How Basic Research Is Used in Psychology

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The term basic 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 but without seeking to solve or treat these problems.


Examples of basic research in psychology might include:

  • An investigation looking at whether stress levels influence how often students engage in academic cheating
  • A study looking at how caffeine consumption impacts the brain
  • A study assessing whether men or women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression
  • A study looking at how attachment styles among children of divorced parents compare to those raised by married parents

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

However, 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.


One important thing to remember about basic research is that its possible applications 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."

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3 Sources
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  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.

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