Describe the scientific approach to learning about behavior and contrast it with pseudoscientific research.

Describe the scientific approach to learning about behavior and contrast it with pseudoscientific research.

Describe the scientific approach to learning about behavior and contrast it with pseudoscientific research.




· Describe why an understanding of research methods is important.

· Describe the scientific approach to learning about behavior and contrast it with pseudoscientific research.

· Define and give examples of the four goals of scientific research: description, prediction, determination of cause, and explanation of behavior.

· Discuss the three elements for inferring causation: temporal order, covariation of cause and effect, and elimination of alternative explanations.

· Define, describe, compare, and contrast basic and applied research.

Page 2DO SOCIAL MEDIA SITES LIKE FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM IMPACT OUR RELATIONSHIPS? What causes alcoholism? How do our early childhood experiences affect our later lives? How do we remember things, what causes us to forget, and how can memory be improved? Why do we procrastinate? Why do some people experience anxiety so extreme that it disrupts their lives while others—facing the same situation—seem to be unaffected? How can we help people who suffer from depression? Why do we like certain people and dislike others?

Curiosity about questions like these is probably the most important reason that many students decide to take courses in the behavioral sciences. Science is the best way to explore and answer these sorts of questions. In this book, we will examine the methods of scientific research in the behavioral sciences. In this introductory chapter, we will focus on ways in which knowledge of research methods can be useful in understanding the world around us. Further, we will review the characteristics of a scientific approach to the study of behavior and the general types of research questions that concern behavioral scientists.


We are continuously bombarded with research results: “Happiness Wards Off Heart Disease,” “Recession Causes Increase in Teen Dating Violence,” “Breast-Fed Children Found Smarter,” “Facebook Users Get Worse Grades in College.” Articles and books make claims about the beneficial or harmful effects of particular diets or vitamins on one’s sex life, personality, or health. Survey results are frequently reported that draw conclusions about our beliefs concerning a variety of topics. The key question is, how do you evaluate such reports? Do you simply accept the findings because they are supposed to be scientific? A background in research methods will help you read these reports critically, evaluate the methods employed, and decide whether the conclusions are reasonable.

Many occupations require the use of research findings. For example, mental health professionals must make decisions about treatment methods, assignment of clients to different types of facilities, medications, and testing procedures. Such decisions are made on the basis of research; to make good decisions, mental health professionals must be able to read the research literature in the field and apply it to their professional lives. Similarly, people who work in business environments frequently rely on research to make decisions about marketing strategies, ways of improving employee productivity and morale, and methods of selecting and training new employees. Educators must keep up with research on topics such as the effectiveness of different teaching strategies or programs to deal with special student problems. Knowledge of research methods and the ability to evaluate research reports are useful in many fields.

Page 3It is also important to recognize that scientific research has become increasingly prominent in public policy decisions. Legislators and political leaders at all levels of government frequently take political positions and propose legislation based on research findings. Research may also influence judicial decisions: A classic example of this is the Social Science Brief that was prepared by psychologists and accepted as evidence in the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation in the United States. One of the studies cited in the brief was conducted by Clark and Clark (1947), who found that when allowed to choose between light-skinned and dark-skinned dolls, both Black and White children preferred to play with the light-skinned dolls (see Stephan, 1983, for a further discussion of the implications of this study).

Behavioral research on human development has influenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to juvenile crime. In 2005, for instance, the Supreme Court decided that juveniles could not face the death penalty (Roper v. Simmons), and the decision was informed by neurological and behavioral research showing that the brain, social, and character differences between adults and juveniles make juveniles less culpable than adults for the same crimes. Similarly, in the 2010 Supreme Court decision Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court decided that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. This decision was influenced by research in developmental psychology and neuroscience. The court majority pointed to this research in their conclusion that assessment of blame and standards for sentencing should be different for juveniles and adults because of juveniles’ lack of maturity and poorly formed character development (Clay, 2010).

