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Steps of the Scientific Method

By Julia Simkus & Mia Belle Frothingham, published Feb 23, 2022


What is the Scientific Method?

Science is not just knowledge. It is also a method for obtaining knowledge. Scientific understanding is organised into theories.

The scientific method is a step-by-step process used by researchers and scientists to determine if there is a relationship between two or more variables. Psychologists use this method to conduct psychological research, gather data, process information, and describe behaviors.

It involves careful observation, asking questions, formulating hypotheses, experimental testing, and refining hypotheses based on experimental findings.

The scientific method can be applied broadly in science, across many different fields, such as chemistry, physics, geology, and psychology. In a typical application of this process, a researcher will develop a hypothesis, test this hypothesis, and then modify the hypothesis based on the outcomes of the experiment.

The process is then repeated with the modified hypothesis until the results align with the observed phenomena. Detailed steps of the scientific method are described below.

Keep in mind that the scientific method does not have to follow this fixed sequence of steps; rather, these steps represent a set of general principles or guidelines.

Steps of the Scientific Method

Psychology uses an empirical approach. Empiricism (founded by John Locke) states that the only source of knowledge comes through our senses – e.g. sight, hearing, touch etc.

Empirical evidence does not rely on argument or belief. Thus empiricism is the view that all knowledge is based on, or may come from direct observation and experience.

The empiricist approach through gaining knowledge through experience quickly became the scientific approach and greatly influenced the development of physics and chemistry in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Steps of the Scientific Method

Step 1: Make an Observation (Theory Construction)

Every researcher starts at the very beginning. Before diving in and exploring something, one must first determine what they will study - it seems simple enough!

By making observations, researchers can establish an area of interest. Once this topic of study has been chosen, a researcher should review existing literature to gain insight into what has already been tested and determine what questions remain unanswered.

This assessment will provide helpful information about what has already been comprehended about the specific topic and what questions remain, and if one can go and answer them.

Specifically, a literature review might implicate examining a substantial amount of documented material from academic journals to books dating back decades. The most appropriate information gathered by the researcher will be shown in the introduction section or abstract of the published study results.

The background material and knowledge will help the researcher with the first significant step in conducting a psychology study, which is formulating a research question.

This is the inductive phase of the scientific process. Observations yield information that is used to formulate theories as explanations. A theory is a well-developed set of ideas that propose an explanation for observed phenomena.

Inductive reasoning moves from specific premises to a general conclusion. It starts with observations of phenomena in the natural world and derives a general law.

Step 2: Ask a Question

Once a researcher has made observations and conducted background research, the next step is to ask a scientific question. A scientific question must be defined, testable, and measurable.

A useful approach to develop a scientific question is: “What is the effect of…?” or “How does X affect Y?”

To answer an experimental question, a researcher needs to identify two variables: the independent variable and the dependent variable.

The independent variable is the variable that is manipulated (the cause) and the dependent variable is the variable that is being measured (the effect).

An example of a research question could be “Is handwriting or typing more effective for retaining information?” Answering the research question and proposing a relationship between the two variables is discussed in the next step.

Step 3: Form a Hypothesis (Make Predictions)

A hypothesis is an educated guess about the relationship between two or more variables. An hypothesis is an attempt to answer your research question based on prior observation and background research. Theories tend to be too complex to be tested all at once; instead, researchers create hypotheses to test specific aspects of a theory.

For example, a researcher might ask about the connection between sleep and educational performance. Do students who get less sleep perform worse on tests at school?

It is crucial to think about different questions one might have about a particular topic to formulate a reasonable hypothesis. It would help if one also considered how one could investigate the causalities.

It is important that the hypothesis is both testable against reality, and falsifiable. This means that it can be tested through an experiment and can be proven wrong. The falsification principle, proposed by Karl Popper, is a way of demarcating science from non-science. It suggests that for a theory to be considered scientific it must be able to be tested and conceivably proven false.

To test an hypothesis we first assume that there is no difference between the populations from which the samples were taken. This is known as the null hypothesis, and predicts that the independent variable will not influence the dependent variable.

Examples of "if...then..." Hypotheses:

  • If one gets less than 6 hours of sleep, then one will do worse on tests than if one obtains more rest.
  • If one drinks lots of water before going to bed, then one will have to use the bathroom many times at night.
  • If one practice exercising and lighting weights, then one's body will begin to build muscle.

The research hypthesis is often called the alternative hypothsis, and predicts what change(s) will take place in the dependent variable when the independent variable is manipulated. It states that the results are not due to chance and that they are significant in terms of supporting the theory being investigated.

Although one could state and write a scientific hypothesis in many ways, hypotheses are usually built like "if...then..." statements. 

Step 4: Run an Experiment (Gather Data)

The next step in the scientific method is to test your hypothesis and collect data. A researcher will design an experiment to test the hypothesis and gather data that will either support or refute the hypothesis.

