Studying the human mind particularly those affecting behavior in a specific context may sound like a scientific challenge or impossibility. Psychology is known as a soft science as obtaining consistent measurement and observations are limited by experimental-design. Indeed, psychological concepts often rely on human experience and for some “lack mathematical rigor and exactitude” to be considered a hard science. However research methods have been elaborated to study human behavior, despite some being ethically debatable today.
In humans, it took the infamous Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments (1960-1970s) to raise major ethical concerns in the way psychological experiments were conducted. Milgram measured the obedience of volunteers to obey an authority figure (scientists from Yale) who pushed them to perform acts against their personal consciences. Zimbardo wanted to understand whether inherently good people could become brutal when put in positions of power (mock prison context). The participants from both studies were subject to acute psychological distress – they were led to believe they were “monstrous” enough to kill innocent lives when instructed to do so and perform acts of cruelty. The consent and rights of participants were also often neglected.
While ethical implications and the repercussions of such experiments could have on volunteers were push aside back then, today strict regulations are put in place. For example the Code of Ethics and Conduct by the British Psychological Society has established ethical guidelines to conduct research focused on 4 core principles: respect, competence, responsibility and integrity. Breakage of such principles is followed by disciplinary action.
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Modern psychology research methods include:
- Archival data: relies on public and private documents and statistical archives to study behaviours through letters, diaries, speeches etc.
- Case study: aims to obtain a case history of the studied person for example in brain damaged patients versus unaffected controls.
- Correlational studies: is used to understand whether two or more variables are associated to each other for example the number of read papers and obtained exam grades.
- Lab studies: to discover the effect of an independent variable (manipulated) on a dependent variable (measured). For example, when measuring the effect of classical music on concentration, the independent variable is classical music presence/absence while the dependent variable is measuring the concentration.
- Naturalistic observation: observing a phenomenon as it occurs naturally for example observing the public display of affection (PDA) on university campus.
- Survey method: relies on written questionnaires or interviews which allows the gathering of data on feelings or thoughts which are not always perceived externally.