent variable is the variable the experimenter measures (it is the presumed effect).

Confounds are also a term that is rather specific to experimental research. A confound is an extraneous variable (so a variable other than the independent variable and dependent variable) that systematically varies along with the variables under investigation and therefore provides an alternative explanation for the results. When researchers design an experiment they need to ensure that they control for confounds; they need to ensure that extraneous variables don’t become confounding variables because in order to make a causal conclusion they need to make sure alternative explanations for the results have been ruled out.

As an example, if we manipulate the lighting in the room and examine the effects of that manipulation on workers’ productivity, then the lighting conditions (bright lights vs. dim lights) would be considered the independent variable and the workers’ productivity would be considered the dependent variable. If the bright lights are noisy then that noise would be a confound since the noise would be present whenever the lights are bright and the noise would be absent when the lights are dim. If noise is varying systematically with light then we wouldn’t know if a difference in worker productivity across the two lighting conditions is due to noise or light. So confounds are bad, they disrupt our ability to make causal conclusions about the nature of the relationship between variables. However, if there is noise in the room both when the lights are on and when the lights are off then noise is merely an extraneous variable (it is a variable other than the independent or dependent variable) and we don’t worry much about extraneous variables. This is because unless a variable varies systematically with the manipulated independent variable it cannot be a competing explanation for the results.

Non-Experimental Research

Researchers who are simply interested in describing characteristics of people, describing relationships between variables, and using those relationships to make predictions can use non-experimental or descriptive research. Using the non-experimental approach, the researcher simply measures variables as they naturally occur, but they do not manipulate them. For instance, if I just measured the number of traffic fatalities in America last year that involved the use of a cell phone but I did not actually manipulate cell phone use then this would be categorized as non-experimental research. Alternatively, if I stood at a busy intersection and recorded drivers’ genders and whether or not they were using a cell phone when they passed through the intersection to see whether men or women are more likely to use a cell phone when driving, then this would be non-experimental research. It is important to point out that non-experimental does not mean nonscientific. Non-experimental research is scientific in nature. It can be used to fulfill two of the three goals of science (to describe and to predict). However, unlike with experimental research, we cannot make causal conclusions using this method; we cannot say that one variable causes another variable using this method.

Laboratory vs. Field Research

The next major distinction between research methods is between laboratory and field studies. A laboratory study is a study that is conducted in the laboratory environment. In contrast, a field study is a study that is conducted in the real-world, in a natural environment.

Laboratory experiments typically have high internal validity. Internal validity refers to the degree to which we can confidently infer a causal relationship between variables. When we conduct an experimental study in a laboratory environment we have very high internal validity because we manipulate one variable while controlling all other outside extraneous variables. When we manipulate an independent variable and observe an effect on a dependent variable and we control for everything else so that the only difference between our experimental groups or conditions is the one manipulated variable then we can be quite confident that it is the independent variable that is causing the change in the dependent variable. In contrast, because field studies are conducted in the real-world, the experimenter typically has less control over the environment and potential extraneous variables, and this decreases internal validity, making it less appropriate to arrive at causal conclusions.

But there is typically a trade-off between internal and external validity. When internal validity is high, external validity tends to be low; and when internal validity is low, external validity tends to be high. External validity simply refers to the degree to which we can generalize the findings to other circumstances or settings, like the real-world environment. So laboratory studies are typically low in external validity, while field studies are typically high in external validity. Since field studies are conducted in the real-world environment it is far more appropriate to generalize the findings to that real-world environment than when the research is conducted in the more artificial sterile laboratory.

Finally, there are field studies which are nonexperimental in nature because nothing is manipulated. But there are also field experiments where an independent variable is manipulated in a natural setting and extraneous variables are controlled. Depending on their overall quality and the level of control of extraneous variables, such field experiments can have high external and high internal validity.

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