SCIENTIFIC UNDERSTANDING OF BEHAVIOR CHP. 1
· Describe why an understanding of research methods is important.
· Describe the scientific approach to learning about behavior and contrast it with pseudoscientific research.
· Define and give examples of the four goals of scientific research: description, prediction, determination of cause, and explanation of behavior.
· Discuss the three elements for inferring causation: temporal order, covariation of cause and effect, and elimination of alternative explanations.
· Define, describe, compare, and contrast basic and applied research.
Page 2DO SOCIAL MEDIA SITES LIKE FACEBOOK AND INSTAGRAM IMPACT OUR RELATIONSHIPS? What causes alcoholism? How do our early childhood experiences affect our later lives? How do we remember things, what causes us to forget, and how can memory be improved? Why do we procrastinate? Why do some people experience anxiety so extreme that it disrupts their lives while others—facing the same situation—seem to be unaffected? How can we help people who suffer from depression? Why do we like certain people and dislike others?
Curiosity about questions like these is probably the most important reason that many students decide to take courses in the behavioral sciences. Science is the best way to explore and answer these sorts of questions. In this book, we will examine the methods of scientific research in the behavioral sciences. In this introductory chapter, we will focus on ways in which knowledge of research methods can be useful in understanding the world around us. Further, we will review the characteristics of a scientific approach to the study of behavior and the general types of research questions that concern behavioral scientists.
IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH METHODS
We are continuously bombarded with research results: “Happiness Wards Off Heart Disease,” “Recession Causes Increase in Teen Dating Violence,” “Breast-Fed Children Found Smarter,” “Facebook Users Get Worse Grades in College.” Articles and books make claims about the beneficial or harmful effects of particular diets or vitamins on one’s sex life, personality, or health. Survey results are frequently reported that draw conclusions about our beliefs concerning a variety of topics. The key question is, how do you evaluate such reports? Do you simply accept the findings because they are supposed to be scientific? A background in research methods will help you read these reports critically, evaluate the methods employed, and decide whether the conclusions are reasonable.
Many occupations require the use of research findings. For example, mental health professionals must make decisions about treatment methods, assignment of clients to different types of facilities, medications, and testing procedures. Such decisions are made on the basis of research; to make good decisions, mental health professionals must be able to read the research literature in the field and apply it to their professional lives. Similarly, people who work in business environments frequently rely on research to make decisions about marketing strategies, ways of improving employee productivity and morale, and methods of selecting and training new employees. Educators must keep up with research on topics such as the effectiveness of different teaching strategies or programs to deal with special student problems. Knowledge of research methods and the ability to evaluate research reports are useful in many fields.
Page 3It is also important to recognize that scientific research has become increasingly prominent in public policy decisions. Legislators and political leaders at all levels of government frequently take political positions and propose legislation based on research findings. Research may also influence judicial decisions: A classic example of this is the Social Science Brief that was prepared by psychologists and accepted as evidence in the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education in which the U.S. Supreme Court banned school segregation in the United States. One of the studies cited in the brief was conducted by Clark and Clark (1947), who found that when allowed to choose between light-skinned and dark-skinned dolls, both Black and White children preferred to play with the light-skinned dolls (see Stephan, 1983, for a further discussion of the implications of this study).
Behavioral research on human development has influenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to juvenile crime. In 2005, for instance, the Supreme Court decided that juveniles could not face the death penalty (Roper v. Simmons), and the decision was informed by neurological and behavioral research showing that the brain, social, and character differences between adults and juveniles make juveniles less culpable than adults for the same crimes. Similarly, in the 2010 Supreme Court decision Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court decided that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. This decision was influenced by research in developmental psychology and neuroscience. The court majority pointed to this research in their conclusion that assessment of blame and standards for sentencing should be different for juveniles and adults because of juveniles’ lack of maturity and poorly formed character development (Clay, 2010).
Research is also important when developing and assessing the effectiveness of programs designed to achieve certain goals—for example, to increase retention of students in school, influence people to engage in behaviors that reduce their risk of contracting HIV, or teach employees how to reduce the effects of stress. We need to be able to determine whether these programs are successfully meeting their goals.
