What Methods are used in Psychological Research

Research and the Cognitive Psychologist

To better understand the specific methods used by cognitive psychologists, one must first grasp the goals of research in cognitive psychology (Sternberg, 2006).  Briefly, the goals include data gathering, data analysis, theory development, hypothesis formulation, hypothesis testing, and perhaps even application to settings outside the research environment.  Often researchers simply seek to gather as much information as possible about a particular phenomenon.  They may or may not have preconceived notions regarding what they may find while gathering the data.

Data gathering and statistical analysis aid researchers in describing cognitive phenomena.  No scientific pursuit could get far without such descriptions. Fortunately, most cognitive psychologists want to understand more than the “what” of cognition.  Most also seek to understand the how and the why of thinking.


One of the greatest strengths of cognitive psychology is its use of various methods to explore how humans think, These methods include laboratory or other controlled experiments (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1976), psychobiological research (Warrington & Shallice 1984), self-reports (Kosslyn, et al.1990), case studies (Gruber (1974/1981), naturalistic observation (Cole, et al., 1971) and even computer simulations and artificial intelligence. 

Controlled laboratory experiments are easy to administer, score; and statistical analysis make it relatively easy to apply to representative samples.  Psychobiological research provides hard-core evidence of cognitive functions by relating them to physiological activity.  Self-reports allow the researcher the opportunity to gain access to introspective insights from participants’ point of view.  Case studies and naturalistic observations grant access to richly detailed information about individuals. 

Computer simulation and artificial intelligence-based research allows for the exploration of a wide range of possibilities for modeling cognitive processes.  It may also lead to a wide range of practical applications (e.g., robotics for performing dangerous tasks or for performing in hazardous environments).


Controlled laboratory experiments do not always make it possible to generalize results beyond a specific time, place and task setting.  For most researchers, psychobiological research provides limited accessibility.  It requires access to both appropriate subjects and to equipment that may be extremely expensive and difficult to obtain.  Moreover, many psychobiological research efforts are based on studies of abnormal brains or of animal brains, so generalizing to normal human populations may be troublesome. 

Self-reports do not report on processes occurring outside of conscious awareness.  Data gathering may influence cognitive process being reported.  Case studies lack applicability to other persons; small sample size and non-representation of sample generally limits generalizing to the population.  Naturalistic observations lack experimental control.  Computer simulations and artificial intelligence (AI) are limited by the hardware and hardware software.  In simulations involving sophisticated modeling techniques, simulations may imperfectly model the way that the human brain thinks.  


Cole, M., Gay, J., Glick, J. & Sharp, D. (1971). The cultural context of learning and thinking. New York: Basic Book.

Gruber, H. (1974/1981). Darwin on man: A psychological study of scientific creativity (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kosslyn, S., Seger, C., Pani, J. & Hilger, L. (1990). When is imagery used in everyday life? A diary study. Journal of Mental Imagery, 14,( 3-4), 131-152.

Meyer, D. & Schavaneveldt, R. (1976). Meaning, memory, structure, and mental processes. Science, 192(4234), 27-33.Sternberg, R. (2006). Cognitive psychology (4th ed.). Belmont California: Thompson Wadsworth.

Warrington, E. & Shallice, T. (1984). Category specific semantic impairments. Brain, 107, 829-853.