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In unit 4, we discussed specialties in psychology. The unit also served to introduce us other units in this course. You can now explain what we call mental psychology, social psychology, occupational health psychology, forensic psychology, feminist psychology, and police psychology, amongst others. You are about to study another it that you will find quite interesting and very useful: How psychologists develop test their theories. We will consider the scientific method. Let us look at what other content you should learn in this unit as specified in the objectives below


By the end of this unit, you should be able to: 

  1. identify the steps involved in the scientific method, 
  2. explain how ideas in psychology are tested; and 
  3. steps in the scientific method. 


3.1 Awareness in the Scientific Method

The first stage is that a problem is felt when a man encounters a problem which puzzles him and he apparently has no answer for.

3.2 Location and Definition of the Problem

The problem, as encountered by man, may be so diffused or overwhelming that he cannot specify it. He then tries to find specifically what his problem is. Let us cite an example to enhance your level of understanding: If the problem is fear, is it .rear arising from pain in a particular part of the body or a strange noise or object?

3.3 Collections of Data

When man has defined the problem before him precisely, he begins to collect relevant or possible data. He starts to take closer observation of the part of the now localized problem. He collects as much information as possible. Let us give an example. If the original fear is now localized to a strange object, man starts to find if the object is big or small, the colour of the object, whether it is mobile, whether it makes any sound and if any, the timing, and so on.

3.4 Formulation of Hypotheses

On the basis of the accumulated data, man starts to formulate possible hypotheses. These hypotheses can be seen as educated guesses or answers to the problem. His preliminary study of the facts has led him to these now intelligent guesses about the possible solution to his problem. At this stage these possible solutions are tentative, hence they are many and all cannot be the solution. Where the hypothesis is one, it is still tentative unit it is proved to be the correct solution. In fact some scientists at this stage label them as hunches.

3.5 Testing the Hypotheses

The guesses are tested as to their solubility of the problem. If A and B are true, then C must be true. If for example the strange object which caused fear is four footed, mobile and makes some noise, then it is a wild animal. If we had seen that, though the fear object is four footed but immobile then
we might conclude that it can be any other thing but an animal. This will mean testing another hypothesis.

3.6 Verification of the Hypotheses

This may mean testing the workability or solubility of the accepted hypotheses. It is therefore left for man to select a suitable and safe method which will help him to confirm whether or not the hypotheses will work. To find, for example, if the cause of the fear is a wild animal, man may decide to attack it by hauling a stone at it or usil1g a club to hit it. On the basis of his findings, he can now draw conclusions.
The above scientific method gives one an Idea about the procedures Involved In psychological investigations. However, it is important for you to note that in psychology the steps listed do not provide the right pattern that a psychologist or even a scientist must follow. One may find out that while applying the scientific method, a psychologist does not necessarily tackle one step at a time, complete that process and then move on to the next step. For example, the scientist may formulate his hypotheses and move to the next step of testing. He discovers that none of the hypotheses works, then he shuttles back to formulate new hypotheses or even to take a second look at his definition of the problem. But in the final analysis, his results, when presented, will show a logically arranged sequence which parallels the scientific method.
You have been very active in our discussion, well done. Now try your hand on this question.


i. State what you must do before testing an hypothesis.
ii. State what you must do after defining a problem.

3.7 Testing Ideas

Psychologists often gather information by carrying out experiments to test certain ideas. From our previous discussion, we refer to this as testing a hypothesis. Let us cite an example to illustrate this process. Suppose a psychologist thinks that male police officers may have better memories than female officers. The psychologist might wish to check whether this is the case and set up an experiment to test the hypothesis: The psychologist may invite a number of male and female officers to view a videotape of a crime taking place and then ask each person a series of questions about the event.
He/she could then compare the results from the male and female officers to see whether there is any difference in how much information they could recall, and also whether one group was more accurate than the other in the details they provide (The Open University of Hong Kong, 2001).