Finally, research methods are important because they can provide us with the best answers to questions like those we posed at the outset of the chapter. Research methods can be the way to satisfy our native curiosity about ourselves, our world, and those around us.
WAYS OF KNOWING
We opened this chapter with several questions about human behavior and suggested that scientific research is a valuable means of answering them. How does the scientific approach differ from other ways of learning about behavior? People have always observed the world around them and sought explanations for what they see and experience. However, instead of using a scientific approach, many people rely on intuition and authority as primary ways of knowing.
Most of us either know or have heard about a married couple who, after years of trying to conceive, adopt a child. Then, within a very short period of time, they find that the woman is pregnant. This observation leads to a common belief that adoption increases the likelihood of pregnancy among couples who are having difficulties conceiving a child. Such a conclusion seems intuitively reasonable, and people usually have an explanation for this effect—for example, the adoption reduces a major source of marital stress, and the stress reduction in turn increases the chances of conception (see Gilovich, 1991).
This example illustrates the use of intuition and anecdotal evidence to draw general conclusions about the world around us. When you rely on intuition, you accept unquestioningly what your own personal judgment or a single story about one person’s experience tells you. The intuitive approach takes many forms. Often, it involves finding an explanation for our own behaviors or the behaviors of others. For example, you might develop an explanation for why you keep having conflicts with your roommate, such as “he hates me” or “having to share a bathroom creates conflict.” Other times, intuition is used to explain intriguing events that you observe, as in the case of concluding that adoption increases the chances of conception among couples having difficulty conceiving a child.
A problem with intuition is that numerous cognitive and motivational biases affect our perceptions, and so we may draw erroneous conclusions about cause and effect (cf. Fiske & Taylor, 1984; Gilovich, 1991; Nisbett & Ross, 1980; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Gilovich points out that there is in fact no relationship between adoption and subsequent pregnancy, according to scientific research investigations. So why do we hold this belief? Most likely it is because of a cognitive bias called illusory correlation that occurs when we focus on two events that stand out and occur together. When an adoption is closely followed by a pregnancy, our attention is drawn to the situation, and we are biased to conclude that there must be a causal connection. Such illusory correlations are also likely to occur when we are highly motivated to believe in the causal relationship. Although this is a natural thing for us to do, it is not scientific. A scientific approach requires much more evidence before conclusions can be drawn.
The philosopher Aristotle said: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and readily than others.” Aristotle would argue that we are more likely to be persuaded by a speaker who seems prestigious, trustworthy, and respectable than by one who appears to lack such qualities.
Many of us might accept Aristotle’s arguments simply because he is considered a prestigious authority—a convincing and influential source—and his Page 5writings remain important. Similarly, many people are all too ready to accept anything they learn from the Internet, news media, books, government officials, celebrities, religious figures, or even a professor! They believe that the statements of such authorities must be true. The problem, of course, is that the statements may not be true. The scientific approach rejects the notion that one can accept on faith the statements of any authority; again, more evidence is needed before we can draw scientific conclusions.
The scientific approach to acquiring knowledge recognizes that both intuition and authority can be sources of ideas about behavior. However, scientists do not unquestioningly accept anyone’s intuitions—including their own. Scientists recognize that their ideas are just as likely to be wrong as anyone else’s. Also, scientists do not accept on faith the pronouncements of anyone, regardless of that person’s prestige or authority. Thus, scientists are very skeptical about what they see and hear. Scientific skepticism means that ideas must be evaluated on the basis of careful logic and results from scientific investigations.
If scientists reject intuition and blind acceptance of authority as ways of knowing about the world, how do they go about gaining knowledge? The fundamental characteristic of the scientific method is empiricism—the idea that knowledge is based on observations. Data are collected that form the basis of conclusions about the nature of the world. The scientific method embodies a number of rules for collecting and evaluating data; these rules will be explored throughout the book.
The Scientific Approach
The power of the scientific approach can be seen all around us. Whether you look at biology, chemistry, medicine, physics, anthropology, or psychology, you will see amazing advances over the past 5, 25, 50, or 100 years. We have a greater understanding of the world around us, and the applications of that understanding have kept pace. Goodstein (2000) describes an “evolved theory of science” that defines the characteristics of scientific inquiry. These characteristics are summarized below.