Research is also important when developing and assessing the effectiveness of programs designed to achieve certain goals—for example, to increase retention of students in school, influence people to engage in behaviors that reduce their risk of contracting HIV, or teach employees how to reduce the effects of stress. We need to be able to determine whether these programs are successfully meeting their goals.

Finally, research methods are important because they can provide us with the best answers to questions like those we posed at the outset of the chapter. Research methods can be the way to satisfy our native curiosity about ourselves, our world, and those around us.


We opened this chapter with several questions about human behavior and suggested that scientific research is a valuable means of answering them. How does the scientific approach differ from other ways of learning about behavior? People have always observed the world around them and sought explanations for what they see and experience. However, instead of using a scientific approach, many people rely on  intuition  and  authority  as primary ways of knowing.

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Most of us either know or have heard about a married couple who, after years of trying to conceive, adopt a child. Then, within a very short period of time, they find that the woman is pregnant. This observation leads to a common belief that adoption increases the likelihood of pregnancy among couples who are having difficulties conceiving a child. Such a conclusion seems intuitively reasonable, and people usually have an explanation for this effect—for example, the adoption reduces a major source of marital stress, and the stress reduction in turn increases the chances of conception (see Gilovich, 1991).

This example illustrates the use of intuition and anecdotal evidence to draw general conclusions about the world around us. When you rely on intuition, you accept unquestioningly what your own personal judgment or a single story about one person’s experience tells you. The intuitive approach takes many forms. Often, it involves finding an explanation for our own behaviors or the behaviors of others. For example, you might develop an explanation for why you keep having conflicts with your roommate, such as “he hates me” or “having to share a bathroom creates conflict.” Other times, intuition is used to explain intriguing events that you observe, as in the case of concluding that adoption increases the chances of conception among couples having difficulty conceiving a child.

A problem with intuition is that numerous cognitive and motivational biases affect our perceptions, and so we may draw erroneous conclusions about cause and effect (cf. Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Gilovich, 1991; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Gilovich points out that there is in fact no relationship between adoption and subsequent pregnancy, according to scientific research investigations. So why do we hold this belief? Most likely it is because of a cognitive bias called illusory correlation that occurs when we focus on two events that stand out and occur together. When an adoption is closely followed by a pregnancy, our attention is drawn to the situation, and we are biased to conclude that there must be a causal connection. Such illusory correlations are also likely to occur when we are highly motivated to believe in the causal relationship. Although this is a natural thing for us to do, it is not scientific. A scientific approach requires much more evidence before conclusions can be drawn.


The philosopher Aristotle said: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and readily than others.” Aristotle would argue that we are more likely to be persuaded by a speaker who seems prestigious, trustworthy, and respectable than by one who appears to lack such qualities.

Many of us might accept Aristotle’s arguments simply because he is considered a prestigious authority—a convincing and influential source—and his Page 5writings remain important. Similarly, many people are all too ready to accept anything they learn from the Internet, news media, books, government officials, celebrities, religious figures, or even a professor! They believe that the statements of such authorities must be true. The problem, of course, is that the statements may not be true. The scientific approach rejects the notion that one can accept on faith the statements of any authority; again, more evidence is needed before we can draw scientific conclusions.


The scientific approach to acquiring knowledge recognizes that both intuition and authority can be sources of ideas about behavior. However, scientists do not unquestioningly accept anyone’s intuitions—including their own. Scientists recognize that their ideas are just as likely to be wrong as anyone else’s. Also, scientists do not accept on faith the pronouncements of anyone, regardless of that person’s prestige or authority. Thus, scientists are very skeptical about what they see and hear. Scientific skepticism means that ideas must be evaluated on the basis of careful logic and results from scientific investigations.

If scientists reject intuition and blind acceptance of authority as ways of knowing about the world, how do they go about gaining knowledge? The fundamental characteristic of the scientific method is empiricism—the idea that knowledge is based on observations. Data are collected that form the basis of conclusions about the nature of the world. The scientific method embodies a number of rules for collecting and evaluating data; these rules will be explored throughout the book.

