You are here

The Importance of Scientific Research

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Because social psychology concerns the relationships among people, and because we can frequently find answers to questions about human behavior by using our own common sense or intuition, many people think that it is not necessary to study it empirically (Lilienfeld, 2011). But although we do learn about people by observing others and therefore social psychology is in fact partly common sense, social psychology is not entirely common sense.

To test for yourself whether or not social psychology is just common sense, try taking the short quiz in Table 1.1 and respond to each statement with either “True” or “False.” Based on your past observations of people’s behavior, along with your own common sense, you will likely have answers to each of the questions on the quiz. But how sure are you? Would you be willing to bet that all, or even most, of your answers have been shown to be correct by scientific research? If you are like most people, you will get at least some of these answers wrong. (To see the answers and a brief description of the scientific research supporting each of these topics, please go to the Chapter Summary  at the end of this chapter.)

Table 1.1 Is Social Psychology Just Common Sense?

Answer each of the following questions, using your own intuition, as either true or false.

Opposites attract.

An athlete who wins the bronze medal (third place) in an event is happier about his or her performance than the athlete who wins the silver medal (second place).

Having good friends you can count on can keep you from catching colds.

Subliminal advertising (i.e., persuasive messages that are displayed out of our awareness on TV or movie screens) is very effective in getting us to buy products.

The greater the reward promised for an activity, the more one will come to enjoy engaging in that activity.

Physically attractive people are seen as less intelligent than less attractive people.

Punching a pillow or screaming out loud is a good way to reduce frustration and aggressive tendencies.

People pull harder in a tug-of-war when they’re pulling alone than when pulling in a group.


One of the reasons we might think that social psychology is common sense is that once we learn about the outcome of a given event (e.g., when we read about the results of a research project), we frequently believe that we would have been able to predict the outcome ahead of time. For instance, if half of a class of students is told that research concerning attraction between people has demonstrated that “opposites attract,” and if the other half is told that research has demonstrated that “birds of a feather flock together,” most of the students in both groups will report believing that the outcome is true and that they would have predicted the outcome before they had heard about it. Of course, both of these contradictory outcomes cannot be true. The problem is that just reading a description of research findings leads us to think of the many cases that we know that support the findings and thus makes them seem believable. The tendency to think that we could have predicted something that we probably would not have been able to predict is called the hindsight bias.

Our common sense also leads us to believe that we know why we engage in the behaviors that we engage in, when in fact we may not. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner and his colleagues have conducted a variety of studies showing that we do not always understand the causes of our own actions. When we think about a behavior before we engage in it, we believe that the thinking guided our behavior, even when it did not (Morewedge, Gray, & Wegner, 2010). People also report that they contribute more to solving a problem when they are led to believe that they have been working harder on it, even though the effort did not increase their contribution to the outcome (Preston & Wegner, 2007). These findings, and many others like them, demonstrate that our beliefs about the causes of social events, and even of our own actions, do not always match the true causes of those events.

Social psychologists conduct research because it often uncovers results that could not have been predicted ahead of time. Putting our hunches to the test exposes our ideas to scrutiny. The scientific approach brings a lot of surprises, but it also helps us test our explanations about behavior in a rigorous manner. It is important for you to understand the research methods used in psychology so that you can evaluate the validity of the research that you read about here, in other courses, and in your everyday life.

Social psychologists publish their research in scientific journals, and your instructor may require you to read some of these research articles. The most important social psychology journals are listed in Table 1.2. If you are asked to do a literature search on research in social psychology, you should look for articles from these journals.

Table 1.2 Social Psychology Journals
  • Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
  • Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin
  • Social Psychology and Personality Science
  • Social Cognition
  • European Journal of Social Psychology
  • Social Psychology Quarterly
  • Basic and Applied Social Psychology
  • Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Note: The research articles in these journals are likely to be available in your college or university library. A fuller list can be found here:

We’ll discuss the empirical approach and review the findings of many research projects throughout this book, but for now let’s take a look at the basics of how scientists use research to draw overall conclusions about social behavior. Keep in mind as you read this book, however, that although social psychologists are pretty good at understanding the causes of behavior, our predictions are a long way from perfect. We are not able to control the minds or the behaviors of others or to predict exactly what they will do in any given situation. Human behavior is complicated because people are complicated and because the social situations that they find themselves in every day are also complex. It is this complexity—at least for me—that makes studying people so interesting and fun.