Qualitative v Quantitative
What's the difference?

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods

The key concept to understand with research methods is that psychologists have a range of methods to choose from and their choice depends on the context of the study. (Image from wikicommons)

Psychologists seek to understand the human mind and behaviour. Traditionally, the most common way of doing this was through experimentation. This is because in the 20th century psychologists wanted to adopt a more scientific approach to understanding human cognition and behaviour. But it’s not the only way. In fact, it’s quite limited. In this post, we’ll look at the two types of research (qualitative and quantitative) to understand how, why and when each approach might be used.

Research in psychology can be divided into two major categories:

  1. Quantitative
  2. Qualitative

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Quantitative Research

This includes experiments (lab, field, quasi and natural) and correlational studies. The data (information) gathered in these studies is quantitative, which means it’s numerical.  The data in experimental research are the dependent variables and they be shown in numbers. For example, in Asch’s famous line-length experiments on conformity the data was the % of participants who conformed. Quite simply, if a study uses numbers to represent its results, it’s quantitative.

If the results can be graphed, they are quantitative, like in this experiment on ketamine and PTSD symptoms (From Feder et al. 2014)

Quantitative research is valuable because it can be objective (free from bias) and direct comparisons between groups of people can be made. For example, we can compare conformity rates across cultures, or prevalence rates of disorders across racial groups.

But can we really understand the human experience of cognition and behaviour through numbers? This is why qualitative research has surged in popularity in recent years.

IB Psychology HL students should understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative research for Paper 3.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative data  cannot be written in numbers. They are descriptions or whole sentences. For example, Rosenhan’s famous observation of psychiatric hospitals resulted in long descriptions of what it felt like to be a patient in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes a qualitative study is used because it allows psychologists to gain a better understanding of what it is like to experience a particular psychological phenomenon. For example, can we really understand what it’s like to have PTSD by getting someone to complete a questionnaire? Wouldn’t we be better to sit and talk with them and hear their experiences, or perhaps even observe what it’s like for their daily life? This is why the two main types of qualitative methods are interviews and observations.

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In summary, quantitative research deals in investigating human behaviour by quantifying that behaviour so it can be measured in numbers and statistics. Experiments and correlational studies are some of the quantitative methods used in Psychology. Quantitative research often tries to investigate cause and effects, or correlations between factors and behaviour.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that human behaviour is far more complex than to be reduced to numbers. It is not as concerned with explaining human behaviour but more interested describing it. It recognizes that there is still value in understanding people’s subjective experiences of particular phenomena.

The key concept to understand with research methods is that psychologists have a range of methods to choose from and their choice depends on the context of the study.

Lesson Idea

Watch the video of the famous experiments called “The Boby Doll Experiments” conducted by Albert Bandura.

The data gathered in these experiments could be quantitative or qualitative.

“Working with a partner you are to come up with five examples of possible quantitative data and five examples of possible qualitative data that could have been gathered. “

After you’ve finished you can read the summary of the original study and decide if it gathered quantitative or qualitative data.