How Correlational Studies Are Used in Psychology

A correlation refers to a relationship between two variables. Correlations can be strong or weak, as well as positive or negative. In other cases, there might be no correlation at all between the variables of interest.

How Correlational Studies Work

Correlational studies are a type of research often used in psychology as a preliminary way to gather information about a topic or in situations where performing an experiment is not possible. The correlational method involves looking at relationships between two or more variables. While researchers can use correlations to see if a relationship exists, the variables themselves are not under the control of the researchers.

Another point is that while correlational research can reveal if a relationship exists between variables, this kind of research cannot prove that changes to one variable lead to changes to another variable. In other words, correlational studies cannot prove cause-and-effect relationships. Correlational methods have a number of strengths and weaknesses, so it's important to determine which research method is best for a particular situation.

The Purpose of Correlational Research

There are three possible results of a correlational study: a positive correlation, a negative correlation, and no correlation.

The correlation coefficient is a measure of the correlation strength and can range from –1.00 to +1.00.

Here are the definitions of the three results:

  • Positive correlations: In this type of correlation, both variables increase or decrease at the same time. A correlation coefficient close to +1.00 indicates a strong positive correlation.
  • Negative correlations: This type of correlation indicates that as the amount of one variable increases, the other decreases (and vice versa). A correlation coefficient close to -1.00 indicates a strong negative correlation.
  • No correlation: This indicates no relationship between the two variables. A correlation coefficient of 0 indicates no correlation.

Limitations of Correlational Studies

While correlational research can suggest that there is a relationship between two variables, it cannot prove that one variable causes a change in another variable. In other words, correlation does not equal causation.

For example, a correlational study might suggest that there is a relationship between academic success and self-esteem, but it cannot show if academic success actually causes changes in self-esteem. Other variables might play a role, including social relationships, cognitive abilities, personality, socioeconomic status, and myriad other factors.

Types of Correlational Research

There are three types of correlational research, including:

  1. Naturalistic Observation: This method involves observing and recording the variables of interest in the natural environment without interference or manipulation by the experimenter.
  2. The Survey Method: Surveys and questionnaires are among the most common methods used in psychological research. In this method, a random sample of participants completes a survey, test, or questionnaire that relates to the variables of interest. Random sampling is a vital part of ensuring the generalizability of the survey results.
  3. Archival Research: This type of research is performed by analyzing studies conducted by other researchers or by looking at historical patient records. For example, researchers analyzed the records of soldiers who served in the Civil War to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in an experiment known as "The Irritable Heart".

Advantages and Disadvantages of Naturalistic Observation

Advantages of naturalistic observation include:

  • Gives the experimenter the opportunity to view the variable of interest in a natural setting
  • Can offer ideas for further research
  • Might be the only option if lab experimentation is not possible

Disadvantages of naturalistic observation include:

  • Can be time-consuming and expensive
  • Does not allow for scientific control of variables
  • Experimenters can't control extraneous variables
  • Subjects may be aware of the observer and may act differently as a result

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Survey Method

Advantages of the survey method include:

  • Fast, cheap, and easy—researchers can collect large amounts of data in a relatively short amount of time
  • More flexible than some other methods

Disadvantages of the survey method include:

  • Can be affected by an unrepresentative sample or poor survey questions
  • Participants can affect the outcome—some participants try to please the researcher, lie to make themselves look better, or have mistaken memories

Advantages and Disadvantages of Archival Research

Advantages of archival research include:

  • The experimenter cannot introduce changes in participant behavior
  • Enormous amounts of data provide a better view of trends, relationships, and outcomes
  • Often less expensive than other study methods—researchers can often access data through free archives or records databases

Disadvantages of archival research include:

  • The researchers have no control over how data was collected
  • Important dates may be missing from the records
  • Previous research may be unreliable
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