What Is Experimental Psychology?

A Closer Look at the Experimental Side of Psychology

Experimental Psychology
Experimental psychology focuses on using scientific methods to learn more about the mind and behavior.. enisaksoy / Digital Vision Vectors / Getty Images

Experimental psychology utilizes scientific methods to research the mind and behavior. While students are often required to take experimental psychology courses during undergraduate and graduate school, you should think about this subject as a methodology rather than a singular area within psychology. Many of these techniques are also used by other subfields of psychology to conduct research on everything from childhood development to social issues.

Experimental Psychology: A Quick Overview

Why do people do the things they do? What factors influence how personality develops? And how do our behaviors and experiences shape our character? These are just a few of the questions that psychologists explore, and experimental methods allow researchers to create and empirically test hypotheses. By studying such questions, researchers can also develop theories that enable them to describe, explain, predict, and even change human behaviors.

Methods Used in Experimental Psychology

Experimental psychologists use a variety of different research methods and tools to investigate human behavior.

Experiments

In some cases, psychologists can perform experiments to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between different variables. The basics of conducting a psychology experiment involve randomly assigning participants to groups, operationally defining variables, developing a hypothesis, manipulating the independent variables, and measuring the depending variables.

For example, researchers could perform a study to look at whether sleep deprivation impairs performance on a driving test. The experimenter could control for other variables that might influence the outcome, but then vary the amount of sleep that participants get the night before a driving test. All of the participants would then take the same driving test via a simulator or on a controlled course.

By analyzing the results, researchers can then determine if it was changes in the independent variable (amount of sleep) that led to differences in the dependent variable (performance on a driving test).

Experimentation remains the primary standard, but other techniques such as case studies, correlational research, and naturalistic observation are frequently utilized in psychological research.

Case Studies

Case studies allow researchers to study a single individual or group of people in great depth. When performing a case study, the researcher collects every single piece of data possible about the subject, often observing the person of interest over a period and in a variety of situations. Detailed information about the individual’s background including family history, education, work, and social life are also collected. Such studies are often performed in instances where experimentation is not possible. For example, a scientist might conduct a case study when the person of interest has had a unique or rare experience that could not be replicated in a lab.

Correlational Research

Correlational studies make it possible for researchers to look at relationships between different variables. For example, a psychologist might note that as one variable increase, another tends to decrease. While such studies can look at relationships, they cannot be used to imply causal relationships. The golden rule is that correlation does not equal causation.

Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation gives researchers the opportunity to observe people in their natural environments. This technique can be particularly useful in cases where the investigators believe that a lab setting might have an undue influence on participant behaviors.

What Do Experimental Psychologists Do?

Experimental psychologists work in a wide variety of settings including colleges, universities, research centers, government, and private businesses. Some of these professionals may focus on teaching experimental methods to students, while others conduct research on cognitive processes, animal behavior, neuroscience, personality and many other subject areas.

Those who work in academic settings often teach psychology courses in addition to performing research and publishing their findings in professional journals. Other experimental psychologists work with businesses to discover ways to make employees more productive or to create a safer workplace, a specialty area known as human factors psychology.

The History of Experimental Psychology

  • 1874 - Wilhelm Wundt published the first experimental psychology textbook, Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie (Principles of Physiological Psychology).
  • 1875 - William James opened a psychology lab in the United States. The lab was created for the purpose of class demonstrations, rather than to perform original experimental research.
  • 1879 - The first experimental psychology lab was founded in Leipzig, Germany. Modern experimental psychology dates back to the establishment of the very first psychology laboratory by pioneering psychologist Wilhelm Wundt during the late nineteenth century.
  • 1883 - G. Stanley Hall opened the first experimental psychology lab in the United States at John Hopkins University.
  • 1885 - Herman Ebbinghaus published his famous Über das Gedächtnis ("On Memory"), which was later translated to English as Memory. A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. In the work, he described his learning and memory experiments that he conducted on himself.
  • 1887 - George Truball Ladd published his textbook Elements of Physiological Psychology, the first American book to include a significant amount of information on experimental psychology.
  • 1887 - James McKeen Cattell established the world's third experimental psychology lab at University of Pennsylvania.
  • 1890 - William James published his classic textbook, The Principles of Psychology.
  • 1891 - Mary Whiton Calkins established an experimental psychology lab at Wellesley College, becoming the first woman to form a psychology lab.
  • 1893 - G. Stanley Hall founded the American Psychological Association, the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States.
  • 1920 - John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner conducted their now famous Little Albert Experiment, in which they demonstrated that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people.
  • 1929 - Edwin Boring's book A History of Experimental Psychology was published. Boring was an influential experimental psychologist who was devoted to the use of experimental methods in psychology research.
  • 1955 - Lee Cronbach published Construct Validity in Psychological Tests, which popularized the use of the construct validity in psychological studies.
  • 1958 - Harry Harlow published The Nature of Love, which described his experiments with rhesus monkeys on attachment and love.
  • 1961 - Albert Bandura conducted his now-famous Bobo doll experiment, which demonstrated the effects of observation on aggressive behavior.

While experimental psychology is sometimes thought of as a separate branch or subfield of psychology, experimental methods are widely used throughout all areas of psychology. Developmental psychologists use experimental methods to study how people grow through childhood and over the course of a lifetime. Social psychologists utilize experimental techniques to study how people are influenced by groups.

Learn more about some of the methods frequently used in experimental psychology:

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