Scientific Method

Head with gearsThe scientific method is a set of formulaic guidelines for gathering scientific data, reaching conclusions, and establishing theories. Because mental health significantly affects people’s lives, scientifically tested methods are particularly important. Pseudoscientific ideas and methods are those that have not been validated through rigorous testing and the scientific method. Examples of pseudoscientific theories include ideas that cannot be disproven or validated, theories that are not backed by evidence, and ideas based upon researcher opinion and conjecture.

The Scientific Method
The classic formulation of the scientific method proceeds as follows:

  1. Identify a problem or research question and create a hypothesis.
  2. Design and perform an experiment.
  3. Evaluate the original hypothesis.
  4. Form conclusions.

While this formulation provides a baseline for understanding scientific methods, it does not fully capture the rigor that is necessary to scientifically validate a theory. The most rigorous scientific studies use control and study groups. For example, in a drug test, one group would take the drug (the study group) and the other might take a placebo (the control group). The effectiveness of the medication would be compared between groups. The most effective way to scientifically study ideas is through a double-blind study. In a drug test, neither the subjects nor the people administering the drugs would know which group received the real drug and which group received a placebo drug.

Research in Psychology
It is very difficult, particularly in some fields of psychology, to strictly follow the scientific method and to establish rigorous controls. For example, in a study of the effects of rape on victims, it would be unethical to set up a control group who is not raped and a study group that is. Thus researchers must often look at effects after the fact. Bias can come into play here. A researcher who believes that rape severely traumatizes victims is more likely to see trauma in a person he or she knows was raped. Consequently, psychologists often repeat studies performed by other researchers or synthesize data from several studies to draw conclusions. While many mental health researchers will use double-blind studies with control and study groups whenever possible, they may use other methods as needed. A few examples of common psychological research methods include:

  • Case Studies – These in-depth studies examine a person or a few people with a particular condition or life history. They can provide lots of information about individuals, but the results are not necessarily applicable to the general population.
  • Longitudinal Studies – These studies look at a cohort of similarly-situated people over time.
  • Survey Research – To be scientifically valid, surveys must use a representative sample of the study population. Surveys pose several problems, including erroneous self-reporting, lying to researchers, and researcher influence on respondent answers.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. The Scientific Method in Psychology. (n.d.). The Scientific Method in Psychology. Retrieved from

Last Updated: 08-21-2015

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