Research Methods in Developmental Psychology

5 Research Methods Used in Psychology

Research Methods in Developmental Psychology

  • Case Study
  • Experiment
  • Observational Study
  • Survey
  • Content Analysis

There are several different research methods used in psychology.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types: quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative research methodology involves the use of numerical data to make descriptions, predict outcomes, and test potential relationships between variables.

Qualitative research investigates the use of non-numerical data such as text, speech, video, and the in an attempt to gain an understanding or interpretation of different phenomena, such as social or individual perceptions and behaviors.

The main takeaway regarding quantitative and qualitative research is this: quantitative research deals with numbers while qualitative research relies on descriptions.

Both types of research have their strengths and limitations, despite the notion among some groups that quantitative research is superior.

Within the context of psychology, qualitative research is highly valued because quantitative measures cannot measure the nuance and totality of the human experience. It’s important to note that both quantitative and qualitative research methods are highly technical and rigorous.

Within each of these two broad categories lie distinct methods used in psychological research. While this list is not exhaustive, we break down five of the most popular methodologies used in psychological research.

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1. Case Study

Case study research falls under the qualitative branch of research methodology. Case studies involve deep inquiry into individuals, groups, communities, or events. They often combine a multi-methodological approach that integrates participant interviews and unobtrusive observations.

Case studies in the psychology discipline are typically conducted on specific individuals.

A psychology case study most often collects salient and seminal biographical moments from a patient’s past as well as important events in the individual’s daily life that may animate maladaptive behaviors and thinking.

Notable case study practitioners include Sigmund Freud, who used case studies extensively to delve into the lives of his patients to understand, diagnose, and assist them with their psychological ailments.

Case studies are conducted by interviewing and observing patient behavior. The researcher describes the behavior and discusses events from the patient’s perspective.

Often the interviews are unstructured and the observations are the individual going about his or her everyday life. Other sources of data may include journals, notes, photos, etc.

Data is then evaluated to find common themes and interpretations.

2. Experiment

Although this is introduced as a broad kind of research that can be a component of many methods, the term here is used to denote a specific procedure.

In science, experiments are the an often-used method of research, and there are certain principles involved in its employment. One is the presence of a control group.

This is an individual or a group of individuals that is not manipulated.

Another principle is the control of variables. That is, the experiment should be as free of extraneous data as possible. This factor enables psychologists to repeat the experiment, and that is one requirement of reliable research.

A third principle is the consistency of measurements. Allowing differing standards makes replication impossible and the results unreliable.

The fourth principle involved is showing cause and effect. That is, the manipulations performed in the experiment led to the results, and nothing else was involved.

Experiments can be laboratory-controlled sleep studies, field experiments that allow the psychologist to manipulate the subject but not his environment, or natural experiments which allow no control and are largely observational.

There are three main types of experiments: field experiments, lab experiments, and natural experiments. Lab experiments are conducted in highly controlled settings and may or may not be conducted in a scientific laboratory.

The strengths of this methodology are that these experiments are easy to replicate and allow for fastidious control of variables.

Limitations include the artificial setting, which may cause unnatural reactions and potential research bias.

3. Observational Study

Observational study is qualitative research that can be carried out in a myriad of differing ways using non-experimental means where behavior is simply observed systematically.

The main objective of observational research is to discover variables that may impact behaviors in individuals, groups, and social constructs. The research is described as non-experimental because it occurs in a natural setting without controls.

Observational research can involve mixed methods that may include multiple qualitative techniques and quantitative methods.

Naturalistic observation is described as observation that takes place in the participant’s natural environment. For example, psychologists studying mental health in the penal system will observe incarcerated people in jails and prisons.

In some instances, the observation may take place without the participants’ knowledge.

This is known as disguised naturalistic observation, and it is considered ethical if the individuals remain anonymous and the observation takes place in public contexts where no expectation of privacy exists.

When disguised natural observation is not possible, undisguised natural observation may be effective. However, this can cause a phenomenon known as reactivity. Reactivity occurs when participants know they are being observed, which causes a change in their behavior that negatively impacts data.

Reactivity can be mitigated, or even eliminated, with longer observations as people get more comfortable with being observed. This can be seen in reality television shows where individuals are on their “best” behavior at the onset then, as time goes by, their behavior becomes more “natural.

