Graziano and Raulin (8th ed)Graziano & Raulin
Research Methods (8th edition)

Applied Research Strategies

We drew a distinction in Chapter 6 between applied and basic research. In applied research, the goal is to provide solutions to practical problems; in basic research (also known as fundamental or pure research), the goal is to add to our understanding and store of knowledge about natural phenomena, without any particular practical goals. 

Although the two are different, they are also related, interacting with and enhancing each other. Basic research, for example, provides the background information critical for the later development of solutions to practical problems. We believe that all knowledge, no matter how impractical it might appear to be, is useful in the long term . We might add that applied research findings may well shed light on basic issues. (For examples of applied and basic research, see Tables 3.1 and 3.2 in the text, respectively.)

American psychology has historically been heavily applied in nature, perhaps because in our practical-oriented society, funding has always been more readily available for research aimed at solving practical problems. Despite that, basic research flourishes in the United States today.

Much of the applied research in psychology is carried out in laboratory-like settings, in which a good deal of control over variables is available. For example, research into methods for controlling eating behavior in obese children (e.g., Epstein et al., 1994) or the education of children with attention-deficit disorder (e.g., Pelham, 1994) has been conducted in laboratory clinics. But even in such research settings, there are still many uncontrolled variables, particularly in the children's homes.

Despite the quasi-lab conditions of much of the applied research in psychology, applied research in any field deals with solutions to practical problems. The major issues addressed are those of the outside world, rather than of the laboratory. The context of applied research is the everyday world in which people face real problems of physical and psychological health, of education for our children, of violence in families and on the streets, of personal relationships that flounder, of social and economic struggles for personal success, and so on. The context surrounding those practical issues is highly complex and changeable, not orderly and controlled as is the context of the laboratory.

It is in that messy, real-world context that the psychological researcher must pursue much of his or her applied research and must contend with the realities of so many critical and uncontrolled variables. The following is a brief summary of the major issues and a few procedural solutions for applied research, particularly applied research that is carried out in the natural setting.

Ethical Issues

Probably the greatest practical problems in carrying out applied research in the natural environment is protecting the rights of the participants and obtaining and maintaining their continued cooperation. Potential participants or administrators (e.g., school principals) are often reluctant to give their consent, their time, and information to unknown researchers, particularly when the results offer little immediate benefit to the participants. Even if they agree to begin the study, participants might easily drop out or give only partial cooperation and thereby threaten the results. Invasion of privacy and other issues may be raised. Research in prisons and jails inevitably appears to some participants to threaten their legal rights. These and other problems have caused many researchers to abandon research projects, even after considerable effort has been expended.

To avoid and/or correct such problems, the researcher must pay close attention to the nature of potential threats to the prospective participants, such as invasion of privacy. Very clear informed consent statements must be developed, and participants' signed consent must be obtained. The researcher needs to anticipate potential "insults" to the participants and the sensitivities of the persons in the sample. The required consultation with an IRB (see Chapter 3) can often bring to light such potential issues.

Adequate Controls

The controls that are necessary for conducting a valid experiment are often lacking in applied research. This is a problem of internal validity, as discussed in Chapter 8. One example of this general problem is the use of experimental-control group comparisons. Let us suppose that a researcher has developed a new treatment for anxiety disorders, and she wants to test it in her research clinic. Volunteer subjects are randomly assigned to the new-treatment group or to the no-treatment control group. This standard experimental-control group comparison is routinely used in laboratory research and is a good design. However, when control-group participants become aware they have not received the new treatment, there may be an outcry, even to the point of ending the entire project. (As unlikely as this seems, it has happened many times.)

As in the discussion above, the best way to avoid this situation is to carefully present information about the study to the participants and obtain their informed consent prior to the research. The researcher can often avoid using a no-treatment group by putting controls into a delayed-treatment group or a standard treatment group. In the former, all participants receive the new treatment--the experimental group immediately and the controls after that treatment has been completed. In this way, the experimental group can be compared with the no-treatment controls, and the control group will receive the new treatment right after that comparison is made.

Another approach is to compare a new treatment against an existing treatment. In this case, both groups receive treatment immediately; the experimental group receives the new treatment, whereas the control group receives the best current or standard treatment. If the new treatment proves to be significantly more effective, then the participant in the standard treatment group should be offered the opportunity to undergo the new treatment at the completion of the study.

Another procedure is to use a pretest-posttest design, in which all participants are tested prior to treatment, all receive the new treatment, and all are tested following treatment. As will be discussed in more detail in later chapters of the text (Chapters 10-13), this design is weak, but it does provide some information. If it is the only option, it should be employed.

A number of quasi-experimental designs, such as the use of non-equivalent control groups, ABA reversal designs, and time-series designs (all discussed in detail in Chapter 13) are also available. These designs do have some weaknesses, but can nevertheless provide some information when a fully-controlled, random-assignment procedure cannot be used.