· Data play a central role For scientists, knowledge is primarily based on observations. Scientists enthusiastically search for observations that will verify or reject their ideas about the world. They develop theories, argue that existing data support their theories, and conduct research that can increase our confidence that the theories are correct. Observations can be criticized, alternatives can be suggested, and data collection methods can be called into question. But in each of these cases, the role of data is central and fundamental. Scientists have a “show me, don’t tell me” attitude.
· Page 6Scientists are not alone Scientists make observations that are accurately reported to other scientists and the public. You can be sure that many other scientists will follow up on the findings by conducting research that replicates and extends these observations.
· Science is adversarial Science is a way of thinking in which ideas do battle with other ideas in order to move ever closer to truth. Research can be conducted to test any idea; supporters of the idea and those who disagree with the idea can report their research findings, and these can be evaluated by others. Some ideas, even some very good ideas, may prove to be wrong if research fails to provide support for them. Good scientific ideas are testable. They can be supported or they can be falsified by data—the latter concept called falsifiability (Popper, 2002). If an idea is falsified when it is tested, science is thereby advanced because this result will spur the development of new and better ideas.
· Scientific evidence is peer reviewed Before a study is published in a top-quality scientific journal, other scientists who have the expertise to carefully evaluate the research review it. This process is called peer review. The role of these reviewers is to recommend whether the research should be published. This review process ensures that research with major flaws will not become part of the scientific literature. In essence, science exists in a free market of ideas in which the best ideas are supported by research and scientists can build upon the research of others to make further advances.
Integrating Intuition, Skepticism, and Authority
The advantage of the scientific approach over other ways of knowing about the world is that it provides an objective set of rules for gathering, evaluating, and reporting information. It is an open system that allows ideas to be refuted or supported by others. This does not mean that intuition and authority are unimportant, however. As noted previously, scientists often rely on intuition and assertions of authorities for ideas for research. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with accepting the assertions of authority as long as we do not accept them as scientific evidence. Often, scientific evidence is not obtainable, as, for example, when a religious figure or text asks us to accept certain beliefs on faith. Some beliefs cannot be tested and thus are beyond the realm of science. In science, however, ideas must be evaluated on the basis of available evidence that can be used to support or refute the ideas.
There is also nothing wrong with having opinions or beliefs as long as they are presented simply as opinions or beliefs. However, we should always ask whether the opinion can be tested scientifically or whether scientific evidence exists that relates to the opinion. For example, opinions on whether exposure to violent movies, TV, and video games increases aggression are only opinions until scientific evidence on the issue is gathered.
Page 7As you learn more about scientific methods, you will become increasingly skeptical of the research results reported in the media and the assertions of scientists as well. You should be aware that scientists often become authorities when they express their ideas. When someone claims to be a scientist, should we be more willing to accept what he or she has to say? First, ask about the credentials of the individual. It is usually wise to pay more attention to someone with an established reputation in the field and attend to the reputation of the institution represented by the person. It is also worthwhile to examine the researcher’s funding source; you might be a bit suspicious when research funded by a drug company supports the effectiveness of a drug manufactured by that company, for example. Similarly, when an organization with a particular social-political agenda funds the research that supports that agenda, you should be skeptical of the findings and closely examine the methods of the study.
You should also be skeptical of pseudoscientific research. Pseudoscience is “fake” science in which seemingly scientific terms and demonstrations are used to substantiate claims that have no basis in scientific research. The claim may be that a product or procedure will enhance your memory, relieve depression, or treat autism or post traumatic stress disorder. The fact that these are all worthy outcomes makes us very susceptible to believing pseudoscientific claims and forgetting to ask whether there is a valid scientific basis for the claims.
A good example comes from a procedure called facilitated communication that has been used by therapists working with children with autism. These children lack verbal skills for communication; to help them communicate, a facilitator holds the child’s hand while the child presses keys to type messages on a keyboard. This technique produces impressive results, as the children are now able to express themselves. Of course, well-designed studies revealed that the facilitators, not the children, controlled the typing. The problem with all pseudoscience is that hopes are raised and promises will not be realized. Often the techniques can be dangerous as well. In the case of facilitated communication, a number of facilitators typed messages accusing a parent of physically or sexually abusing the child. Some parents were actually convicted of child abuse. In these legal cases, the scientific research on facilitated communication was used to help the defendant parent. Cases such as this have led to a movement to promote the exclusive use of evidence-based therapies—therapeutic interventions grounded in scientific research findings that demonstrate their effectiveness (cf. Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2004).
