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Incorporating Theory Into Your Research

18 November, 2015 - 11:33

It should be clear from this chapter that theories are not just “icing on the cake” of scientific research; they are a basic ingredient. If you can understand and use them, you will be much more successful at reading and understanding the research literature, generating interesting research questions, and writing and conversing about research. Of course, your ability to understand and use theories will improve with practice. But there are several things that you can do to incorporate theory into your research right from the start.

The first thing is to distinguish the phenomena you are interested in from any theories of those phenomena. Beware especially of the tendency to “fuse” a phenomenon to a commonsense theory of it. For example, it might be tempting to describe the negative effect of cell phone usage on driving ability by saying, “Cell phone usage distracts people from driving.” Or it might be tempting to describe the positive effect of expressive writing on health by saying, “Dealing with your emotions through writing makes you healthier.” In both of these examples, however, a vague commonsense explanation (distraction, “dealing with” emotions) has been fused to the phenomenon itself. The problem is that this gives the impression that the phenomenon has already been adequately explained and closes off further inquiry into precisely why or how it happens.

As another example, researcher Jerry Burger and his colleagues were interested in the phenomenon that people are more willing to comply with a simple request from someone with whom they are familiar (Burger, Soroka, Gonzago, Murphy, & Somervell, 1999). 1 A beginning researcher who is asked to explain why this is the case might be at a complete loss or say something like, “Well, because they are familiar with them.” But digging just a bit deeper, Burger and his colleagues realized that there are several possible explanations. Among them are that complying with people we know creates positive feelings, that we anticipate needing something from them in the future, and that we like them more and follow an automatic rule that says to help people we like.

The next thing to do is turn to the research literature to identify existing theories of the phenomena you are interested in. Remember that there will usually be more than one plausible theory. Existing theories may be complementary or competing, but it is essential to know what they are. If there are no existing theories, you should come up with two or three of your own—even if they are informal and limited in scope. Then get in the habit of describing the phenomena you are interested in, followed by the two or three best theories of it. Do this whether you are speaking or writing about your research. When asked what their research was about, for example, Burger and his colleagues could have said something like the following:

It’s about the fact that we’re more likely to comply with requests from people we know [the phenomenon]. This is interesting because it could be because it makes us feel good [Theory 1], because we think we might get something in return [Theory 2], or because we like them more and have an automatic tendency to comply with people we like [Theory 3].

At this point, you may be able to derive a hypothesis from one of the theories. At the very least, for each research question you generate, you should ask what each plausible theory implies about the answer to that question. If one of them implies a particular answer, then you may have an interesting hypothesis to test. Burger and colleagues, for example, asked what would happen if a request came from a stranger whom participants had sat next to only briefly, did not interact with, and had no expectation of interacting with in the future. They reasoned that if familiarity created liking, and liking increased people’s tendency to comply (Theory 3), then this situation should still result in increased rates of compliance (which it did).

If the question is interesting but no theory implies an answer to it, this might suggest that a new theory needs to be constructed or that existing theories need to be modified in some way. These would make excellent points of discussion in the introduction or discussion of an American Psychological Association (APA) style research report or research presentation.

When you do write your research report or plan your presentation, be aware that there are two basic ways that researchers usually include theory. The first is to raise a research question, answer that question by conducting a new study, and then offer one or more theories (usually more) to explain or interpret the results. This format works well for applied research questions and for research questions that existing theories do not address. The second way is to describe one or more existing theories, derive a hypothesis from one of those theories, test the hypothesis in a new study, and finally reevaluate the theory. This format works well when there is an existing theory that addresses the research question—especially if the resulting hypothesis is surprising or conflicts with a hypothesis derived from a different theory.


  • Working with theories is not “icing on the cake.” It is a basic ingredient of psychological research.
  • Like other scientists, psychologists use the hypothetico-deductive method. They construct theories to explain or interpret phenomena (or work with existing theories), derive hypotheses from their theories, test the hypotheses, and then reevaluate the theories in light of the new results.
  • There are several things that even beginning researchers can do to incorporate theory into their research. These include clearly distinguishing phenomena from theories, knowing about existing theories, constructing one’s own simple theories, using theories to make predictions about the answers to research questions, and incorporating theories into one’s writing and speaking.


  1. Practice: Find a recent empirical research report in a professional journal. Read the introduction and highlight in different colors descriptions of phenomena, theories, and hypotheses.