The exact research methods used to examine a hypothesis depend on what is being studied. A psychologist might utilize two primary forms of research, experimental research or descriptive research.

The scientific method is objective in that researchers do not let preconceived ideas or biases influence the collection of data, and is systematic in that experiments are conducted in a logical way.

Experimental Research

Experimental research is used to investigate cause-and-effect associations between two or more variables. This type of research systematically controls an independent variable and measures its effect on a specified dependent variable.

Experimental research involves manipulating an independent variable and measuring the effect(s) on the dependent variable. It is important to repeat the experiment multiple times to confirm that your results are accurate and consistent.

One of the significant advantages of this method is that it permits researchers to determine if changes in one variable cause shifts in each other.

While experiments in psychology typically have many moving parts (and can be relatively complex), an easy investigation is rather fundamental. Still, it does allow researchers to specify cause-and-effect associations between variables.

Most simple experiments use a control group, which involves those who do not receive the treatment, and an experimental group, which involves those who do receive the treatment.

An example of experimental research would be when a pharmaceutical company wants to test a new drug. They give one group a placebo (control group) and the other the actual pill (experimental group). 

Descriptive Research

Descriptive research is generally used when it is challenging or even impossible to control the variables in question. Examples of descriptive analysis include naturalistic observation, case studies, and correlation studies.

One example of descriptive research includes phone surveys that marketers often use. While they typically do not allow researchers to identify cause-and-effect, correlational studies are quite common in psychology research. They make it possible to spot associations between distinct variables and measure the solidity of those relationships.

Step 5: Analyze the Data and Draw Conclusions

Once a researcher has designed and done the investigation and collected sufficient data, it is time to inspect this gathered information and judge what has been found. Using analyses and statistics, researchers can summarize the data, interpret the results, and draw conclusions based on this evidence.

Upon completion of the experiment, you can collect your measurements and analyze the data using statistics. Based on the outcomes, you will either reject or confirm your hypothesis.

Analyze the Data

So, how does a researcher determine what the results of their study mean? Statistical analysis can either support or refute a researcher's hypothesis and can also be used to determine if the conclusions are statistically significant.

When outcomes are said to be "statistically significant," it is improbable that these results are due to luck or chance. Based on these observances, investigators must then determine what the results mean.

An experiment will support a hypothesis in some circumstances, but sometimes it fails to be truthful in other cases.

What occurs if the developments of a psychology investigation do not endorse the researcher's hypothesis? It does mean that the study was worthless. Simply because the findings fail to defend the researcher's hypothesis does not mean that the examination is not helpful or instructive.

This kind of research plays a vital role in supporting scientists develop unexplored questions and hypotheses to investigate in the future. After decisions have been drawn, the next step is to communicate the results with the rest of the scientific community.

This is an integral part of the process because it contributes to the general knowledge base and can assist other scientists in finding new research routes to explore.

If the hypothesis is not supported, a researcher should acknowledge the results of the experiment, formulate a new hypothesis, and develop a new experiment.

We must avoid any reference to results proving a theory as this implies 100% certainty, and there is always a chance that evidence may exist which could refute a theory.

Draw Conclusions and Interpret the Data

When the empirical observations disagree with the hypothesis, a number of possibilities must be considered. It might be that the theory is incorrect, in which case it needs altering so it fully explains the data.

Alternately it might be that the hypothesis was poorly derived from the original theory, in which case the scientists were expecting the wrong thing to happen.

It might also be that the research was poorly conducted, or used an inappropriate method, or there were factors in play that the researchers did not consider. This will begin the process of the scientific method again.

If the hypothesis is supported, the researcher can find more evidence to support their hypothesis or look for counter-evidence to further strengthen their hypothesis.

In either scenario, the researcher should share their results with the greater scientific community.

Step 6: Share Your Results

One of the final stages of the research cycle involves the publication of the research. Once the report is written, the researcher(s) may submit the work for publication in an appropriate journal.

Usually, this is done by writing up a study description and publishing the article in a professional or academic journal. The studies and conclusions of psychological work can be seen in peer-reviewed journals such as Developmental PsychologyPsychological Bulletin, the Journal of Social Psychology, and numerous others.

Scientists should report their findings by writing up a description of their study and any subsequent findings. This enables other researchers to build upon the present research or replicate the results.

As outlined by the American Psychological Association (APA), there is a typical structure of a journal article that follows a specified format. In these articles, researchers:

  • Supply a brief narrative and background on previous research
  • Give their hypothesis
  • Specify who participated in the study and how they were chosen
  • Provide operational definitions for each variable
  • Explain the measures and methods used to collect data
  • Describe how the data collected was interpreted
  • Discuss what the outcomes mean

A detailed record of psychological studies and all scientific studies is vital to clearly explain the steps and procedures used throughout the study. So that other researchers can try this experiment too and replicate the results.

The editorial process utilized by academic and professional journals guarantees that each submitted article undergoes a thorough peer review to help assure that the study is scientifically sound. Once published, the investigation becomes another piece of the current puzzle of our knowledge "base" on that subject.

