How Does Experimental Psychology Study Behavior?

Purpose, methods, and history

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What factors influence people's behaviors and thoughts? Experimental psychology utilizes scientific methods to answer these questions by researching the mind and behavior. Experimental psychologists conduct experiments to learn more about why people do certain things.

Overview of Experimental Psychology

Why do people do the things they do? What factors influence how personality develops? And how do our behaviors and experiences shape our character?

These are just a few of the questions that psychologists explore, and experimental methods allow researchers to create and empirically test hypotheses. By studying such questions, researchers can also develop theories that enable them to describe, explain, predict, and even change human behaviors.

For example, researchers might utilize experimental methods to investigate why people engage in unhealthy behaviors. By learning more about the underlying reasons why these behaviors occur, researchers can then search for effective ways to help people avoid such actions or replace unhealthy choices with more beneficial ones.

Why Experimental Psychology Matters

While students are often required to take experimental psychology courses during undergraduate and graduate school, think about this subject as a methodology rather than a singular area within psychology. People in many subfields of psychology use these techniques to conduct research on everything from childhood development to social issues.

Experimental psychology is important because the findings play a vital role in our understanding of the human mind and behavior.

By better understanding exactly what makes people tick, psychologists and other mental health professionals can explore new approaches to treating psychological distress and mental illness. These are often topics of experimental psychology research.

Experimental Psychology Methods

So how exactly do researchers investigate the human mind and behavior? Because the mind is so complex, it seems like a challenging task to explore the many factors that contribute to how we think, act, and feel.

Experimental psychologists use a variety of different research methods and tools to investigate human behavior. Methods in the experimental psychology category include experiments, case studies, correlational research, and naturalistic observations.

Experiments

Experimentation remains the primary standard in psychological research. In some cases, psychologists can perform experiments to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between different variables.

The basics of conducting a psychology experiment involve:

One experimental psychology research example would be to perform a study to look at whether sleep deprivation impairs performance on a driving test. The experimenter could control other variables that might influence the outcome, varying the amount of sleep participants get the night before.

All of the participants would then take the same driving test via a simulator or on a controlled course. By analyzing the results, researchers can determine if changes in the independent variable (amount of sleep) led to differences in the dependent variable (performance on a driving test).

Case Studies

Case studies allow researchers to study an individual or group of people in great depth. When performing a case study, the researcher collects every single piece of data possible, often observing the person or group over a period of time and in a variety of situations. They also collect detailed information about their subject's background—including family history, education, work, and social life—is also collected.

Such studies are often performed in instances where experimentation is not possible. For example, a scientist might conduct a case study when the person of interest has had a unique or rare experience that could not be replicated in a lab.

Correlational Research

Correlational studies are an experimental psychology method that makes it possible for researchers to look at relationships between different variables. For example, a psychologist might note that as one variable increases, another tends to decrease.

While such studies can look at relationships, they cannot be used to imply causal relationships. The golden rule is that correlation does not equal causation.

Naturalistic Observations

Naturalistic observation gives researchers the opportunity to watch people in their natural environments. This experimental psychology method can be particularly useful in cases where the investigators believe that a lab setting might have an undue influence on participant behaviors.

What Experimental Psychologists Do

Experimental psychologists work in a wide variety of settings, including colleges, universities, research centers, government, and private businesses. Some of these professionals teach experimental methods to students while others conduct research on cognitive processes, animal behavior, neuroscience, personality, and other subject areas.

Those who work in academic settings often teach psychology courses in addition to performing research and publishing their findings in professional journals. Other experimental psychologists work with businesses to discover ways to make employees more productive or to create a safer workplace—a specialty area known as human factors psychology.

Experimental Psychology Research Examples

Some topics that might be explored in experimental psychology research include how music affects motivation, the impact social media has on mental health, and whether a certain color changes one's thoughts or perceptions.

History of Experimental Psychology

To understand how experimental psychology got where it is today, it can be helpful to look at how it originated. Psychology is a relatively young discipline, emerging in the late 1800s. While it started as part of philosophy and biology, it officially became its own field of study when early psychologist Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory devoted to the study of experimental psychology.

Some of the important events that helped shape the field of experimental psychology include:

  • 1874 - Wilhelm Wundt published the first experimental psychology textbook, "Grundzüge der physiologischen Psychologie" ("Principles of Physiological Psychology").
  • 1875 - William James opened a psychology lab in the United States. The lab was created for the purpose of class demonstrations rather than to perform original experimental research.
  • 1879 - The first experimental psychology lab was founded in Leipzig, Germany. Modern experimental psychology dates back to the establishment of the very first psychology lab by pioneering psychologist Wilhelm Wundt during the late nineteenth century.
  • 1883 - G. Stanley Hall opened the first experimental psychology lab in the United States at John Hopkins University.
  • 1885 - Herman Ebbinghaus published his famous "Über das Gedächtnis" ("On Memory"), which was later translated to English as "Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology." In the work, Ebbinghaus described learning and memory experiments that he conducted on himself.
  • 1887 - George Truball Ladd published his textbook "Elements of Physiological Psychology," the first American book to include a significant amount of information on experimental psychology.
  • 1887 - James McKeen Cattell established the world's third experimental psychology lab at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • 1890 - William James published his classic textbook, "The Principles of Psychology."
  • 1891 - Mary Whiton Calkins established an experimental psychology lab at Wellesley College, becoming the first woman to form a psychology lab.
  • 1893 - G. Stanley Hall founded the American Psychological Association, the largest professional and scientific organization of psychologists in the United States.
  • 1920 - John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner conducted their now-famous Little Albert Experiment, in which they demonstrated that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in people.
  • 1929 - Edwin Boring's book "A History of Experimental Psychology" was published. Boring was an influential experimental psychologist who was devoted to the use of experimental methods in psychology research.
  • 1955 - Lee Cronbach published "Construct Validity in Psychological Tests," which popularized the use of construct validity in psychological studies.
  • 1958 - Harry Harlow published "The Nature of Love," which described his experiments with rhesus monkeys on attachment and love.
  • 1961 - Albert Bandura conducted his famous Bobo doll experiment, which demonstrated the effects of observation on aggressive behavior.

Experimental Psychology Uses

While experimental psychology is sometimes thought of as a separate branch or subfield of psychology, experimental methods are widely used throughout all areas of psychology.

  • Developmental psychologists use experimental methods to study how people grow through childhood and over the course of a lifetime.
  • Social psychologists use experimental techniques to study how people are influenced by groups.
  • Health psychologists rely on experimentation and research to better understand the factors that contribute to wellness and disease.

A Word From Verywell

The experimental method in psychology helps us learn more about how people think and why they behave the way they do. Experimental psychologists can research a variety of topics using many different experimental methods. Each one contributes to what we know about the mind and human behavior.

4 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. Shaughnessy JJ, Zechmeister EB, Zechmeister JS. Research Methods in Psychology. McGraw-Hill.

  2. Heale R, Twycross A. What is a case study?. Evid Based Nurs. 2018;21(1):7-8. doi:10.1136/eb-2017-102845

  3. Chiang IA, Jhangiani RS, Price PC. Correlational research. In: Research Methods in Psychology, 2nd Canadian edition. BCcampus Open Education.

  4. Pierce T. Naturalistic observation. Radford University.

Additional Reading
  • Kantowitz BH, Roediger HL, Elmes DG. Experimental Psychology. Cengage Learning.

  • Weiner IB, Healy AF, Proctor RW. Handbook of Psychology: Volume 4, Experimental Psychology. John Wiley & Sons.

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