Many people believe that women tend to talk more than men—with some even suggesting that this difference has a biological basis. One widely cited estimate is that women speak 20,000 words per day on average and men speak only 7,000. This claim seems plausible, but is it true? A group of psychologists led by Matthias Mehl decided to find out. They checked to see if anyone had actually tried to count the daily number of words spoken by women and men. No one had. So these researchers conducted a study in which female and male college students (369 in all) wore audio recorders while they went about their lives. The result? The women spoke an average of 16,215 words per day and the men spoke an average of 15,669—an extremely small difference that could easily be explained by chance. In an article in the journal Science, these researchers summed up their findings as follows: “We therefore conclude, on the basis of available empirical evidence, that the widespread and highly publicized stereotype about female talkativeness is unfounded” (Mehl, Vazire, Ramirez-Esparza, Slatcher, & Pennebaker, 2007, p. 82).
Psychology is usually defined as the scientific study of human behaviour and mental processes, and this example illustrates the features that make it scientific. In this chapter, we look closely at these features, introduce a model of scientific research in psychology, and address several basic questions that students often have about it. Who conducts scientific research in psychology? Why? Does scientific psychology tell us anything that common sense does not? Why should I bother to learn the scientific approach—especially if I want to be a clinical psychologist and not a researcher? These are extremely good questions, and answering them now will provide a solid foundation for learning the rest of the material in your course.