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What is Research? - Definition, Purpose & Typical Researchers

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  • 0:05 Research Definition
  • 1:37 Purpose of…
  • 2:52 Research and the…
  • 4:21 Who Does Research?
  • 6:03 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. He is working on his PhD.

Psychological research helps to shape our society - from the way we raise our children to the way we treat our criminals and military enemies. But what is research and who conducts it? This lesson explores the purposes of research in psychology and the individuals who observe, record, and alter our behavior.

Research Definition

Research is a careful and detailed study into a specific problem, concern, or issue using the scientific method. It's the adult form of the science fair projects back in elementary school, where you try and learn something by performing an experiment. This is best accomplished by turning the issue into a question, with the intent of the research to answer the question.

Research can be about anything, and we hear about all different types of research in the news. Cancer research has 'Breakthrough Cancer-Killing Treatment Has No Side Effects in Mice,' and 'Baby Born with HIV Cured.' Each of these began with an issue or a problem (such as cancer or HIV), and they had a question, like, 'Does medication X reduce cancerous tissue or HIV infections?'

But all I've said so far is what research has done (sort of like saying baking leads to apple pie; it doesn't really tell you anything other than the two are connected). To begin researching something, you have to have a problem, concern, or issue that has turned into a question. These can come from observing the world, prior research, professional literature, or from peers. Research really begins with the right question, because your question must be answerable. Questions like, 'How can I cure cancer?' aren't really answerable with a study. It's too vague and not testable.

Having a question creates an internal state of 'I need to know something.' To continue the baking example, this internal state of wanting something is like having a hankering for apple pie. Since you are reading this in a psychology section, we will put a psychological slant on this, and hopefully lose some of the baking metaphors.

Purpose of Psychological Research

Psychological researchers want to learn and understand human behavior. It can be about how people think, how they feel, how they behave, or some combination of these issues. Research, and the understanding that follows, trickles down from the scientists and alters society. There is constant and competing research. For example, about what is the best way to punish and rehabilitate criminals (such as Zimbardo's prison experiment), the best and worst ways to raise children (Bowlby and attachment, Spock and children), and how to treat the mentally ill (with too many to count).

More specifically, psychological research is used to measure, describe, and categorize human behavior. This can result in understanding what might be called normal behavior. More interesting and more often researched are the abnormal behaviors, those that eventually become categorized and labeled with a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a constellation of common behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that occur together.

For example, many people suffer from depression, and research has found that exercise, psychotropic medication, and therapy have reduced and sometimes eliminated the feelings of sadness, guilt, and worthlessness that come from depression.

Example of Research and the Scientific Method

Research begins with an issue that comes from an observation. Let's say I am walking down the street and I see two pigeons sitting at two different windows. I'm weird, so I'll call the first pigeon Stu and the second pigeon Bill. When I walk past Stu the pigeon, I see him pecking at the glass.

When I walk past Bill the pigeon, I see him just sitting there, chilling like pigeons do. So, I formulate a question: 'Why is Stu the pigeon pecking at the glass, while Bill the pigeon does not?' Next, I should do a little research into pigeons and why they might peck at things. This is background research to help me understand what I am looking for or at.

Next, I have to figure out how to answer my question. There are many ways a question can be answered; most psychological studies use laboratory experiments or naturalistic studies, which will be explored in more in depth in another lesson.

I plan on observing Stu and Bill every day I walk past them to answer my question. It isn't the most elegant or accurate study, but it should give me an answer. I create a hypothesis, which is like creating a prediction of what I think is happening: that Stu is being fed while Bill is not.

By observing them, I am conducting a simple experiment and testing this hypothesis. Of the two pigeons, I learn that Stu is being fed by the people who live in the apartment behind the window, and he gets their attention by clicking on the window. I review my data and come to a conclusion. Stu pecks for food, and Bill does not. Stu gets food, while Bill gets none. My hypothesis was correct.

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