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PSY 271 Research Methods in Psychology: Empirical Studies

Emperical Studies

What is an empirical study?

Empirical 1a. Relying on or derived from, observation or experiment: empirical results supported the hypothesis. b. Verifiable or provable by means of observation or experiment. 2. Guided by practical experience and not theory. From: The American Heritage Dictionary, 2000.

What does this mean for you? Well, you are going to need to find articles that present the research done by the authors, rather than news articles or literature reviews in which the authors describe research done by someone else. You need to examine each article to make sure it is an empirical study. Remember, however, that although you may be required to find a certain number of empirical studies, other types of information, including literature reviews, may still be valuable in addition to the empirical studies.

Here is an abstract of an article from a journal called Media Psychology. Note some of the clues that tell us that the article is an empirical study. The authors describe how they "investigate", "assess" and interpret "results" using a "sample population".

Sample Abstract

The present study used autobiographical memory to investigate the social experience and short- and long-term effects of seeing frightening movies on a date, using a sample population of 125 males and 108 females (mean age of both 19.2 yrs), and extending D. Zillmann and J. B. Weaver's (1996) model of differential gender-role behaviors to persons' own real-life dating experiences. Young adult participants (1) recalled the experience of watching a scary movie on a date, and (2) were assessed for levels of gender-role traditionality, sensation seeking, and dispositional empathy. Results showed that almost all individuals could recall such a date. Although men reported more positive reactions to the film and women more negative reactions, the experience appeared to have some social utility for both. Sex was a better predictor than the gender-role measures for Negative Reactions, Sleep Disturbances, and the likelihood of being Scared Today by the movie. Sensation-Seeking and Empathy were modest predictors of the same variables. In sum, the dating context seemed to encourage both men and women to behave and react in highly gender-stereotypical ways. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2002 APA, all rights reserved).

How do you find the empirical studies you need?

Generally the best place to start is PsycINFO, a large database of articles in psychology and related fields. One of its nice features is that it allows you to limit to empirical studies. Be warned! Using the empirical study limit does not guarantee that you will get only empirical studies. Occasionally items are entered as empirical studies, yet are not. You will need to look at each item to make sure it fits the criteria for an empirical study.

Emperial Study Article Format

A primary research study is a study based on observation or experimentation. 

Some examples of studies could be:

  • Evaluate the long-term impact of a facilitated peer mentoring program on academic achievements.
  • Music-based iPad app preferences of young children
  • A comparison of two different treatments for a disease
  • Sleep and quality of life in people with COPD: A descriptive-correlational study

Primary research studies can be found in many different databases, but PsycINFO is an excellent place to find research for research methods. PsychINFO is a database primarily of research studies, book chapters, books, dissertations, and technical reports from the field of psychology and from psychological aspects of other disciplines.

To determine if you have a primary research study, begin with the abstract. It should describe the study, who it was performed on, how it was performed and briefly what the results were.

An example is below:


First to compare the relative effectiveness of two different evaluation programs with respect to student achievement in biological science at the end of the first term in the course; and (2) discover if the two evaluation procedures produced any significant changes in student behavior, such as, study habits and reactions to the course.

Literature Review

Authors of the article summarize prior research on the topic.

Materials and Methods:

Describes the participants and the number used in the stud. Lists the measures: sleep quality, sleep problems, statistical analysis.  


The preliminary data analyses are reported, results/statistical tables,


This study examined relationships between sleep and HPA axis activity in adolescence, focusing on a vulnerable, yet understudied population of urban and mostly African American adolescents. Summaries the results, discusses prior studies and the relationship to their research.


List of articles, books and other resources used referred to by the authors

The study will have several sections sometimes the sections will be named slightly different things, but they generally include the above sections. 

Selecting Sources

When doing your research you want to make sure you are selecting appropriate sources for your research, in most cases this will be a scholarly journal article, but in some cases it may be a website.  This may be confusing because the vast majority of items you will be getting will be on the web. 

How Do You Tell if an Item You Find on the Web is a Journal Article?

There are examples of different types of journal articles on this page, but the primary differences between journal articles and websites are:


Journal Title, and Publisher

Volume, Issue, Date and Pages.

A journal article will always have an author, and it will always be easy to find. It is very important to be able to determine the authority of information, and the author is a very important element of the authority.

An article is published in a journal for the purpose of spreading authoritative scientific information in a field. The journal editors ensure that the material is suitable for the journal. While there are different levels of quality in journals, there is quality control, unlike websites which can be put up by anyone.

Journal articles are always dated, and generally indicate the volume, issue, and pages of the journal the article appears in.  With newer electronic-only journals some do not have pages indicated.

How Do I Cite a Journal Found on the Web?

You cite a journal article you found on the web as a journal article, not as a website.

The general pattern is:

Author(s), (date). Title. Journal Title, volume(issue), pages.

This is an example:

Binder, J. C., Martin, M., Zöllig, J., Röcke, C., Mérillat, S., Eschen, A., & ... Shing, Y. L. (2016).  Multi-domain training 
       enhances attentional control. Psychology and Aging, 31(4), 390-408. doi or URL

Using Websites

Websites are not generally a good idea to use as sources, there can be exceptions, but you want to be very judicious when selecting appropriate sources. You want to be certain that you are getting your information from a solid scholarly source, and not from something less appropriate. There is also a great deal of completely erroneous information on the web.

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