Think about the example cited above and decide whether it would be a good way of obtaining information about sex difference and memory. Let us continue our discussion. A couple of questions might be asked about the example cited above. Firstly why did the psychologist choose to test a number of male and female officers; rather than just one of each? Secondly, if differences were found between the two groups, how would the psychologist know whether such differences were ‘real’ or whether they were due to chance?
The answer to the first question is that it would have been inappropriate for the psychologist to test just one male and one female because if differences were found, the psychologist would not know whether such differences were because he/she had chosen a male with a good memory. For this reason, psychologists always try to test a reasonable size sample of individuals in their studies. However, you must note that we are not necessarily talking about a large number of people. The psychologist would also need to be sure that members of the same group were ‘typical’ or representative of their groups. For example, a particularly sexist male psychologist might attempt to prove his theory about women performing less well than men by selecting women he already knew were not very bright, and men he knew were highly intelligent. The sexist psychologist may claim that he did find differences proving his theory, but his colleagues may not accept his views because of how the study was carried out. It may be that if any differences were found, they could be accounted for entirely by the fact that one group was, on average, more intelligent than the other and this fact rather than gender differences accounts for the results.

In comparing two groups of people and trying to find differences, the psychologist would need to be sure that members in his/her sample were representative .of the groups from which they were drawn. If the average female police officer’s I.Q. score was 110, it would be unfair if the
psychologist deliberately included only people with a score well below this average in his sample. Similarly, the psychologist would need to be sure that his comparison group of male officers contained those who were normal or representative of the whole population of male police officers. Good research thus always tries to compare a reasonable size sample of individuals, and also tries to be sure that members of the sample are largely representative of the groups from which they were drawn. In order to avoid the accusation that he/she was still biased in the way in which the samples were selected, the psychologist might try to obtain ‘random sample’ rather than one based on certain selection criterion. The psychologist might obtain a list of all local male and female officers and include every tenth name on the list until samples of a roughly equal size were obtained. This random sampling would negate any accusation that certain individuals were more likely to ‘prove’ that the researcher’s theory was correct.

At this stage, you deserve to clap for your active participation. Now, we must continue our discussion.

The psychologist would therefore want to compare a random, comparable and representative sample of male and female officers. However: he/she would still need to be able to prove that if any differences were found, they were real as opposed to chance differences. If the psychologist found that an average male officer correctly recalled 15 details and female 14, he/she should be able to say that this difference was so large that it could not be explained by chance. In order to do-this, the psychologist would analyse the results using an appropriate statistical measure that could then prove the differences were ‘real’ differences and could not be explained by luck or chance.

You need to remember that psychologists routinely subject their results to statistical analysis in order to prove to themselves and to others that any differences are real differences. Proof that a difference is ‘statistically significant’ allows the researcher to state ‘with a high degree of certainty’ that the results are not due to chance. In this way a psychologist is in a better position to make objective (as opposed to subjective) claims about the data.

As you read about various psychology experiments, you will often see sentences such as ‘the results were found to be significant at the 0.05 level’. You are eager to know what that means. You will not wait for too long.
What this means is that the psychologist has carried out an appropriate statistical test proving that the chances that, any differences between two groups might be due to chance are less than one in 20.

Similarly, if a researcher states that ‘The difference was found to be significant at the 0.0 1111 level’ this would mean that the probability that any differences found were due to chance were one in 100.

It should be noted that just because a finding is proved to be statistically significant does not necessarily mean that the researcher has proved absolutely that his/her theory is true. For example, Alhassan (2000) states that some early research on intelligence appeared to show a statistically significant difference between the I.Q. score of African-Americans and Americans. However, the actual test used was biased in favour of Americans (one group) and against the African- Americans (the other). It should be noted that one basic rule is that the larger the size of any sample, the more likely it is that small differences will prove to be statistically significant. We should however bear in mind a point made earlier -any statistically significant differences found will only be accepted if the researcher can demonstrate that the samples were comparable. 


In this unit, you have learnt how psychologists develop and test their theories. You have therefore learnt the scientific method. For example, as we discussed earlier, we must have awareness of the problem, location and definition of the problem, collection of data, formulation of hypotheses, testing the hypotheses and verification of the hypotheses as steps in the scientific method.


  1. What you have learnt in this unit concerns how psychologists develop and test their theories. 
  2. You have also learnt that psychologists usually use a scientific 
  3. method in carrying out their research. This has advantages over other types of research as it: 

a.. allows researchers to test a hypothesis in a systematic way,
b. allows researchers to be confident about the tact that their results are not likely to be due to chance.
c. allows other researchers to see how studies were carried out and to replicate them.


1 a. state 4 reasons why psychologists usually use a scientific method in carrying out their research
b. if a psychologist states that the results of his research were found to be significant at the 0.05 level, what does he or she mean?
c. the same psychologist reports the results of another investigation to
be significant at the 0.01 level. What does he/she mean?


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