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1.3 Goals of Science

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the three goals of science and give an example for each.
  2. Distinguish between basic research and applied research.

The Broader Purposes of Scientific Research in Psychology

People have always been curious about the natural world, including themselves and their behavior (in fact, this is probably why you are studying psychology in the first place). Science grew out of this natural curiosity and has become the best way to achieve detailed and accurate knowledge. Keep in mind that most of the phenomena and theories that fill psychology textbooks are the products of scientific research. In a typical introductory psychology textbook, for example, one can learn about specific cortical areas for language and perception, principles of classical and operant conditioning, biases in reasoning and judgment, and people’s surprising tendency to obey those in positions of authority. And scientific research continues because what we know right now only scratches the surface of what we can know.

The Three Goals of Science

The first and most basic goal of science is to describe. This goal is achieved by making careful observations. As an example, perhaps I am interested in better understanding the medical conditions that medical marijuana patients use marijuana to treat. In this case, I could try to access records at several large medical marijuana licensing centers to see which conditions people are getting licensed to use medical marijuana. Or I could survey a large sample of medical marijuana patients and ask them to report which medical conditions they use marijuana to treat or manage. Indeed, research involving surveys of medical marijuana patients has been conducted and has found that the primary symptom medical marijuana patients use marijuana to treat is pain, followed by anxiety and depression (Sexton, Cuttler, Finnell, & Mischley, 2016).[1].

The second goal of science is to predict. Once we have observed with some regularity that two behaviors or events are systematically related to one another we can use that information to predict whether an event or behavior will occur in a certain situation. Once I know that most medical marijuana patients use marijuana to treat pain I can use that information to predict that an individual who uses medical marijuana likely experiences pain. Of course, my predictions will not be 100% accurate but if the relationship between medical marijuana use and pain is strong then my predictions will have greater than chance accuracy.

The third and ultimate goal of science is to explain. This goal involves determining the causes of behavior. For example, researchers might try to understand the mechanisms through which marijuana reduces pain. Does marijuana reduce inflammation which in turn reduces pain? Or does marijuana simply reduce the distress associated with pain rather than reducing pain itself? As you can see these questions tap at the underlying mechanisms and causal relationships.

Basic versus Applied Research

Scientific research is often classified as being either basic or applied. Basic research in psychology is conducted primarily for the sake of achieving a more detailed and accurate understanding of human behavior, without necessarily trying to address any particular practical problem. The research of Mehl and his colleagues falls into this category. Applied research is conducted primarily to address some practical problem. Research on the effects of cell phone use on driving, for example, was prompted by safety concerns and has led to the enactment of laws to limit this practice. Although the distinction between basic and applied research is convenient, it is not always clear-cut. For example, basic research on sex differences in talkativeness could eventually have an effect on how marriage therapy is practiced, and applied research on the effect of cell phone use on driving could produce new insights into basic processes of perception, attention, and action.

Key Takeaways

  • Psychologists conduct research in order to describe basic phenomenon, to make predictions about future behaviors, and to explain the causes of behavior.
  • Basic research is conducted to learn about human behavior for its own sake, and applied research is conducted to solve some practical problem. Both are valuable, and the distinction between the two is not always clear-cut.


  1. Try to generate different research questions to describe, predict, and explain.
  2. Practice: Based on your own experience or on things you have already learned about psychology, list three basic research questions and three applied research questions of interest to you.

  1. Sexton, M., Cuttler, C., Finnell, J., & Mischley, L (2016). A cross-sectional survey f medical cannabis users: Patterns of use and perceived efficacy. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 1, 131-138. doi: 10.1089/can.2016.0007.