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Last updated: October 2, 2021

Consider these questions:

The answer to all of these questions is FALSE

How would you research any of these questions?

What would you need to do to answer these questions?

A. Looking for Laws: The Scientific Approach to Behavior

    Goals of science are "description, prediction, and control":

1 Measurement & Description (good but not yet enough)

2. Understanding & Prediction = Lawfulness (what general predictive statement can we make on the basis of understanding a phenomenon)

3. Application of Laws & Control (Doing something with the laws)

    Theory in science ≠ (is not the same as) "theory" in ordinary language

[Theories of Aerodynamics and Germs & Disease]

Testability in Science

Steps in a Scientific Investigation

1. Formulate a Testable Hypothesis (that is, some reality we claim is true)

Question: Are science faculty subconsciously biased against women?
          Hypothesis: Science faculty members ARE subconsciously biased against women.

What could we hypothesize? (and operationally define?)

An operational definition describes precisely how to measure or identify the variable under review. Here are examples of operational definitions:

2. Select the Research Method & Design the Study

Researchers have to think of how they are going to carry out the study & test their hypotheses. Some of the options to consider would be

  • Experiment? Investigator manipulates some variable(s) under controlled condition(s) and observe changes as a result

Non-Experimental Methods

  • Case Study? Focus upon the experience of one or a few subjects/participants
  • Naturalistic Observation? Take careful measurements without intruding yourself in a real-world setting
  • Survey? Provide participants with a written set of questions or interview the participants yourself
Participants (subjects) = the persons or animals whose behavior is systematically observed in a study

3. Collect the Data

Get the information which our research study design requires

  • Record how each subject completes the same task(s)
  • Direct Observation
  • Questionnaire (Survey)
  • Interview
  • Psychological Test
  • Physiological Recording
  • Examining Archival Records

4. Analyze the Data & Draw Conclusions

  • Statistics analyze numbers: how much of a difference has to be there for it to be a real difference?
  • Qualitative approaches analyze non-numerical data (e.g., look for common themes, etc.)

5. Report the Findings

  • Scientific journals, for example, in APA Journals
  • Conferences
  • Books, etc. 

Advantages of a Scientific Approach to Research

B. Looking for Causes: Experimental Research

What is an experiment? A research approach in which the investigator controls the conditions under which research subjects or participants experience variables. In an experiment, the research subjects experience identical (or standard) conditions except for the variable under review.

Hypothesis: Science faculty members ARE subconsciously biased against women
Moss-Racusin et al. (2012)

A. Types of Variables

B. Types of Groups in an Experiment

In this science faculty member experiment, the control group might actually be considered those who received the male name, i.e., if our objective is to look whether females are treated differently, the male name group would be the standard against which to judge. Thus, the experimental group would be those who got the female name, i.e., we want to see if they will rate the candidate differently than the control group.


[Moss-Racusin et al.]

C. Problems in an Experiment

      Choosing an Experimental Group
Random assignment assures that the two groups are essentially equal

D. Types of Design

E. Advantages & Disadvantages of Experiments

Advantage: Powerful: Cause & Effect can be isolated
Disadvantage: Artificial
Disadvantage: Some or even many variables can't be manipulated for practical or ethical reasons


Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L, Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academic of Science (PNAS). Published online before print September 17, 2012. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211286109 [link]

This page originally posted on 1/26/04 and updated on October 1, 2018