What is it about different psychological research areas that necessitates the use of different research methods?
Different types of research methods are used for certain psychological research areas to unlock the mysteries of behaviour. However, caution is needed as some methods are only useful for a particular psychological research area. The appropriate method is needed otherwise incorrect conclusions may be drawn about a behaviour. This issue is explored by addressing three different research areas in psychology; Forensics, Health and Biology.
Forensic psychology focuses on the study of the mind and ways in which the mind works, especially in the instances of violent crime. Forensic psychologists carry out research to uncover the reasons behind why an individual might carry out such an act of crime. There are many different reason as to why an individual might lash out and commit a violent act. Forensic psychology sets out to prove the link between emotional distress, psychological strain and violence through the use of particular research methods.
Sexual deviancy is a common issue dealt with in forensic psychology and there are particular research methods used to study this. Self report measures are used when dealing with individuals suffering from mental disorders. McGuire et al (1996; as cited in Eysenck, 2006) studied schizophrenics using a self report method, and found that these patients had reduced activity in those parts of the brain involved in monitoring inner speech. This evidence suggests that self-report measures provide a promising approach to understanding the causes of mental disorders. However, in a study by Wormith (1986; as cited in Gray, Brown, MacCulloch & Smith, 2005) a self report measure misclassified 17% of the paedophiles as normal. This incorrect classification suggests that self report measures are not particularly reliable and individuals can deliberately fake their answers, making it difficult to get an insight into forensic problems in a meaningful manner.
Research on sexual deviancy also uses actuarial measures, such as Dolan and Doyle’s (2000) review of the current status of risk prediction research. This study found that actuarial risk assessment approaches are important in forensic psychology to enhance the accuracy of predictions of offenders’ violent outcomes. However, actuarial measures can often lead to serious errors in prediction and confuse attempts at meaningful interpretations of findings, (Rogers & Jackson, 2005). This is because actuarial measures tend to be insensitive to change and highly reductionist in its grouping of most sex offenders into a single category.
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Gray, Brown, MacCulloch, Smith and Snowden (2005) invented a new method known as the implicit association test (IAT) to investigate the associations between children and sex in paedophiles. The IAT is a computerised reaction-time based cognitive task which indirectly measures social cognitions. Gray et al (2005) presented pictures to paedophiles of words and images related to sex and the individuals had to signal which dimension they attributed that word/image to. Results showed that paedophiles had little confusion over the child and sex condition but more over the adult and sex condition. The IAT successfully displayed that paedophiles were unable to conceal their paedophilic nature, suggesting that this method is extremely necessary to forensic psychology as offenders’ real thoughts and feelings can be uncovered.
Since the above study, the IAT has been refined to a 5 minute test and has also been able to find a difference between hebephiles (victims aged 13-16) and paedophiles, which is a factor other methods have failed to distinguish. This suggests that methods that are resistant to faking and sensitive to changes in a person’s thoughts and feelings are necessary for forensic psychology, which is why the IAT has proved to be so successful.
Health psychology aims to understand the psychological causes and correlates of health and illness, and uses particular research methods to do this. Scheir and Carver (1987; as cited in Lancastle and Boivin, 2005) argued that dispositional optimism has direct psychological effects on health. Lancastle and Boivin (2005) studied the affect dispositional optimism, trait anxiety and coping has on the success of fertility treatment. To obtain valid results they assessed women’s psychological profiles 3 months before IVF started. If they had assessed their profiles once IVF had started, the women’s ovarian responses could have affected the results of their psychological profiles. Scheier and Carver’s (1985; as cited in Lancastle and Boivin, 2005) Life Orientation Test was used to assess dispositional optimism. To measure trait anxiety the study used Spielberger’s trait anxiety subscale of the State-Trait anxiety Inventory (1970), and an adaptation of the Ways of Coping Questionnaire by Folkman and Lazarus (1988) was used to test coping. These types of methods are necessary in health psychology to deal with the common issue of IVF.
However, these methods described are self-reported and therefore the validity of the psychological profiles can be questioned. There is a problem with self evaluating methods as it is possible that people may display social desirability bias. Therefore, this invalidates the results of the psychological profiles and has detrimental effects on the outcome of the research. Anderheim, Holter, Bergh and Moller (2005) used self evaluating questionnaires to assess stress before and during IVF. It was speculated that patients answered questions on the PGWB index more positively than truthfully, and individuals kept their worries to themselves due to their great expectations of the treatment. This suggests that answers given to the PGWB index and findings from fertility research in general have low validity.
Despite these problems with methods used in health psychology, research still needs to try to examine specific variables affecting fertility so experimenters use prospective designs where they assess the variables that they are testing (e.g. stress) before treatment to see the affect that variable has on it. Therefore these types of methods are necessary for this research area as they allow a causal chain to be established where the researcher can see clearly if psychological factors influence fertility.
Within biological psychology, some researchers use physiological measures to increase understanding of human behaviour. For example, the use of EEG provided evidence for different stages of sleep and showed that there is an association between dreaming and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Brain imaging research by Solms (2000; as cited in Eysenck, 2006) has provided support for Freud’s dream theory of the motivational system being active during dreaming but the rational parts of the brain were relatively inactive. These methods used in biological psychology are essential for studying the brain.
Quite often experiments with biological psychology involve studying the behaviour of animals and comparing this with humans. Cheng (1986; as cited in Pearce, 2008) investigated the study of navigation in both animals and humans. Rats were placed in a rectangular chamber containing different landmarks and were required to find food that was hidden in one particular corner. Cheng found that even in the absence of food and a landmark, the rats still searched the correct corner of the chamber. Cheng concluded that the rats were able to remember the shape of the chamber and identify the position of food, suggesting that rats are able to appreciate quite complex geometric relations through the use of very simple cognitive maps.
Cheng’s conclusions have been called into question by the findings of an experiment by Pearce, Good, Jones, and McGregor (2004; as cited in Pearce, 2008). Rats were placed in a rectangular swimming pool and were required to escape from it by finding a platform submerged just below the surface of the water. Once released, the rats would swim directly to the corner containing the platform. To identify the strategy that was used to find the platform, a test trial was conducted in a kite-shaped pool and it was found that the rats preferred to swim directly to the apex rather than the other corners. Pearce et al concluded that the rats may have used local cues such as searching for the platform by looking for a short wall to the right of a long wall.
Some may argue that using animals in biological experiments can limit findings because the human species is so different from other species. However, studying animals is a necessary aspect of biological psychology as it could be argued that simple forms of learning can be studied more directly in other species than in humans. Also, some phenomena initially observed in other species have important implications for humans. For example, Seligman (1975; as cited in Eysenck, 2006) discovered learned helplessness in dogs, and this led to an enhanced understanding of depression in humans.
In conclusion, different psychological research areas need particular research methods to benefit the issue at hand. Forensic psychology requires methods that are dynamic and sensitive to changes in an individual’s life. Health psychology calls for research methods that have the ability to show a clear link between two factors such as stress and IVF outcomes. Biological psychology necessitates the use of physiological techniques, and the study of animals to be able to determine important implications for humans. Each area of psychological research has different aims to reach and certain problems to overcome and therefore different methods are necessary to achieve reliable and influential findings.
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