The Scientific Approach

The power of the scientific approach can be seen all around us. Whether you look at biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, anthropology, or psychology, you will see amazing advances over the past 5, 25, 50, or 100 years. We have a greater understanding of the world around us, and the applications of that understanding have kept pace. Goodstein (2000) describes an “evolved theory of science” that defines the characteristics of scientific inquiry. These characteristics are summarized below.

· Data play a central role For scientists, knowledge is primarily based on observations. Scientists enthusiastically search for observations that will verify or reject their ideas about the world. They develop theories, argue that existing data support their theories, and conduct research that can increase our confidence that the theories are correct. Observations can be criticized, alternatives can be suggested, and data collection methods can be called into question. But in each of these cases, the role of data is central and fundamental. Scientists have a “show me, don’t tell me” attitude.

· Page 6Scientists are not alone Scientists make observations that are accurately reported to other scientists and the public. You can be sure that many other scientists will follow up on the findings by conducting research that replicates and extends these observations.

· Science is adversarial Science is a way of thinking in which ideas do battle with other ideas in order to move ever closer to truth. Research can be conducted to test any idea; supporters of the idea and those who disagree with the idea can report their research findings, and these can be evaluated by others. Some ideas, even some very good ideas, may prove to be wrong if research fails to provide support for them. Good scientific ideas are testable. They can be supported or they can be falsified by data—the latter concept called falsifiability (Popper, 2002). If an idea is falsified when it is tested, science is thereby advanced because this result will spur the development of new and better ideas.

· Scientific evidence is peer reviewed Before a study is published in a top-quality scientific journal, other scientists who have the expertise to carefully evaluate the research review it. This process is called peer review. The role of these reviewers is to recommend whether the research should be published. This review process ensures that research with major flaws will not become part of the scientific literature. In essence, science exists in a free market of ideas in which the best ideas are supported by research and scientists can build upon the research of others to make further advances.

Integrating Intuition, Skepticism, and Authority

The advantage of the scientific approach over other ways of knowing about the world is that it provides an objective set of rules for gathering, evaluating, and reporting information. It is an open system that allows ideas to be refuted or supported by others. This does not mean that intuition and authority are unimportant, however. As noted previously, scientists often rely on intuition and assertions of authorities for ideas for research. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with accepting the assertions of authority as long as we do not accept them as scientific evidence. Often, scientific evidence is not obtainable, as, for example, when a religious figure or text asks us to accept certain beliefs on faith. Some beliefs cannot be tested and thus are beyond the realm of science. In science, however, ideas must be evaluated on the basis of available evidence that can be used to support or refute the ideas.

There is also nothing wrong with having opinions or beliefs as long as they are presented simply as opinions or beliefs. However, we should always ask whether the opinion can be tested scientifically or whether scientific evidence exists that relates to the opinion. For example, opinions on whether exposure to violent movies, TV, and video games increases aggression are only opinions until scientific evidence on the issue is gathered.

Page 7As you learn more about scientific methods, you will become increasingly skeptical of the research results reported in the media and the assertions of scientists as well. You should be aware that scientists often become authorities when they express their ideas. When someone claims to be a scientist, should we be more willing to accept what he or she has to say? First, ask about the credentials of the individual. It is usually wise to pay more attention to someone with an established reputation in the field and attend to the reputation of the institution represented by the person. It is also worthwhile to examine the researcher’s funding source; you might be a bit suspicious when research funded by a drug company supports the effectiveness of a drug manufactured by that company, for example. Similarly, when an organization with a particular social-political agenda funds the research that supports that agenda, you should be skeptical of the findings and closely examine the methods of the study.

You should also be skeptical of pseudoscientific research. Pseudoscience is “fake” science in which seemingly scientific terms and demonstrations are used to substantiate claims that have no basis in scientific research. The claim may be that a product or procedure will enhance your memory, relieve depression, or treat autism or post traumatic stress disorder. The fact that these are all worthy outcomes makes us very susceptible to believing pseudoscientific claims and forgetting to ask whether there is a valid scientific basis for the claims.

A good example comes from a procedure called

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