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Non-Experimental and Experimental Research: Differences, Advantages & Disadvantages

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  • 0:05 Non-Experimental &…
  • 2:06 Differences
  • 3:38 Pros & Cons of…
  • 4:47 Pros & Cons of…
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in Clinical Forensic Psychology, and will earn a PhD in 2015.

How is a non-experimental design scientific? We will look at what it means to use experimental and non-experimental designs in the course of psychological research. We will also look at some classic examples of different types of research.

Non-Experimental & Experimental Research

Alright! It's time to learn something using research by … performing a non-experimental study?

Wait, wait, wait! Is it possible to have a non-experimental study? Is that sort of like sugar free candy? Is it something that you're supposed to have that is replaced by something that makes you scratch your head? Before we discuss research designs, though, you need a brief walkthrough of some of the terms I am going to throw at you.

A predictor variable is the portion of the experiment that is being manipulated to see if it has an effect on the dependent variable. For example, do people eat more Gouda or cheddar cheese? The predictor variable in this is the type of cheese. Now, every time you eat cheese, you'll think about predictor variables. When I say subjects, I just mean the people in the experiment or the people being studied.

Experimental research is when a researcher is able to manipulate the predictor variable and subjects to identify a cause-and-effect relationship. This typically requires the research to be conducted in a lab, with one group being placed in an experimental group, or the ones being manipulated, while the other is placed in a placebo group, or inert condition or non-manipulated group. A laboratory-based experiment gives a high level of control and reliability.

Non-experimental research is the label given to a study when a researcher cannot control, manipulate or alter the predictor variable or subjects, but instead, relies on interpretation, observation or interactions to come to a conclusion. Typically, this means the non-experimental researcher must rely on correlations, surveys or case studies, and cannot demonstrate a true cause-and-effect relationship. Non-experimental research tends to have a high level of external validity, meaning it can be generalized to a larger population.

Differences

So, now that we have the basics of what they are, we can see some of the differences between them. Obviously, the first thing is the very basis of what they are looking at: their methodology. Experimental researchers are capable of performing experiments on people and manipulating the predictor variables. Non-experimental researchers are forced to observe and interpret what they are looking at. Being able to manipulate and control something leads to the next big difference.

The ability to find a cause-and-effect relationship is kind of a big deal in the world of science! Being able to say X causes Y is something that has a lot of power. While non-experimental research can come close, non-experimental researchers cannot say with absolute certainty that X leads to Y. This is because there may be something it did not observe, and it must rely on less direct ways to measure.

For example, let's say we're curious about how violent men and women are. We cannot have a true experimental study because our predictor variable for violence is gender. To have a true experimental study we would need to be able to manipulate the predictor variable. If we had a way to switch men into women and women into men, back and forth, so that we could see which gender is more violent, then we could run a true experimental study. But, we can't do that. So, our little experiment becomes a non-experimental study because we cannot manipulate our predictor variable.

Pros & Cons of Non-Experimental Research

There appears to be only disadvantages to non-experimental research. It cannot find cause-and-effect relationships, cannot manipulate predictor variables and the methods of study are often correlation or case studies. There are clear cut disadvantages to non-experimental designs. However, non-experimental research does have at least some advantages over experimental design. A non-experimental study picks up the slack from an experimental design. As discussed earlier, to study the effects of gender, you have to be able to manipulate a person's gender. Other examples of non-experimental research include predictor variables like:

  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Prison sentences (real prisoners, not like Zimbardo's students)
  • Bereavement
  • Current opinions

If you can't manipulate it, then you can't run an experimental study. However, non-experimental researchers are able to take the variables that cannot be manipulated and controlled. The non-experimental design can study and examine questions experimental researchers cannot.

Pros & Cons of Experimental Research

Experimental researchers have strong advantages, like we discussed earlier. Examples of this include cause-and-effect, a high level of control and the ability to replicate the study in nearly the exact circumstances. These are powerful forms of evidence in the world of science and should be marked as definitive advantages to experimental research design. There is the ability to manipulate variables like:

  • Rewards
  • Types of therapy received
  • Crowds and conformity
  • Influence by television
  • Leading questions

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