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The Research Hypothesis

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Theories are usually framed too broadly to be tested in a single experiment. Therefore, scientists use a more precise statement of the presumed relationship among specific parts of a theory—a research hypothesis—as the basis for their research. A research hypothesis is a specific and falsifiable prediction about the relationship between or among two or more variables, where a variable is any attribute that can assume different values among different people or across different times or places. The research hypothesis states the existence of a relationship between the variables of interest and the specific direction of that relationship. For instance, the research hypothesis “Using marijuana will reduce learning” predicts that there is a relationship between a variable “using marijuana” and another variable called “learning.” Similarly, in the research hypothesis “Participating in psychotherapy will reduce anxiety,” the variables that are expected to be related are “participating in psychotherapy” and “level of anxiety.”

When stated in an abstract manner, the ideas that form the basis of a research hypothesis are known as conceptual variables. Conceptual variables are abstract ideas that form the basis of research hypotheses. Sometimes the conceptual variables are rather simple—for instance, “age,” “gender,” or “weight.” In other cases the conceptual variables represent more complex ideas, such as “anxiety,” “cognitive development,” “learning,” self-esteem,” or “sexism.”

The first step in testing a research hypothesis involves turning the conceptual variables into measured variables, which are variables consisting of numbers that represent the conceptual variables. For instance, the conceptual variable “participating in psychotherapy” could be represented as the measured variable “number of psychotherapy hours the patient has accrued” and the conceptual variable “using marijuana” could be assessed by having the research participants rate, on a scale from 1 to 10, how often they use marijuana or by administering a blood test that measures the presence of the chemicals in marijuana.

Psychologists use the term operational definition to refer to a precise statement of how a conceptual variable is turned into a measured variable. The relationship between conceptual and measured variables in a research hypothesis is diagrammed in Figure 2.1. The conceptual variables are represented within circles at the top of the figure, and the measured variables are represented within squares at the bottom. The two vertical arrows, which lead from the conceptual variables to the measured variables, represent the operational definitions of the two variables. The arrows indicate the expectation that changes in the conceptual variables (psychotherapy and anxiety in this example) will cause changes in the corresponding measured variables. The measured variables are then used to draw inferences about the conceptual variables.

Figure 2.1 Diagram of a Research Hypothesis 

In this research hypothesis, the conceptual variable of attending psychotherapy is operationalized using the number of hours of psychotherapy the client has completed, and the conceptual variable of anxiety is operationalized using self-reported levels of anxiety. The research hypothesis is that more psychotherapy will be related to less reported anxiety.

Table 2.1 lists some potential operational definitions of conceptual variables that have been used in psychological research. As you read through this list, note that in contrast to the abstract conceptual variables, the measured variables are very specific. This specificity is important for two reasons. First, more specific definitions mean that there is less danger that the collected data will be misunderstood by others. Second, specific definitions will enable future researchers to replicate the research.

Conceptual variable

Operational definitions

Table 2.1 Examples of the Operational Definitions of Conceptual Variables That Have Been Used in Psychological Research


  • Number of presses of a button that administers shock to another student
  • Number of seconds taken to honk the horn at the car ahead after a stoplight turns green

Interpersonal attraction

  • Number of inches that an individual places his or her chair away from another person
  • Number of millimeters of pupil dilation when one person looks at another

Employee satisfaction

  • Number of days per month an employee shows up to work on time
  • Rating of job satisfaction from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 9 (extremely satisfied)

Decision-making skills

  • Number of groups able to correctly solve a group performance task
  • Number of seconds in which a person solves a problem


  • Number of negative words used in a creative story
  • Number of appointments made with a psychotherapist