scientist-reportA hypothesis is a testable explanation for a phenomenon. An important component of any scientific experiment, a good hypothesis is testable and falsifiable. It does not have to be correct: An incorrect hypothesis may lead to the exploration of other options and the formulation of a new hypothesis. Although people often use the term colloquially to mean a theory or idea, a true hypothesis must be able to explain observations and make predictions.

How Is a Hypothesis Formed?

While a hypothesis can be an assumption based on intuition or belief, it is usually a statement based on available evidence and research. For example, a psychologist might hypothesize that anxiety has a genetic basis, since it tends to run in families. Therapists can also form hypotheses from patient data when beginning treatment. A hypothesis provides direction in scientific experiments and indicates the specific phenomena being tested to both scientists and readers of scientific literature.

Testing a Hypothesis

Although a hypothesis does not necessarily have to be based upon evidence, it must be testable. Hypotheses that are not testable do not allow scientists to gain meaningful information. One critical difference between science and pseudoscience is that science changes based upon new information. Therefore, scientific hypotheses must be testable. Further, an experiment must be designed such that it actually tests the hypothesis. An experiment demonstrating that anxiety runs in families, for example, might indicate that anxiety is learned or that it occurs when a family is dysfunctional, but this is not sufficient proof that anxiety is genetic.

Similarly, hypotheses that are non-specific or overly broad are not testable. For example, the sentence “The causes of the recession were excessive spending, poor government oversight, problems with the tax code, and bad government” is not a testable hypothesis because it contains numerous statements, making it overly broad. Scientists generally try to limit their hypotheses to one simple, testable statement so that their experiments can be as narrowly tailored as possible.  A better hypothesis would be “A contributing factor to the recession was poor government oversight,” would be a better hypothesis, as researchers could then test to see if government oversight changed before the recession or if increased government oversight improved the economy.

Role in Therapy and Research

A good hypothesis may help a therapist direct a session and maintain focus on the person in therapy’s primary concern. A therapist might also ask people for a personal hypothesis to gain their own understanding of the issue at hand. The hypothesis can then be tested throughout therapy and modified as necessary.

When conducting research, a researcher aims to design a hypothesis that explains the expected outcome of an experiment or study. Scientists may formulate hypotheses from previous research or develop on accepted theories. The hypothesis should not only be testable, it should also be research-based and include both independent and dependent variables. It should be formatted to show what happens to the dependent variable when changes are made to the independent variable. For example, “People who text while driving are more likely to be involved in an accident.”


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Smith, J. (2010). Developing a Hypothesis. Retrieved from http://www.psytx.com/04hypothesis.html.
  3. Zimmermann, K. (2012, July 10). What is a Scientific Hypothesis? | Definition of Hypothesis. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/21490-what-is-a-scientific-hypothesis-definition-of-hypothesis.html.

Last Updated: 08-10-2015

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