Participant observation differs from naturalistic observational methods in that the researcher is involved. The goals are the same, but the researcher engages in the setting and with the individuals.

The rationale for this method is that some data cannot be collected without the researcher participating. Participant observation also includes a disguised method.

For example, psychology researchers have infiltrated extremist groups without disclosing their identities as a way to study individuals and collect data.

One of the main benefits of this methodology is that researchers are in a prime position to understand the experiences of the group and the individuals. A criticism of participant observation is that the active researcher could impact the dynamics of the group and develop biases through forming relationships with the individuals being studied.

4. Survey

Survey research can be both quantitative and qualitative, and it is widely used in not only psychology research but across the sciences.

Respondents (those answering the questions) are sent surveys and are asked to self-report their actions, thoughts, and feelings to measure how certain variables may impact them. One of the most critical aspects of survey research is the sampling method used.

Most researchers prefer large samples that are representative of the population they are studying to obtain a representative estimate of what is accurate among the population. Samples in psychology are often random and large.

Surveys vary greatly. They can be lengthy or quite short. They can be conducted over a variety of communication channels such as over the internet, in person, in the mail, by telephone, and with video chat.

The data collected can be used for quantitative purposes or qualitative measures, depending on the purpose of the research and the design of the questions. Surveys are used widely across the social sciences.

They have their roots in documenting the prevalence of social problems, including poverty and overall economic conditions.

They are widely used among healthcare providers, including psychologists and public health professionals, and academics to measure the prevalence of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Survey research, all other forms of study, has its strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths include the ability to gather qualitative data and the relatively low cost.

Some of the weaknesses are the potential for poor question design due to bias and poor sampling.

5. Content Analysis

This method of research involves analyzing large amounts of text-based data in an effort to identify meanings and thematic consistencies. It can be used in quantitative and qualitative contexts. For example, quantitative researchers may search for specific words or phrases and add them for a final count.

Qualitative content analysis search more for the meaning of texts through the identification of themes in the data. Qualitative analysis of this kind relies on the practice of coding and categorizing the content to make sense of it.

Researchers often use a technique known as close reading, in which phrases are turned into coded units. The text is read repeatedly until all of the texts are coded and the point of data saturation has been reached.

This process is inductive analysis because no theory is being tested; rather the data is coded in an effort to see if a theory emerges. This process is known as conventional or formative analysis.

Directed analysis is similar to formative analysis, but it varies in an integral way. A directed approach is somewhat deductive as the researcher begins with some theories or hypotheses in mind to help them create coding units from the onset of the study.

Once the research is conducted, the researcher looks for these types of codes in the text. This “top-down” method essentially runs the data through a filter, which is nothing more than existing research or theories used as guides.

All of the above methods can be described as thematic content analysis, in either a conventional or directed form.

Once the thematic analysis is finished, the researchers perform a summative analysis, in which themes are compared across a variety of differing texts.

Summative analysis can be done in a quantitative manner by tallying the frequency and total of certain phrases or words.

Researchers may also perform qualitative summative analysis, during which they seek out latent meanings in the text by looking at specific contexts.

Summative analysis is similar to grounded theory, an inductive style of analysis used widely in the social sciences. Grounded theory is used for theory development and was founded over 50 years ago.

It is used almost exclusively in qualitative research across the social sciences – including psychology.

Grounded theory is deductive in nature and thus attempts to establish theories or hypotheses through the collection and analysis of data.

Typically, a grounded theory research study is a very involved and in-depth process where the principal investigators analyze relevant literature and previously collected data to inform and possibly shape their current research. During this data-collection phase, the researcher may discover unique perspectives from previous literature and data.

Grounded theory also takes place during the data-analysis phase. It involves a critical review of actors’ responses in the establishment of codes and themes. This is often completed as a review of responses to questions from surveys, interviews, etc. This process follows specific stages, including coding, concepts, categories, and theory.

Coding involves a high level of tedium, and it places text into categories and subcategories. This is done in a line-by-line analysis where concepts and categories are named and the process is repeated in what is known as open coding. Coding is necessary, as it allows the salient points of the data to be gathered.

Once the codes are established, the researcher categorizes similar codes into groups.

Concepts established from the open-coding process are then broadly grouped to generate the new theory, which has emerged. More specifically, the categories are constructed around a central category that ties the other concepts together.

