Psychologists use a variety of methods to test out a theory or hypothesis. The starting point of any scientific study is a question or questions. Questions lead to the formation of a theory. Question child psychologists might ask are: Why did the child demonstrate the particular behaviour at the specific time he or she did? How did the child come to produce such a behaviour at such times? And what is the functional significance or survival value of the produced behaviour?
These questions focus on features of learning and development, motivation and evolutionary adaptation. Answers might bring up suggestions or theories about the way children were brought up by their parents, the influence of their peers and others in their life and/or their lifestyle. A theory can then produce a hypothesis and once a hypothesis is formed, the psychologist will design a study (or method) to test it out.
The main methods psychologists use are:
- Experiments – these are the most controlled form of psychological study, used to try to prove that one thing causes another. Experiments test a specific hypothesis in controlled conditions that enable psychologists to focus on exactly the things they are investigating. The disadvantages of experiments is that they can be in some instances artificial and when people are involved, the experimenter may unintentionally insinuate the purpose of the experiment in which they are taking part.
- Observation – In an observation the psychologists does just that: observes what is going on, asks questions about what has been observed and reaches a conclusion based on these observations. Although less artificial than an experiment the disadvantages of observations are that there is no control over what is happening and not all observations may be accurate.
- Surveys – Surveys include interviews that are conducted personally, questionnaires that can be distributed more widely, opinion polls and market research. Surveys can cover a wide range of subjects and obtain a lot of information but they are unlikely to get an in-depth response. Questions may be interpreted in several different ways.
- Tests – Psychological or psychometric tests consist of a series of questions that the person who is being tested answers. These answers will then be analysed carefully to reveal information about the interviewee. Intelligence tests are an example. Tests are useful in sorting out the differences between children in a particular setting but could be biased against particular individuals or groups.
- Case studies – Case studies will focus exclusively on an individual case. This will make for a detailed observation recording the child’s behaviour and reactions. Case studies can last for a day or over a period of years (longtitudinal studies). A lot of information can be obtained from Case Studies but it isn’t easy to generalise from one individual to a representative group. Another disadvantage is that the researcher might get over involved.
Research Methods in Pscyhology Study
A common method for studying development in infants and children is longitudinal studies in which a specific group of children is studied over a period of years. Cross-sectional methods are also a popular way of studying child development; this involves studying different groups of children who for instance share the same age but who may come from a different educational or ethnic background; any differences between groups might be attributed to the child’s lifestyle rather than age. Or as another example, in order to compare different ages, different sample groups will be studied in specific situations and differences can be attributed to age differences rather than any other variable. Before designing a study, the advantages and disadvantages of the various methods should be taken into account and a method fitting of testing a particular hypothesis should be chosen.
- Bee, Helen L. The Developing Child. 7th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1995.
- Gemelli, Ralph J. Normal Child and Adolescent Development. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press, 1996.
- Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. New York: Basic Books, 1994.