This last step is important because all results, whether they supported or did not support the hypothesis, can contribute to the scientific community. Publication of empirical observations lead to more ideas that are tested against the real world, and so on. In this sense, the scientific process is circular.

A detailed record of psychological studies and all scientific studies is vital to clearly explain the steps and procedures used throughout the study. So that other researchers can try this experiment too and replicate the results.

The editorial process utilized by academic and professional journals guarantees that each submitted article undergoes a thorough peer review to help assure that the study is scientifically sound.

Once published, the investigation becomes another piece of the current puzzle of our knowledge "base" on that subject.

By replicating studies, psychologists can reduce errors, validate theories, and gain a stronger understanding of a particular topic.

Step 6: Repeat the Scientific Method (Iteration)

Now, if one's hypothesis turns out to be accurate, find more evidence or find counter-evidence. If one's hypothesis is false, create a new hypothesis or try again.

One may wish to revise their first hypothesis to make a more niche experiment to design or a different specific question to test.

The amazingness of the scientific method is that it is a comprehensive and straightforward process that scientists, and everyone, could utilize over and over again.

So, draw conclusions and repeat because the scientific method is never-ending, and no result is ever considered perfect.

The scientific method is a process of:

  • Making an observation.
  • Forming a hypothesis.
  • Making a prediction.
  • Experimenting to test the hypothesis.

The procedure of repeating the scientific method is crucial to science and all fields of human knowledge.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What are the 6 steps of the scientific methods in order?
  1. Make an observation (theory construction)
  2. Ask a question. A scientific question must be defined, testable, and measurable.
  3. Form a hypothesis (make predictions)
  4. Run an experiment to test the hypothesis (gather data)
  5. Analyze the data and draw conclusions
  6. Share your results, so other researcher can make new hypotheses
What is the scientific method?

The scientific method is basically a step-by-step process that investigators can follow to determine if there is a causal connection between two or more variables.

Psychologists and other scientists regularly suggest motivations for human behavior. On a more casual level, people judge other people's intentions, incentives, and actions daily.

While the standard assessments we make about human behavior are subjective and anecdotal, researchers use the scientific method to study psychology objectively and systematically.

All utilize a scientific method to study distinct aspects of people's thinking and behavior. This process allows scientists to analyze and understand various psychological phenomena, but it also provides investigators and others a way to disseminate and debate the results of their studies.

The outcomes of these studies are often noted in popular media, which leads numerous to think about how or why researchers came at the findings they did.

Why Use the Six Steps of the Scientific Method

The goal of scientists is to understand better the world that surrounds us. Scientific research is the most critical tool for navigating and learning about our complex world.

Without it, we would be compelled to rely solely on intuition, other people's power, and luck. We can rid ourselves of our preconceived concepts and superstitions through methodical scientific research and gain an objective sense of ourselves and our world.

All psychological studies aim to explain, predict, and even control or impact mental behaviors or processes. So, psychologists use and repeat the scientific method (and its six steps) to perform and record essential psychological research.

So, psychologists focus their attention on understanding behavior and the cognitive (mental) and physiological (body) processes that underlie behavior.

In the real world, people use to understand the behavior of others, such as intuition and personal experience. The hallmark of scientific research is evidence to support a claim.

Scientific knowledge is empirical, meaning it is grounded in objective, tangible evidence that can be observed repeatedly, regardless of who is watching.

The scientific method is crucial because it minimizes the impact of bias or prejudice on the experimenter. Regardless of how hard one tries, even the best-intentioned scientists can't escape discrimination.

It stems from personal opinions and cultural beliefs, which means any mortal filters any data based on one's individual experience. Sadly, this "filtering" process can cause a scientist to favor one outcome over another.

For an everyday person trying to solve a minor issue at home or work, succumbing to these biases is not such a big deal; in fact, most times, it is important.

But in the scientific community, where results have to be inspected and reproduced, any and all bias or discrimination must be avoided.

When to Use the Six Steps of the Scientific Method

One can use the scientific method anytime, anywhere! From the smallest conundrum to solving global problems, it is a process that can be applied to any science and any investigation.

Even if you are not considered a "scientist," you will be surprised to know that people of all disciplines use it for all kinds of dilemmas.

Try to catch yourself next time you come by a question and see how you subconsciously or consciously use the scientific method.

How to reference this article:

Simkus, J. & Frothingham, M.B.(2022, Feb 23). Steps of the Scientific Method. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/steps-of-the-scientific-method.html

About the Authors

Julia Simkus is an undergraduate student at Princeton University, majoring in Psychology. She plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology upon graduation from Princeton in 2023. Julia has co-authored two journal articles.

Mia Belle Frothingham is a Harvard undergraduate in her senior year majoring in Biology & Psychology. She is a passionate author, science communicator, and aspiring astrobiologist and astronaut with a great interest in clinical, cognitive, and behavioral psychology.

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