How to Do Psychology Research: An Introductory Guide
4 minute read
Psychology is a very exciting field, and many students find great personal meaning in conducting psychology research. For example, through Polygence I have worked with students who used psychology to: identify factors that predict mental health issues; encourage people to make more environmentally friendly choices; and develop a novel mobile application to improve mental health.
As exciting as all these opportunities are, there are special considerations to have in mind to make your research as experimentally and ethically sound as possible. Before getting started with your psychology research, make sure you’ve accounted for these factors.
How to recruit participants for psychology research
At its core, psychology is the study of humans – how they think, feel, and behave. While it may seem obvious, it’s important to remember that everyone is different! This isn’t physics, where a two-pound sphere will act the same whether it’s in The United States or India. In psychology, people may respond in very different ways to the same experiment based on their cultural background, genetics, experiences, etc. - even within the same country or community.
Because of this variety, when you recruit participants in your research, you should only make claims about the specific population you studied. For example, many psychologists use college students as participants because it is a low-cost and convenient option. However, just because they know how college students at a particular university respond to the situation doesn’t mean that they know how Americans in general would respond!
You should aim to recruit diverse participants for your research. That way, you will learn about more types of people, which will make your research apply more broadly (psychologists call this concept “making your research more generalizable”). Psychologists often use platforms like Prolific and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to recruit participants for online studies. These types of platforms allow researchers to quickly recruit participants from around the country or the world. However, the downside is that these platforms are not free. If you don’t have the resources to pay participants, consider asking friends or family who will likely participate for free. While it reduces the generalizability of your research, it will allow you to conduct in-person experiments!
Learn more about ways to do scientific experiments at home
How to publish ethical research
Since psychologists almost always conduct research with humans, it is critical that they protect the rights of their participants. To publish research, psychologists must get approval to conduct their research from a committee called an Institutional Review Board (IRB). (Learn about how to get IRB approval) The key idea is that your psychology research should cause “minimal risk” to participants – no more than what they would experience in daily life. But more on that in a moment – let’s start by diving into why this process is necessary in the first place.
Back in the day, there were very few regulations on what types of research psychologists could conduct. Unfortunately, researchers such as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo conducted infamous and highly ethically questionable research that drove the development of IRBs. Milgram asked participants to shock another participant to the point of death. (Don’t worry, there was no real person that was being shocked. It was just a recording.) Zimbardo forced his participants to live in a prison environment that he created. He had to end the experiment early because it got so out of hand.
So … you can’t do that type of research anymore, which is a good thing.
Another good thing is that IRBs require researchers to be thoughtful and reflective when recruiting special, vulnerable populations as research participants. These populations include minors, pregnant women/fetuses, and prisoners. It is still possible to do research with them, but you will have to jump through more (necessary and valid!) hoops to get permission to do so.
As a middle or high school student, it can be tricky for you to get IRB approval. However, you have a few options:
Get approval from your school’s IRB.
Assemble your own IRB. It can be difficult to assemble your own IRB, so make sure to start that process early if you want to do this type of research.
Speak with Polygence’s projects team to get help assembling your own IRB.
Work with your Polygence research mentor to use their institution’s IRB.
Pivot your passion project idea to one that does not involve IRB approval. Take a look at our list of psychology passion project ideas for high school students for inspiration.
How to design psychology studies
Once you’ve identified your research participants and have chosen which IRB approval option to proceed with, it’s time to conduct your psychology research!
Check out this article to learn about the essential elements of research for any field you conduct your research in.
Psychology projects can vary greatly, but there are a few key concepts to keep in mind. For example, let’s assume you are testing whether participants remember more vocabulary from reading a textbook or watching a video.
Since you are conducting an experiment, make sure that participants are randomly assigned to conditions!
In other words, do not let participants choose if they want to be in the textbook or video group; randomly pick which group they will be in. Random assignment is what allows psychologists to make claims such as “my experiment caused X to happen.” To make your experiment even better, make it “double blind” – both the participants and researchers don’t know which group the participants were assigned to.
As much as possible, try not to influence participants to behave in a certain way.
For example, do not ask leading questions. A leading question would be along the lines of: “Why do you think that reading the textbook was better than watching the video?” Participants don’t have the option to disagree with the proposed question.
Emphasize that questions will be kept confidential to ensure that participants feel comfortable answering honestly to difficult questions.
For example, a survey form that has the question: “How much did you pay attention to the textbook/movie?” will likely get a different response if students do or do not have to write their name at the top of the form.
When I am conducting online research, I also always test out my experiment several times before launching it. During these checks, I make sure that:
The instructions and questions are clear.
There are no typos. I like to read aloud the instructions to myself to slow down and see every word. (I did the same thing when editing this article!)
The online platform is correctly storing information about which condition participants were randomly assigned to, which responses participants clicked on, etc. This information is essential for easy data analysis later!
Don’t skip these checks! It can be boring, but you’ve already put in so much work – make sure that the final product is what you intended!
That concludes our introduction to conducting psychology research! However, this guide is only the beginning. I’ve also covered how to collect quantitative data in psychology and how to analyze that data. After you’ve analyzed your data, the next steps are outlining your research paper and writing it.
If you want to conduct psychology research under the guidance of a mentor, apply to be a part of our flagship mentorship program. You can also check out these articles to learn more about the variety of opportunities available for students to pursue:
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