What is the psychological way of thinking? - Chapter 1


Psychology is based on research and studies. Psychologists can be seen as scientists and empiricists. Empiricists base their conclusions on systematic observations. Psychologists base their ideas about behaviour on studies they have conducted with animals or people in their natural habitat or in an artificial setting. If you want to think as a psychologist, you must think as a researcher.

Who are producers and consumers in research?

Psychology students who are interested in conducting research, looking at questionnaires, researching animals, researching the brain or other subjects from psychology, are called producers in research. These students will probably publish papers and work as a researcher or professor. Of course, there are psychology students who do not want to work in a laboratory, but who like reading about research with animals and humans. These students are consumers in research. They read about studies and apply the things they have read in their work field. These students can become therapists, advisors, counsellors or teachers. In practice, many psychologists have both roles. They are producers and consumers in research.

As a psychology student, it is important to know how to be a good producer of research. Even if you do not plan to do a PhD after your graduation, you will have to write a Bachelor Thesis and Master Thesis and these have to comply to the APA standards. These APA standards mostly concern how to reference a certain article in your thesis. In your thesis, you will have to reference the author(s) and the year of publication of the article. In your reference list, you have to write down the name(s) of the author(s), followed by the year of publication of the article, the title of the article, the title of the journal in which it was published, the volume of the journal and lastly, the page numbers. According to APA standards, you must use Times New Roman as font and the size of the letters should be 12, spacing needs to be 2,0. You will probably also have to follow courses in which you have to conduct research. It is therefore important to know how to randomly allocate participants to conditions and how to read graphs.

However, most psychology students do not become researchers. Therefore, it is important to be a good consumer of research. You will need to read about research, understand research, learn from it and ask good questions about it. Most information psychologists look up on the internet, is based on research. There are also many papers and popular magazines that write about research. However, only part of the studies that is conducted is accurate and useful. It is important to know how to distinguish good studies from bad. Knowledge about research methods helps. Therapists need to interpret published studies in a good way, in order to stay on track of new techniques and effective therapies. They need to follow evidence-based treatments. Therapists need to use treatments that have been supported by research.  

How do scientists approach their job?

Scientists are empiricists observing the world systematically. They also test their theories with studies and change their theories in accordance to found data. The scientists approach applies research (problems from everyday life) and basic research (meant to contribute to our overall knowledge) in an empirical fashion. Scientists go further and further. They do not just stop after they have found one effect. When a scientist finds an effect, he/she wants to conduct another research to find out why, when and for whom the effect applies. Also, scientists publish their findings in scientific journals and share their findings with the media.

How do empiricists approach their job?

Empiricists do not base their conclusions on intuition, experiences or observations. They base their conclusions on their senses or instruments that help these senses (like questionnaires, pictures of a thermometer). They want to be systematic and for their work to be independently verifiable by other researchers.

What is theory-data circle?

The theory-data circle means that scientists collect data to test, change and update their theories. For example, when babies learn to crawl, they often follow their mother. Baby monkeys also seem very attached to their mothers and often hold on to the mother’s fur. Psychologists want to know why animals are so attached to their mothers. One of the theories is the so-called cupboard theory. This theory proposes that mothers are important for babies, because they are a source of food for babies. The babies receive food from their mothers and they feel happy about it. After a while, the babies will get a happy feeling by just seeing the mother. An alternative theory proposes that babies are attached to their mothers, because it gives them a feeling of comfort. This is called the comfort contact theory. Harlow tested both theories in a lab. He built two monkeys out of mesh wire. One of the mother monkeys had only the mesh and a bottle of milk, so she provided food but no comfort. The other mother monkey was covered with a warm cloth and so she provided comfort, but no food. Harlow let the baby monkeys spend time with the fake mother monkeys and he looked at how long the babies spend with each mother. The baby monkeys spent much more time with the warm mother than the mother who gave food. This suggests that the comfort contact theory is correct.

What are theories, hypotheses and data?

theory has claims that concern the relationship between variables. Theories lead to specific hypotheses. A hypothesis can be seen as a prediction. It says something about what the researchers expect to observe if their theory is correct. One single theory can have many hypotheses. Data is a set of observations. Data can support a theory or undermine it.

What are the traits of good scientific theories?

The best theories are supported by data, they are falsifiable and parsimonious. Good theories need to be supported by data. They also have to be falsifiable. That means that theories can lead to hypotheses that, when tested, do not support the theory. Also, a theory needs to be as simple as possible. If two theories explain the data equally well, but one theory is more simple than the other, then one has to choose the simple theory. It is also important to take into account that theories do not prove anything. You are allowed to say that the data supports the theory or that the data is consistent with the theory, but you are not allowed to say that a finding proves that a theory is correct.

What is the difference between applied and basic research?

Applied research concerns practical problems. Scientists hope that their findings will be directly applied to solve real-life problems. Basic research is conducted to enhance overall knowledge about a certain topic. An example of this is researching the motivation of depressed people. It is often the case that basic research is used to conduct applied research later on. Translational research is the use of knowledge from basic research to test and develop applications for psychotherapy, health care and other forms of treatment. In fact, translational research can be seen as a bridge between basic and applied research.

Do researchers go further?

Every research leads to new questions. A research can find a simple effect, but the researcher probably also wants to know why this effect occurs, when this effect occurs and what the boundary conditions for the occurrence are. This means that the researcher needs to develop a new study in order to test these questions.

How is scientific work published?

Scientists publish their research in scientific journals. These journals usually come out once a month. The article will only be published after it has been reviewed by experts. When you send your article to a journal, the editor will send your article to three or four experts in that field. These experts will tell the editor about the good and bad parts of the article. They can also share how interesting the finding is and whether that question has been researched previously. The editor has to decide whether the article will be published or not. This is a rigorous process. The experts stay anonymous and this guarantees them to give their honest opinions about the article. It is their task to publish interesting and well-conducted studies. After the article has been published, other scientists can send in their comments if they do not agree with something from the article. Scientists can also cite each other’s work and do further research on that topic.

How does scientific work end up in newspapers?

Articles in scientific journals are read by other scientists or students. The ‘common folk’ does not read these articles. Popular magazines are not written by experts or scientists. But nowadays, many magazines have some sections about scientific research. These articles are written in a more understandable way and are also shorter than the original scientific article. Psychologists do profit from their work being published in a normal magazine. Normal people can read about what it is that psychologists do and they can learn more about a certain subject. However, journalists do not always choose the most important story, but the sensational one. Also, not all journalists understand a scientific article fully. They have not been trained to read and understand these articles. An example is an article that had been published about the happiness of people from different cities in England. In a scientific article it was written that people in Edinburgh were the least happy, but that this finding was not statistically significant. Journalists wrote articles about this research and they did not understand anything about statistical significance. Many magazine articles have been published about people in Edinburgh being miserable, while this finding was not even significant. The researcher tried to explain to people that the finding was not significant and he hoped that the journalists would set the story straight. Unfortunately, the journalists did not want to hear anything about the statistical significance.

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