So how can you tell if a claim is pseudoscientific? It is not easy; in fact, a philosopher of science noted that “the boundaries separating science, non-science, and pseudoscience are much fuzzier and more permeable than … most scientists … would have us believe” (Pigliucci, 2010). Here are a few things to look for when evaluating claims:
· Untestable claims that cannot be refuted.
· Claims rely on imprecise, biased, or vague language.
· Page 8Evidence is based on anecdotes and testimonials rather than scientific data.
· Evidence is from experts with only vague qualifications who provide support for the claim without sound scientific evidence.
· Only confirmatory evidence is presented; conflicting evidence is ignored.
· References to scientific evidence lack information on the methods that would allow independent verification.
Finally, we are all increasingly susceptible to false reports of scientific findings circulated via the Internet. Many of these claim to be associated with a reputable scientist or scientific organization, and then they take on a life of their own. A recent widely covered report, supposedly from the World Health Organization, claimed that the gene for blond hair was being selected out of the human gene pool. Blond hair would be a disappearing trait! General rules to follow are (1) be highly skeptical of scientific assertions that are supported by only vague or improbable evidence and (2) take the time to do an Internet search for supportive evidence. You can check many of the claims that are on the Internet on www.snopes.com and www.truthorfiction.com.
GOALS OF BEHAVIORAL SCIENCE
Scientific research on behavior has four general goals: (1) to describe behavior, (2) to predict behavior, (3) to determine the causes of behavior, and (4) to understand or explain behavior.
Description of Behavior
The scientist begins with careful observation, because the first goal of science is to describe behavior—which can be something directly observable (such as running speed, eye gaze, or loudness of laughter) or something less observable (such as self-reports of perceptions of attractiveness). Researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010) described media use (e.g., television, cell phones, movies) of over 2,000 8- to 18-year-olds using a written questionnaire. One section of the questionnaire asked about computer use. Figure 1.1 shows the percentage of time spent on various recreational computer activities in a typical day. As you can see, social networking and game playing are the most common activities. The study is being done every few years so you can check for changes when the next phase of the study is completed.
Researchers are often interested in describing the ways in which events are systematically related to one another. If parents enforce rules on amount of recreational computer use, do their children perform better in school? Do jurors judge attractive defendants more leniently than unattractive defendants? Are people more likely to be persuaded by a speaker who has high credibility? In what ways do cognitive abilities change as people grow older? Do students who study with a television set on score lower on exams than students who study in a quiet environment? Do taller people make more money than shorter people? Do men find women wearing red clothing more attractive than women wearing a dark blue color?
Time spent on recreational computer activities
Reprinted by permission of the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Prediction of Behavior
Another goal of science is to predict behavior. Once it has been observed with some regularity that two events are systematically related to one another (e.g., greater attractiveness is associated with more lenient sentencing), it becomes possible to make predictions. One implication of this process is that it allows us to anticipate events. If you read about an upcoming trial of a very attractive defendant, you can predict that the person will likely receive a lenient sentence. Further, the ability to predict often helps us make better decisions. For example, if you study the behavioral science research literature on attraction and relationships, you will learn about factors that predict long-term relationship satisfaction. You may be able to then use that information when predicting the likely success of your own relationships. You can even take a test that was designed to measure these predictors of relationship success. Tests such as RELATE, FOCCUS, and PREPARE can be completed online by yourself, with a partner, or with the help of a professional counselor (Larson, Newell, Topham, & Nichols, 2002).
