What Is Experimental Psychology?

Experimental psychology focuses on scientific research and experimentation to thoroughly study the relationship between human behavior and the mind.
What is experimental psychology?

To arrive at accurate and safe conclusions, scientists often use a variety of scientific methods. This is something that experimental psychology is mainly focused on. Experimental psychology explores various basic concepts such as memory and motivation in different areas, such as children, social and educational psychology.

Almost all the work in experimental psychology has been done in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory. Experimental psychologists manipulate research variables in order to study the relationship between cognition and behavior.

While other branches of psychology seek to understand the processes of human behavior and thought, experimental psychology focuses on conducting controlled experiments with specific variables, subjects, and statistical results.

The origin of experimental psychology

Charles Darwin and his work The Birth of Species  initiated experimental psychology. There is no doubt that Darwin’s revolutionary theory aroused interest in the relationship between biology and psychology. In the early 20th century, psychologists began to use the natural sciences to analyze and explain the human mind.

But functional theories, however, replaced people’s erroneous thoughts as a kind of machine. William James, for example, the father of American psychology, was heavily influenced by evolutionary biology. He promoted the idea that the mind is naturally adaptive, sensitive, and intelligent.

Eventually, behaviorism and other branches of modern psychology made progress to what we know today as experimental psychology.

brain drawn

What do experimental psychologists do?

Experimental psychologists seek to study behavior and the various processes and functions that support them. They test subjects to understand and learn on a variety of topics such as perception, memory, feelings, learning, motivation, and emotions.

For these psychological studies to be reliable, they must present four fundamental principles:

  • Determinism:  Experimental psychologists, like most scientists, accept the concept of determinism. It refers to the assumption that the state or event of an object is determined by its previous states. In other words, the cause and effect usually come from a behavioral or mental phenomenon. If the phenomenon is universal and widely confirmed, it could be called “law”. Psychological theories organize and integrate laws.
  • Empiricism:  Knowledge is mainly derived from experiences related to feelings. Thus, the only things we can investigate are observable. The principle of empiricism requires a contrast between hypotheses and theories with the observation of the natural world, and not with earlier reasoning, intuition, or revelation.
  • Parsimonia:  This is a search for simplicity. According to this principle, research should be conducted according to the simplest theories. If we have two different, contrasting theories, a more rudimentary option should be preferred.
  • Probability:  According to this principle, hypotheses and theories should always be testable over time. Scientists consider a theory useless if it cannot be proven in any way possible. Probability refers to “falsification,” which is the idea that a set of observations could prove the theory wrong.

We could also add operationalism to these definitions. Operationalism that the concept is defined by concrete terms and observable procedures. Experimental psychologists seek to define the currently latent phenomenon by combining it with observations and reasoning.

Reliability and competence

Reliability determines the consistency, verifiability, or reproducibility of a study. If researchers get the same results after repetition (either with different participants or after a different time period), then it can be considered reliable.

On the other hand, validity determines the relative accuracy or precision of the conclusions obtained from a study. It refers to the relative accuracy of psychological research. To determine the validity of a quantitative measure, it must be compared against different criteria.

Here are the different types of qualifications:

  • Internal Competence:  The study provides strong evidence for a causal relationship between the two factors. A study with high internal validity reaches the conclusion that manipulation of an independent variable is responsible for changes in a dependent variable.
  • External Competence:  Here, the study would give the same results even if applied to a different population.
  • Constructed Competence: Researchers find that independent and dependent variables are accurate descriptions of the abstract concepts being studied.
  • Conceptual validity: The hypothesis tested here supports a broader theory of what the researcher is researching.
man and woman examining data

Final remarks

While many see experimental psychology as a branch of psychology,  all areas of psychology use experimental methods. 

For example, developmental psychologists use experimental methods to study how people grow during childhood and life.

Social psychologists, on the other hand, use experimental techniques to study how different groups affect people. In addition, health psychologists are using experiments to better understand the factors that contribute to well-being and which in turn contribute to disease. 

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