Psychology, like most other sciences, has its own set of tools to investigate the important research questions of its field. Unlike other sciences that are older and more mature, psychology is a relatively new field and, like an adolescent, is learning and changing rapidly. Psychology researchers are learning and changing along with the emerging science. This textbook introduces students to the fundamental principles of what it is like to think like a psychology researcher in the contemporary world of psychology research.
Historically, psychology developed practices and methods based on the established physical sciences. Unlike physical sciences, psychology had to grapple with the inherent variation among its subjects: people. To better account for this, we developed some practices and statistical methods that we (naïvely) considered to be foolproof. Over time we established a foundation of research findings that we considered solid.
In recent years, psychology’s conversation has shifted to an introspective one, looking inward and re-examining the knowledge that we considered foundational. We began to find that some of that unshakable foundation was not as strong as we thought; some of the bedrock findings in psychology were being questioned and failed to be upheld in fuller scrutiny. As many introspective conversations do, this one caused a crisis of faith.
Psychologists are now questioning if we really know what we thought we knew or if we simply got lucky. We are struggling to understand how what we choose to publish and not publish, what we choose to report and not report, and how we train our students as researchers is having an effect on what we call “knowledge” in psychology. We are beginning to question whether that knowledge represents real behavior and mental processes in human beings, or simply represents the effects of our choice of methods. This has started a firestorm among psychology researchers, but it is one that needs to play out. For a book aimed at novice psychology undergraduates, it is tempting to gloss over these issues and proclaim that our “knowledge” is “truth.” That would be a disservice to our students though, who need to be critical questioners of research. Instead of shying away from this controversy, this textbook invites the reader to step right into the middle of it.
With every step of the way, the research process in psychology is fraught with decisions, trade-offs, and uncertainty. We decide to study one variable and not another; we balance the costs of research against its benefits; we are uncertain whether our results will replicate. Every step is a decision that takes us in a different direction and closer to or further from the truth. Research is not an easy route to traverse, but we hope this textbook will be a hiking map that can at least inspire the direction students can take, and provide some absolute routes to begin traveling.
As we wrote at the beginning of this preface, psychology is a young science. Like any adolescent, psychology is grappling with its identity as a science, learning to use better tools, understanding the importance of transparency, and is having more open conversations to improve its understanding of human behavior. We will grow up and mature together. It is an exciting time to be part of that growth as psychology becomes a more mature science.