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Critically exploring psychology
Critically exploring psychology

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4.2 Developing a research question

A research question is a carefully worded question stating precisely what a researcher is trying to find out in a study. It needs to be broad and possibly open-ended to enable exploration of the specific topic or issue.

Meltzoff and Cooper (2018) describe the different types of research questions and the need to understand these, as this sets up your expectations about how the research needs to be conducted. They suggest that once you have identified the type of question you are asking, you can then judge whether the research design you have is appropriate to the question. The different types of research question are shown in Table 3 below.

Table 3 Different types of research questions
Type of question Description
Existence Does x exist?
Description and classification To what extent does x exist?
Composition What makes up x?
Descriptive-comparative Is x different to y?
Relationship Is there an association between x and y?
Causal Does x lead to y?
Causal-comparative Does x cause more change in y than z does?
Causal-comparative interaction Does x cause change under certain conditions?

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So, trying to find out what makes people happy will use a different approach to finding out whether eating more chocolate leads to happiness. The former might require an interview with a small group of people to ask them what makes them happy; whereas the latter might require a large-scale survey or an experiment controlling the amount of chocolate they eat and measuring how happy they are.

The key message in carrying out any type of psychological research is that you use the right tool for the job at hand. In psychology, the job is defined by the research question. So, it’s important to think about what the research question is trying to do, what the research is going to be and how it will be carried out.

How the question is phrased informs the decision as to what kind of methodology is used. This will, in turn, give ideas about what method would be appropriate for collecting that data, and what type of data is collected.