While theorizing occurs in all of these steps, the final step includes collecting the specific categories that lead to the development of the theory.

Final Thoughts on Psychology Research Methods

The above methods provide a cursory overview of five main psychology research methods.

While they are really much more detailed in size and scope, this overview highlights the malleable nature of psychological research and the rigor involved in social science research.

There are several other methods derivative of the five methods above, and there are other methodologies that are not listed here.

This type of research occurs at all levels of academia and other settings, as master’s and Ph.D. students are learning to become adept researchers while preparing for careers as academics, researchers, and the .

As with all research, these methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses. However, they have proven rigorous and robust over time and have produced substantive findings in the field of psychology.

Despite their differences, strengths, and weaknesses, all of these methods are designed to move forward the discipline of psychology in an attempt to understand the functions of the human mind and how they impact human behaviors in specific contexts and circumstances.


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This concludes our article on five research methods used in psychology


Methods for Researching Human Development

Research Methods in Developmental Psychology

Developmental psychology employs many of the research methods used in other areas of psychology; however, infants and children cannot be tested in the same ways as adults.

To study changes in individuals over time, developmental psychologists use systematic observation, including naturalistic or structured observation; self-reports, which could be clinical interviews or structured observation; clinical or case study methods; and ethnography or participant observation. Three research methods used include the experimental, correlational, and case study approach.

Experimental Research

The experimental method involves actual manipulation of treatments, circumstances, or events to which the participant or subject is exposed.

This design points to cause-and-effect relationships and thus allows for strong inferences to be made about causal relationships between the manipulation of one or more independent variables and subsequent subject behavior.

A limit to this method is that the artificial environment in which the experiment is conducted may not be applicable to the general population.

Correlational Research

The correlational method explores the relationship between two or more events by gathering information about these variables without researcher intervention.

The advantage of using a correlational design is that it estimates the strength of a relationship among variables in the natural environment.

However, the limitation is that it can only indicate that a relationship exists between the variables; it cannot determine which one caused the other. 

Case Study

In a case study, developmental psychologists collect a great deal of information from one individual in order to better understand physical and psychological changes over his or her lifespan.

Data can be collected through the use of interviews, structured questionnaires, observation, and test scores.

This particular approach is an excellent way to better understand individuals who are exceptional in some way, but it is especially prone to researcher bias in interpretation, and it is difficult to generalize conclusions to the larger population.

Regardless of whether studies employ the experimental, correlational, or case study methodology, they can use research designs or logical frameworks to make key comparisons within research studies. These include longitudinal, cross-sectional, sequential, and microgenetic designs.

Longitudinal Design

In a longitudinal study, a researcher observes many individuals born at or around the same time (a cohort) and carries out new observations as members of the cohort age. This method can be used to draw conclusions about which types of development are universal (or normative) and occur in most members of a cohort.

Researchers may also observe ways that development varies between individuals and hypothesize the causes of such variation. Longitudinal studies often require large amounts of time and funding, making them unfeasible in some situations.

Also, because members of a cohort all experience historical events unique to their generation, apparently normative developmental trends may only be universal to the cohort itself.

Children experience rapid physical changes through infancy and early childhood. In a longitudinal study, a researcher observes many individuals born at or around the same time and observes them as they age.

(credit «left»: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk; credit «middle-left»: modification of work by Kristi Fausel; credit «middle-right»: modification of work by «devinf»/Flickr; credit «right»: modification of work by Rose Spielman)

Cross-Sectional Design

In a cross-sectional study, a researcher observes differences between individuals of different ages at the same time.

This generally requires fewer resources than the longitudinal method, and because the individuals come from different cohorts, shared historical events are not as unique.

However, this method may not be the most effective way to study differences between participants, as these differences may result not from their different ages but from their exposure to different historical events.

Cross-Sequential Design

Cross-sequential designs combine both longitudinal and cross-sectional design methodologies.

A researcher observes members of different birth cohorts at the same time, and then tracks all participants over time, charting changes in the groups.

While much more resource-intensive, this method results in a clearer distinction between changes that can be attributed to individual or historical environment and changes that are truly universal.

Microgenetic Design

Microgenetic design studies the same cohort over a short period of time. In contrast to longitudinal and cross-sectional designs, which provide broad outlines of the process of change, microgenetic designs provide an in-depth analysis of children's behavior while it is changing.


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