Basic Research in Psychology

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Basic research—also known as fundamental or pure research—refers to study and research meant to increase our scientific knowledge base. This type of research is often purely theoretical, with the intent of increasing our understanding of certain phenomena or behavior. In contrast with applied research, basic research doesn't seek to solve or treat these problems.

Basic Research Examples

Basic research in psychology might explore:

  • Whether stress levels influence how often students engage in academic cheating
  • How caffeine consumption affects the brain
  • Whether men or women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression
  • How attachment styles among children of divorced parents compare to those raised by married parents

In all of these examples, the goal is merely to increase knowledge on a topic, not to come up with a practical solution to a problem.

The Link Between Basic and Applied Research

As Stanovich (2007) noted, many practical solutions to real-world problems have emerged directly from basic research. For this reason, the distinction between basic research and applied research is often simply a matter of time. As social psychologist Kurt Lewin once observed, "There is nothing so practical as a good theory."

For example, researchers might conduct basic research on how stress levels impact students academically, emotionally, and socially. The results of these theoretical explorations might lead to further studies designed to solve specific problems. Researchers might initially observe that students with high stress levels are more prone to dropping out of college before graduating. These first studies are examples of basic research designed to learn more about the topic.

As a result, scientists might then design research to determine what interventions might best lower these stress levels. Such studies would be examples of applied research. The purpose of applied research is specifically focused on solving a real problem that exists in the world. Thanks to the foundations established by basic research, psychologists can then design interventions that will help students effectively manage their stress levels, with the hopes of improving college retention rates.

Why Basic Research Is Important

The possible applications of basic research might not be obvious right away. During the earliest phases of basic research, scientists might not even be able to see how the information gleaned from theoretical research might ever apply to real-world problems. However, this foundational knowledge is essential. By learning as much as possible about a topic, researchers are able to gather what they need to know about an issue to fully understand the impact it may have.

"For example, early neuroscientists conducted basic research studies to understand how neurons function. The applications of this knowledge were not clear until much later when neuroscientists better understood how this neural functioning affected behavior," explained author Dawn M. McBride in her text The Process of Research in Psychology. "The understanding of the basic knowledge of neural functioning became useful in helping individuals with disorders long after this research had been completed."

Basic Research Methods

Basic research relies on many types of investigatory tools. These include observation, case studies, experiments, focus groups, surveys, interviews—anything that increases the scope of knowledge on the topic at hand.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which psychologists are most likely to be involved in basic research?

    Psychologists interested in social behavior often undertake basic research. Social/community psychologists engaging in basic research are not trying to solve particular problems; rather, they want to learn more about why humans act the way they do.

  • What is the difference between basic research and applied research?

    Basic research is an effort to expand the scope of knowledge on a topic. Applied research uses such knowledge to solve specific problems.

  • What does a well-written basic research problem statement look like?

    An effective basic research problem statement outlines the importance of the topic; the study's significance and methods; what the research is investigating; how the results will be reported; and what the research will probably require.

  • What is an example of basic research?

    Basic research might investigate, for example, the relationship between academic stress levels and cheating; how caffeine affects the brain; depression incidence in men vs. women; or attachment styles among children of divorced and married parents.

  • Why is basic research important?

    By learning as much as possible about a topic, researchers can come to fully understand the impact it may have. This knowledge can then become the basis of applied research to solve a particular problem within the topic area.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stanovich KE. How to Think Straight About Psychology. 8th edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn and Bacon; 2007.

  2. McCain KW. “Nothing as practical as a good theory” Does Lewin's Maxim still have salience in the applied social sciences? Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology. 2015;52(1):1-4. doi:10.1002/pra2.2015.145052010077

  3. McBride DM. The Process of Research in Psychology. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications; 2015.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.