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What Is the Scientific Method in Psychology? - Definition, Characteristics & Steps

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  • 0:06 The Scientific Method
  • 0:43 Steps
  • 6:38 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.

How might someone apply the scientific method to psychological research? We will review the steps of the scientific method and how they applied to one of the most famous psychological studies ever conducted.

Defining the Scientific Method

The scientific method is a logically stepped process used for investigating and acquiring or expanding our understanding. I threw around some odd terminology, so let us take a look at what it means. 'Logically stepped' is a fancy way of saying there is a step-by-step process from beginning to end, and the steps make sense when you put them together. You start at one, go through six and voila - you have the truth. Starting at step two, three or six means you will more than likely come to an incorrect truth, and your findings will be erroneous.

Steps of the Scientific Method

Some of you may be familiar with the scientific method, so this should act as a good reminder of the basics and provide additional information on how psychological research is conducted. If you are unfamiliar with the method, or it has been a long time, don't worry, as I will put enough information and detail in the following descriptions of the steps to explain what's going on.

Step 1: Ask a question. You can't research something and learn about it if you don't have a question to answer. Where you draw your question from can be anywhere, such as personal observations of the natural world, professional literature or previous experiments.

We will look at a famous experiment, so you can do some additional research if you so choose. In the early 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram posed the question, 'What could a person in authority make another person do?' He was inspired by the Jewish Holocaust and the soldiers of the concentration camps. Could a person in authority order another person to kill someone?

Step 2: Background research. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Looking into background research and consulting with peers helps inform you of what has been done before, how it has been done, what gaps there are in the literature and what still needs to be done.

Stanley Milgram drew from many sources on obedience and following instructions. He asked his peers, 'How many people would kill a person if instructed to do so?' His peers estimated that less than 1% of the population would follow the authorities' orders and kill someone. He also looked historically, since Milgram was inspired by the Nazi concentration camps.

Step 3: Form a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a type of prediction, an if-then statement. This is where you have an idea of which part of the question will be tested, how it will be tested and what you expect the results to be. In addition, this is where you begin to design your experiment, because your experiment is supposed to test the accuracy of your hypothesis.

One of Milgram's hypotheses stated, 'If a person is instructed by an authority figure, such as a psychologist in a lab, then they will follow the instructions even if the instructions might lead to harming another individual.' I say 'one of the hypotheses' because there were several variants to the original design, but we don't need to focus on them. Milgram's hypothesis is an if-then statement (IF a person with authority instructs another individual to harm someone, THEN they will do it), predicting what he believes will happen in the experiment.

Step 4: Test the hypothesis and collect data. At this step, you conduct your study and test whether your hypothesis is correct. This can take many forms, from simple observations to elaborate experiments that span years.

Milgram's experiment required three people. They would arrive at about the same time and the experimenter would designate the second person as a teacher and the third as the learner. The learner was placed in a chair in room A and hooked up to electrodes. The learner would also explain that he had a prior heart condition, but the experimenter in the lab coat would say the shocks are not dangerous.

The teacher would then be seated in front of a large box with switches ranging from 15 volts to over 400 XXX dangerous. The teacher would then read word pairs, and the learner would try to repeat them back, and if he was incorrect, he would receive a shock and the teacher would hear a loud BZZ. Every incorrect word pair would increase the shock.

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