What Is Applied Research?

How Applied Research Is Used in Psychology

Applied researcher working in lab
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Applied research refers to scientific study and research that seeks to solve practical problems. Applied research is used to find solutions to everyday problems, cure illness, and develop innovative technologies. Psychologists working in human factors or industrial/organizational fields often do this type of research.

Examples of Applied Research

A few examples of applied research in psychology include:

  • Investigating which treatment approach is the most effective for reducing anxiety
  • Researching which strategies work best to motivate workers
  • Studying different keyboard designs to determine which is the most efficient and ergonomic
  • Analyzing what type of prompts will inspire people to volunteer their time to charities

As you may notice, all of these examples explore topics that will address a real-world issues. This immediate and practical application of the findings is what distinguished applied research from basic research, which instead focuses on theoretical concerns.

However, researchers also suggest that basic research and applied research are actually closely intertwined. Basic research often informs applied research, and applied research often helps basic researchers refine their own theories.

How Does Applied Research Work?

Applied research usually start by identifying a problem that exists in the real world.

Applied psychologists then conduct research in order to identify a solution. The type of research that is used can depend upon a variety of factors include unique characteristics of the situation and the kind of problem psychologists are trying to solve. Researchers might opt to use naturalistic observation to see the problem as it occurs in a real-world setting.

They might then conduct experiments to help determine why the problem occurs and to explore different solutions that might solve it.

Potential Challenges in Applied Research

As with any other types of research, challenges can arise when conducting applied research in psychology. Some potential problems that researchers might face when performing this type of research include:

Ethical challenges. When conducting applied research in a naturalistic setting, researchers may come across concerns about privacy and informed consent. In some cases, such as in workplace studies conducted by industrial-organizational psychologists, participants may feel pressured or even coerced into participating as a condition of their employment.

Problems with validity. Since applied research often takes place in the field, it can be difficult to researchers to maintain complete control over all of the variables. Extraneous variables can also exert a subtle influence that the experimenters may not even consider or realize are having an effect on the results. In many cases, researchers are forced to strike a balance between a study's ecological validity (which is usually quite high in applied research) and the study's internal validity.

Since applied research focuses on taking the results of scientific research and utilizing it directly in real world situations, those who work in this line of research tend to be more concerned with the external validity of their work. 

External validity refers to the extent that scientific findings can be generalized to other populations. Researchers don't just want to know if the results of their experiments apply to the participants in their studies. They want these results to also apply to larger populations outside of the lab.

"Because applied research investigates realistic problems, applied researchers are often concerned with the external validity of their studies.

This means that they attempt to observe behaviors that can be applied to real-life situations," explains Dawn M. McBride in The Process of Research in Psychology

"This is important because these researchers want to be able to apply their results to a problem that applies to individuals who are not participants in their study (as well as to those individuals who were observed in the study. External validity is also a consideration in basic research but in some cases can be less important that it is in applied research."

How Is Applied Research Used in the Real-World?

What are some examples of how applied research is used to solve real-world problems?

  • A hospital might conduct applied research on how to prepare patients for certain types of surgical procedures.
  • A business might hire an applied psychologist to assess how to design a workplace console to maximize efficiency and productivity while minimizing worker fatigue and error.
  • An organization might hire an applied researcher to determine how to select employees that are best suited for certain positions within the company.

A Word From Verywell

Applied research is an important tool in the process of understanding the human mind and behavior. Thanks to this kind of research, psychologists are able to investigate problems that affect people's daily lives. While this kind of research specifically targets real-world issues, it also contributes to our base of knowledge about how people think and behave.

Sources:

Brooks, J & King, N. Applied Qualitative Research in Psychology. London: Palgrave; 2017.

Goodwin, CJ. Research in Psychology Methods and Design. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 2017.

McBride, DM. The Process of Research in Psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications; 2013.

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