What makes scientific research in the field of psychology different from researching preferences for different hair products or views about values in a neighborhood? Basically, how do we define good psychological research?
The primary and essential difference between scientific research in psychology and researching preferences and individual views on issues is that of data. Research in psychology endeavors to collect objective data on cognitive and affective function or dysfunction (e.g., psychosis, psychopathy ect). Research into individual or collective preferences and views seeks data that is subjective, that is particular to an individual or particular to a representative group of individuals (e.g., product focus group, Watt's neighborhood etc).
This difference might be described as the difference between fact and opinion: scientific research in psychology seeks fact while research into individual or collective preferences and views seeks opinion. The definition of good research in psychology would then be that it is research that seeks to acquire "knowledge concerning the observable universe" while meeting the scientific goals of "description, prediction, and explanation and/or understanding" (Jamie Hale, "Goals of Scientific Research").
When thinking about researching science versus researching something like hair products, it is important to think about the process or procedures that you are taking.
Let's take a look at researching different hair products first:
If you want to find out what hair product is favored in homes you may go out and poll different people in a neighborhood as to what their favorite hair product is. You might just ask them to answer the question or you might give them some options to limit their choices.
if you want to find out what hair product seems to work best you may give someone two different products and then either ask them which worked best or observe the effects of each one and take notes.
The first method of research is a survey and the second would be a case study. It's important to note that both of these procedures can be used in scientific research (after all, psychology IS a science).
However, scientific research is often more procedural and follows the scientific method.
The scientific method can be split into the following steps:
1) Ask a question
2) Do background research
3) Form a hypothesis
4) Do an experiment
5) Analyze data and form conclusion
6) Report your findings
You might see some cross-over between the scientific method and what we talked about with hair products. You might be asking the question "Which hair product works better?" and you might even do some research onto hair products that worked better in the past. You might form a hypothesis using that research as to which product you think would be better.
The main difference is the experiment. Scientific research involves an experiment in which variables can be manipulated. In a scientific experiment you have two different variables: the independent and the dependent. The independent variable is what you manipulate (or change) to measure effects on the dependent variable. This can be done in a controlled setting (like a lab) or online using a survey that involves manipulation.
Here is an example of a scientific experiment:
Participants enter the lab and are randomly assigned into one of two groups: A or B. The participants in group A receive a vitamin hypothesized to increase energy. The participants in group B are given a sugar pill, or a placebo. The researchers and participants are blind to the groups and are looking to see if the vitamin actually does increase energy (which will be measured on a variety of fitness tests) or if it does nothing. Effects on group A will be analyzed against the effects of group B (the placebo group) to see if there is a significant difference between energy levels.