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Laws and Theories as Organizing Principles

11 September, 2015 - 11:51

One goal of research is to organize information into meaningful statements that can be applied in many situations. Principles that are so general as to apply to all situations in a given domain of inquiry are known as laws. There are well-known laws in the physical sciences, such as the law of gravity and the laws of thermodynamics, and there are some universally accepted laws in psychology, such as the law of effect and Weber’s law. But because laws are very general principles and their validity has already been well established, they are themselves rarely directly subjected to scientific test.

The next step down from laws in the hierarchy of organizing principles is theory. A theory is an integrated set of principles that explains and predicts many, but not all, observed relationships within a given domain of inquiry. One example of an important theory in psychology is the stage theory of cognitive development proposed by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. The theory states that children pass through a series of cognitive stages as they grow, each of which must be mastered in succession before movement to the next cognitive stage can occur. This is an extremely useful theory in human development because it can be applied to many different content areas and can be tested in many different ways.

Good theories have four important characteristics. First, good theories are general, meaning they summarize many different outcomes. Second, they are parsimonious, meaning they provide the simplest possible account of those outcomes. The stage theory of cognitive development meets both of these requirements. It can account for developmental changes in behavior across a wide variety of domains, and yet it does so parsimoniously—by hypothesizing a simple set of cognitive stages. Third, good theories provide ideas for future research. The stage theory of cognitive development has been applied not only to learning about cognitive skills, but also to the study of children’s moral (Kohlberg, 1966) 1 and gender (Ruble & Martin, 1998) 2 development.

Finally, good theories are falsifiable (Popper, 1959), 3 which means the variables of interest can be adequately measured and the relationships between the variables that are predicted by the theory can be shown through research to be incorrect. The stage theory of cognitive development is falsifiable because the stages of cognitive reasoning can be measured and because if research discovers, for instance, that children learn new tasks before they have reached the cognitive stage hypothesized to be required for that task, then the theory will be shown to be incorrect.

No single theory is able to account for all behavior in all cases. Rather, theories are each limited in that they make accurate predictions in some situations or for some people but not in other situations or for other people. As a result, there is a constant exchange between theory and data: Existing theories are modified on the basis of collected data, and the new modified theories then make new predictions that are tested by new data, and so forth. When a better theory is found, it will replace the old one. This is part of the accumulation of scientific knowledge.