Asking research questions

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We all have our own ideas of what determines people’s thoughts and actions. Some of these ideas are seen as common sense. For example, it may seem obvious that similar people are likely to be attracted to each other. After all, ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Confusingly, we believe that people who are very different from each other are likely to get involved in relationships—‘opposites attract’. Testing the truth (validity) of such ‘theories’ is an important part of the work of many psychologists. Empirical research (collecting evidence by observation) is the main method by which this is achieved.

A number of basic concepts such as variables and hypotheses need to be understood before you can get a clear idea about how psychologists answer questions through research.


The concept of variable is basic to psychological research. A variable is anything that varies and can be measured. Put another way, a variable is any characteristic that varies in the sense of having more than one value. For example, the variable of attraction (as in opposites attract) consists of two values at the very least. An individual is either ‘attracted’ to the other person or ‘not attracted’. ‘Attracted’ and ‘not attracted’ are the two different values of the variable when we measure it in this way. Of course, the variable of attraction may have a whole range of different values— from ‘strongly attracted’ through ‘neither attracted nor unattracted’ to ‘strongly unattracted’. The number of different values a variable has depends on just how the psychologist decides to measure that variable. A common way of measuring psychological variables is to use a simple five-point measuring scale such as:

  • 1 Very attracted
  • 2 Attracted
  • 3 Neither attracted nor unattracted
  • 4 Unattracted
  • 5 Very unattracted. As you can see, this scale has five different possible answers or values.

Very simple research may be concerned with counting how common a particular form of behaviour is among people. For example, we could research the number of people who have ever fallen in love at first sight.

The answer to this question may be of great interest. For example, if research shows that 75 per cent of people had fallen in love at first sight then we would know that this is a very common human experience.

However, relatively little psychological research aims only to count the frequency of occurrence of things. More often, psychologists want to find the reasons why things occur, that is to explain their occurrence.

Consequently most research tests a specific idea or hypothesis. The hypothesis is sometimes called the alternate hypothesis. An example of a hypothesis might be based on the suggestion that we are likely to fall in love at first sight with physically attractive people. Thus the hypothesis might be written: ‘The physical attractiveness of the other person affects the likelihood of falling in love with them at first sight.’ A research hypothesis has two essential features: 1) it contains a minimum of two variables; and 2) it suggests that there is a relationship between these two variables. Another feature is not essential but nevertheless desirable. The hypothesis may describe what the researcher expects the relationship between the variables to be.

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