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Psychologists Use Descriptive, Correlational, and Experimental Research Designs to Understand Behavior

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

Learning Objectives

  1. Differentiate the goals of descriptive, correlational, and experimental research designs and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  2. Explain the goals of descriptive research and the statistical techniques used to interpret it.
  3. Summarize the uses of correlational research and describe why correlational research cannot be used to infer causality.
  4. Review the procedures of experimental research and explain how it can be used to draw causal inferences.

Psychologists agree that if their ideas and theories about human behavior are to be taken seriously, they must be backed up by data. However, the research of different psychologists is designed with different goals in mind, and the different goals require different approaches. These varying approaches, summarized in Table 2.2, are known as research designs. A research design is the specific method a researcher uses to collect, analyze, and interpret data. Psychologists use three major types of research designs in their research, and each provides an essential avenue for scientific investigation. Descriptive research is research designed to provide a snapshot of the current state of affairs. Correlational research is research designed to discover relationships among variables and to allow the prediction of future events from present knowledge. Experimental research is research in which initial equivalence among research participants in more than one group is created, followed by a manipulation of a given experience for these groups and a measurement of the influence of the manipulation. Each of the three research designs varies according to its strengths and limitations, and it is important to understand how each differs.

Table 2.2 Characteristics of the Three Research Designs

Research design





To create a snapshot of the current state of affairs

Provides a relatively complete picture of what is occurring at a given time. Allows the development of questions for further study.

Does not assess relationships among variables. May be unethical if participants do not know they are being observed.


To assess the relationships between and among two or more variables

Allows testing of expected relationships between and among variables and the making of predictions. Can assess these relationships in everyday life events.

Cannot be used to draw inferences about the causal relationships between and among the variables.


To assess the causal impact of one or more experimental manipulations on a dependent variable

Allows drawing of conclusions about the causal relationships among variables.

Cannot experimentally manipulate many important variables. May be expensive and time consuming.

There are three major research designs used by psychologists, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

 Source: Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Cengage.