Determining the Causes of Behavior
A third goal of science is to determine the causes of behavior. Although we might accurately predict the occurrence of a behavior, we might not correctly Page 10identify its cause. Research shows that a child’s aggressive behavior may be predicted by knowing how much violence the child views on television. Unfortunately, unless we know that exposure to television violence is a cause of behavior, we cannot assert that aggressive behavior can be reduced by limiting scenes of violence on television. A child who is highly aggressive may prefer to watch violence when choosing television programs. Or consider this example: Research by Elliot and Niesta (2008) indicates that men find women wearing red are more attractive than women wearing a color such as blue. Does the red clothing cause the perception of greater attractiveness? Or is it possible that attractive women choose to wear brighter colors (including red) and less attractive women choose to wear darker colors? Should a woman wear red to help her be perceived as more attractive? We can only recommend this strategy if we know that the color red causes perception of greater attractiveness. We are now confronting questions of cause and effect: To know how to change behavior, we need to know the causes of behavior.
Cook and Campbell (1979) describe three types of evidence (drawn from the work of philosopher John Stuart Mill) used to identify the cause of a behavior. It is not enough to know that two events occur together, as in the case of knowing that watching television violence is a predictor of actual aggression. To conclude causation, three things must occur (see Figure 2.1):
1. There is a temporal order of events in which the cause precedes the effect. This is called temporal precedence. Thus, we need to know that television viewing occurred first and aggression followed.
2. When the cause is present, the effect occurs; when the cause is not present, the effect does not occur. This is called covariation of cause and effect. We need to know that children who watch television violence behave aggressively and that children who do not watch television violence do not behave aggressively.
3. Nothing other than a causal variable could be responsible for the observed effect. This is called elimination of alternative explanations. There should be no other plausible alternative explanation for the relationship. This third point about alternative explanations is very important: Suppose that the children who watch a lot of television violence are left alone more than are children who do not view television violence. In this case, the increased aggression could have an alternative explanation: lack of parental supervision. Causation will be discussed again in Chapter 4.
Explanation of Behavior
A final goal of science is to explain the events that have been described. The scientist seeks to understand why the behavior occurs. Consider the relationship between television violence and aggression: Even if we know that TV violence is a cause of aggressiveness, we need to explain this relationship. Is it due to imitation or “modeling” of the violence seen on TV? Is it the result of psychological desensitization to violence and its effects? Or does watching TV violence lead to a belief that aggression is a normal response to frustration and conflict? Further research is necessary to shed light on possible explanations of what has been observed. Usually, additional research like this is carried out by testing theories that are developed to explain particular behaviors.
Determining cause and effect
Page 12Description, prediction, determination of cause, and explanation are all closely intertwined. Determining cause and explaining behavior are particularly closely related because it is difficult ever to know the true cause or all the causes of any behavior. An explanation that appears satisfactory may turn out to be inadequate when other causes are identified in subsequent research. For example, when early research showed that speaker credibility is related to attitude change, the researchers explained the finding by stating that people are more willing to believe what is said by a person with high credibility than by one with low credibility. However, this explanation has given way to a more complex theory of attitude change that takes into account many other factors that are related to persuasion (Petty, Wheeler, & Tomala, 2003). In short, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the enterprise of scientific inquiry. New research findings almost always pose new questions that must be addressed by further research; explanations of behavior often must be discarded or revised as new evidence is gathered. Such ambiguity is part of the excitement and fun of science.
BASIC AND APPLIED RESEARCH
While behavioral researchers are typically trying to make progress on the aforementioned goals of science (i.e., describe, predict, determine cause, and explain), behavioral research generally falls into two categories: basic and applied. Next, we will explore the differences and similarities between basic research and applied research.
Basic research tries to answer fundamental questions about the nature of behavior. Studies are often designed to address theoretical issues concerning phenomena such as cognition, emotion, motivation, learning, neuropsychology, personality development, and social behavior. Here are descriptions of a few journal articles that pertain to some basic research questions:
Kool, W., McGuire, J., Rosen, Z., & Botvinick, M. (2010). Decision making and the avoidance of cognitive demand. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 665–682. doi:10.1037/a0020198
Past research documented that people choose the least physically demanding option when choosing among different behaviors. This study investigated choices that differed in the amount of required cognitive effort. As expected, the participants chose to pursue options with the fewest cognitive demands.
Rydell, R. J., Rydell, M. T., & Boucher, K. L. (2010). The effect of negative performance stereotypes on learning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 883–896. doi:10.1037/a0021139Page 13
Female participants studied a tutorial on a particular approach to solving math problems. After completing the first …Read more
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