Understanding research methodology in psychology can be difficult. Hopefully this post will help make things a little clearer.
When understanding any topic in psychology, I like to use a basic “What-How-Why” approach. This works particularly well for research methods.
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What methods are used?
The most common research methods used in psychology are experimental, case studies and correlational studies. This is the same for biological psychology as any field.
I recommend focusing on true experiments where there’s clearly been an independent variable manipulated to create different conditions of the experiment. To save the issue of having to classify different studies and types of experiments based on their nuanced definitions and overlaps.
- True experiments:
- Case studies (e.g. HM’s case study)
- Correlational studies: Socioeconomic status and brain (e.g. Karl).
The use of technology is not a research method on its own, but is used as part of an experiment, case study or correlational study. Similarly, meta-analyses or twin studies are also not technically “research methods” according to the IB. See the following image from the IB Psychology’s FAQs document for more explanation.
How are they used?
It’s important that you can describe in detail the methodology used when adopting one of the research methods. You also need to link it specifically to biological factors. You can begin with a general summary. For example, when explaining experiments you would explain how researchers manipulate an IV and may randomly allocate participants to groups before measuring the effects of this on the DV. To show full understanding you should go deeper and link this to biological psychology. For example, you can explain how experiments are used to study hormones by manipulating the levels of hormones in the body and seeing how this affects cognition, the brain, or behaviour.
Correlational studies involve the measuring of two co-variables without focusing on an IV and a DV. In biological psychology, at least one of the co-variables will be biological, such as brain volume or levels of hormones.
Case studies are conducted on participants when studying the brain and behaviour when patients have interesting and unique brain damage and the influence this has on behaviour is studied. Data is gathered using multiple methods, including brain scans, questionnaires, interviews and observations.
Teacher Tip: I used to begin my course with research methods like most people. I later learned that this was like building a house by starting with the roof. It was much easier to wait until later in the course when the students understood the studies, to then go back and use these as examples of how and why research methods are used in various fields of psychology.
Why are they used?
Again, you can begin with a general summary of the methodology that researchers follow when using any of these methods. It’s important to understand the general reasons behind using a particular method.
For example, true experiments are used because they allow cause and effect conclusions to be drawn. This is because they control extraneous variables, ensuring only the IV is having an effect on the DV. However, this explanation could apply to any field, so we need to link it to biological psychology. In this case, the IV is often a biological factor (neurotransmitter, hormones or even genetics) and the effects are measured on a dependent variable (a behavior or perhaps brain function). Now the link to biological psychology is clearer.
The important thing to remember is to link the ‘why’ to the biological factors. What is it about the biological level of analysis that makes this a useful research method to use. For example, why experiments? (think about why animal experiments are common). Why are case studies like HM’s valuable to study the brain (especially before modern brain imaging techniques were invented)?
WHAT? HOW? WHY? BUT…I like using this simple framework when approaching any topic in psychology. Whether it’s teaching the course, studying for exams or planning an exam answer, this simple framework can work.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.