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Interpreting Research

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

No matter how carefully it is conducted or what type of design is used, all research has limitations. Any given research project is conducted in only one setting and assesses only one or a few dependent variables. And any one study uses only one set of research participants. Social psychology research is sometimes criticized because it frequently uses university students from Western cultures as participants (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010). But relationships between variables are only really important if they can be expected to be found again when tested using other research designs, other operational definitions of the variables, other participants, and other experimenters, and in other times and settings.

External validity refers to the extent to which relationships can be expected to hold up when they are tested again in different ways and for different people. Science relies primarily upon replication—that is, the repeating of research—to study the external validity of research findings. Sometimes the original research is replicated exactly, but more often, replications involve using new operational definitions of the independent or dependent variables, or designs in which new conditions or variables are added to the original design. And to test whether a finding is limited to the particular participants used in a given research project, scientists may test the same hypotheses using people from different ages, backgrounds, or cultures. Replication allows scientists to test the external validity as well as the limitations of research findings.

In some cases, researchers may test their hypotheses, not by conducting their own study, but rather by looking at the results of many existing studies, using a meta-analysis—a statistical procedure in which the results of existing studies are combined to determine what conclusions can be drawn on the basis of all the studies considered together. For instance, in one meta-analysis, Anderson and Bushman (2001) found that across all the studies they could locate that included both children and adults, college students and people who were not in college, and people from a variety of different cultures, there was a clear positive correlation (about r = .30) between playing violent video games and acting aggressively. The summary information gained through a meta-analysis allows researchers to draw even clearer conclusions about the external validity of a research finding.

Figure 1.16 Some Important Aspects of the Scientific Approach 

It is important to realize that the understanding of social behavior that we gain by conducting research is a slow, gradual, and cumulative process. The research findings of one scientist or one experiment do not stand alone—no one study proves a theory or a research hypothesis. Rather, research is designed to build on, add to, and expand the existing research that has been conducted by other scientists. That is why whenever a scientist decides to conduct research, he or she first reads journal articles and book chapters describing existing research in the domain and then designs his or her research on the basis of the prior findings. The result of this cumulative process is that over time, research findings are used to create a systematic set of knowledge about social psychology (Figure 1.16).

Key Takeaways

Social psychologists study social behavior using an empirical approach. This allows them to discover results that could not have been reliably predicted ahead of time and that may violate our common sense and intuition.

The variables that form the research hypothesis, known as conceptual variables, are assessed by using measured variables such as self-report, behavioral, or neuroimaging measures.

Observational research is research that involves making observations of behavior and recording those observations in an objective manner. In some cases, it may be the only approach to studying behavior.

Correlational and experimental research designs are based on developing falsifiable research hypotheses.

Correlational research designs allow prediction but cannot be used to make statements about causality. Experimental research designs in which the independent variable is manipulated can be used to make statements about causality.

Social psychological experiments are frequently factorial research designs in which the effects of more than one independent variable on a dependent variable are studied.

All research has limitations, which is why scientists attempt to replicate their results using different measures, populations, and settings and to summarize those results using meta-analyses.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Using Google Scholar find journal articles that report observational, correlational, and experimental research designs. Specify the research design, the research hypothesis, and the conceptual and measured variables in each design.
  2. For each of the following variables, (a) propose a research hypothesis in which the variable serves as an independent variable and (b) propose a research hypothesis in which the variable serves as a dependent variable.
    • Helping
    • Aggression
    • Prejudice
    • Liking another person
    • Life satisfaction
  3. Visit the website and take part in one of the online studies listed there.


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Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2010). Aggression. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (5th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 833–863). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290–292.

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Ochsner, K. N., Bunge, S. A., Gross, J. J., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2002). Rethinking feelings: An fMRI study of the cognitive regulation of emotion. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(8), 1215–1229

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