Chapter 1 – Scientific Understanding of Behavior
Uses of Research Methods
• Having knowledge of research methods allows us to evaluate studies presented to
the public (ie “eating disorders are more common in warm climates”) and think
critically about whether or not the conclusions are reasonable
• Many occupations require the use of research findings (ie. mental health
professions) and it is important to recognize that scientific research has become
increasingly important in public policy decisions. Politicians frequently take
political positions based on research findings. It can also influence judicial
decisions, as exemplified by the Social Science Brief used as evidence in the case
of Brown v. Board of Education.
• Important when developing and assessing the effectiveness of programs designed
to achieve certain goals
The Scientific Approach
Many people, incorrectly, rely on intuition and authority instead of scientific research.
The Limitations of Intuition and Authority
• When you rely on intuition you accept unquestioningly what your own personal
judgment or a single story tells you about the world. Often, it involves finding an
explanation for our own behavior or the behavior of others (ie. “I fight with
people at work because they want my job”) or to explain intriguing events (ie.
couples tend to get pregnant after they adopt)
• The problem is that numerous cognitive and motivational biases affect our
perception, therefore we draw erroneous conclusions.
• Illusionary correlation – occurs when we focus on two events that stand out and
occur together. We are biased to conclude that there must be a causal connection
because we are highly motivated to believe the causal relationship.
• Aristotle would argue that we are more likely to be persuaded by a speaker who
seems prestigious, trustworthy, and respectable than by one who lacks such
• Many people are all to ready to accept anything they learn from the news media,
books, government officials, or religious figures, for they believe the statements
to be true, but they may very well be false.
• Science rejects the notion of accepting on faith and requires evidence.
Skepticism, Science, and the Empirical Approach • Scientists do not unquestioningly accept anyone’s intuition, including their own,
nor do they allow a person’s prestige or authority cause them to accept on faith
what they pronounce.
• Scientific skepticism means that ideas must be evaluated on the basis of careful
logic and results from scientific investigations.
• The fundamental characteristic of the scientific model is empiricism – knowledge
is based on direct observation.
• Goodstein (2000) describes an “evolved theory of science” that defines the
characteristics of scientific inquiry:
-Observations accurately reported to others. The public can then try to
replicate methods used and obtain the same data. Fabricating data is unethical
and dealt with by strong sanctions.
-Search for discovery and verification of ideas. They develop theories and
argue that existing data supports their theories, conducting research to increase
confidence in their theories.
-Open exchange and competition among ideas. Supporters and those who
oppose the theory can present their research findings to be evaluated. Good
scientific ideas are testable, they can be supported or disproved by data – they
are falsifiable. In science, ideas must be tested on the basis of available evidence
that can be used to support or refute the ideas. Even if an idea is disproved, it
advances science because it can spur new ideas.
-Peer review of research. It is used to ensure only the best research is published,
not flawed research. Before a study is published in a scientific journal, it must be
reviewed by other scientists who have expertise to carefully evaluate and
recommend what should be published.
Integrating Intuition, Skepticism, and Authority
• The advantage of the scientific approach 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 accepted or refuted by others.
• Authority and intuition are not unimportant. Scientists often rely on intuition and
assertion of authorities for ideas for research, and there is nothing wrong with
accepting the statements of authority (ie putting blind faith in religion) as long as
we do not take them as scientific facts.
• There is nothing wrong with presenting opinions as long as they are not presented
as facts, however, we should ask whether the idea can be tested or if evidence
exists to support it.
• When someone claims to be a scientist, should we be more willing to accept what
they say? Look at the credentials of the individual and the reputation of the
institution represented by the person or the researcher’s funding source.
• Be aware of “pseudoscientists”. Characteristics of pseudoscientists are:
-Hypothesis generated are typically not testable
-If scientific tests are reported, methodology is not scientific and validity of data
-Claims ignore conflicting evidence -Claims are stated in scientific-sounding terminology
-Claims tend to be vague, rationalize strongly held beliefs, and appeal to pre-
-Claims are never revised
• We are highly susceptible to false scientific findings via the Internet.
Goals of Science
1. to describe behavior
2. to predict behavior
3. to determine causes of behavior
4. to understand or explain behavior
Description of Behavior
Scientists first begin with careful observation because the first goal of science is
to describe behavior.
Researchers are often interested in describing the ways in which events are
systematically related (ie. do students who study with the TV