Is Psychological Research Empirical?

Empiricism can be defined as “the doctrine that all knowledge is derived from sense experience.” [1] In other words, it is research that comes through our observations. In a very simple sense, I drop my pen, and I can observe that it falls downwards. This is the empirical evidence that supports the law of gravity. In the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, an empirical study is referred to as a report of “original research” (p. 10) Empirical research is important, because it can be verified. Sensual observations can be measured, and tangible readings can be taken.

In psychology, whether our research is empirical or not is controversial. As we seek to form a scientific study, we look to gather empirical data. Often, our data comes from Introspection, where a subject describes their feelings. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that psychological research could not be considered empirical, because “mental events cannot be quantified” (Fuchs & Milar, 2002). He suggests that these mental events cannot be analysed either in the laboratory, or using mathematical analysis. As these thoughts and feelings are verbally conveyed, and then interpreted by another, meaning can change or become lost, resulting in a game of psychological Chinese whispers.

Kant suggested instead that we should use physical observations, things which can be measured. Indeed not all data is gathered by introspection, and in recent years, technological advances have allowed more and more alternative methods for gathering empirical data.

When studying the brain and the nervous system, extensive methods and tools are now available to monitor activity within these areas. The process of “Single Cell Recording”, shows us how different specialised cells are in place to detect different types of image. This has given us valuable insights on how vision works. (Gleitman, Gross & Riesberg, 2011, p.105) These processes do not use introspection, and deliver more solid results that we can work with.

While these new advances in technology often allow new and more accurate methods of empirical study, I do believe most of our research still involves a form of introspection.

A study on facial emotional expressions revealed that some basic emotional expressions are found across different cultures. (Ekman & Friesen, 1975) In this study, participants were shown faces and asked to categorise each face, as to what type of emotion it was displaying. Participants were given six different emotions to choose from. Based upon this research, a further study was carried out more recently, which used the same method of asking participants to categorise facial emotions, however this time, eye-movement was tracked using modern equipment. (Corden, B.; Chilvers, R. & Skuse, D. 2008) This study found that people’s eyes avoided looking at “emotionally arousing” stimuli, such as “fearful and sad expressions”.

During these experiments, introspection was used, in conjunction with modern technology, in order to assess participant’s perceptions, before further studies and conclusions could be made.

So, are psychological studies empirical? The introspective data is not entirely tangible, it is opinion based. The same stimulus could be described or categorised differently by different people. At the same time, introspection is still a very useful way to gather data. In my view, the question of validity plays a role. Does it measure what it claims to measure? I believe that generally it does. I admit that that will result in the results having a weaker foundation, but in most cases they are sufficiently valid to draw valuable conclusions from.



Alfred H. Fuchs & Katherine S. Milar (2002). Psychology as a Science

Gleitman, Gross & Riesberg (2011). Psychology 8th Edition.

Ekman, Paul & Friesen, Wallace V. (1975). Unmasking the face: A guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues.

Corden, B.; Chilvers, R. & Skuse, D. (2008) Avoidance of emotionally arousing stimuli predicts social–perceptual impairment in Asperger’s syndrome.

6 thoughts on “Is Psychological Research Empirical?

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog this week, i found it very interesting how you cited people from as far back as the early 1800’s, showing that you had studied out the topic in detail and had gained valueable insight from several different sources throughout the history of psychology. I also enjoyed how you discussed introspection and what the positive and negative effects of that are, and how it is still used today within psychology. I also agree with your conclusion, that by having introspection involved it does lead to validity, which i believe also leads to many other variables coming into play which weaken research such as demand characteristics,boredum during studies and so on.

  2. The main positive of this blog is you seem to make very good use of citations and it is very well referenced. A very good blog with not many real weakenesses. I believe psychological research is empirical. The example of Honekopp et al’s study into 2D:4D finger ratio provides powerful evidence for the effect of this on traits that we have and is very much empirical. Yes we do have alot to owe in psychology to things that can’t be measured, for example to Freud and various case studies that have been done. Perhaps something to improve upon is to maybe spend a little less time at times explaining what went on in a study and a little more time explaining how the study supports the argument.

  3. I believe that as emprical as we want psychology to be, there are just some limitations that we cannot yet overcome. The use of technology is going to play a big role in psychological research in the future, however, data does not necessarily have to be empirical to be valid. As long as we can draw conclusions from data that can be applied effectively to real life and society, does it matter how empirical it is?

    – JC

  4. This was a really good read, it looked into things thoughtfully and provoked thought in the process of doing so. And it evidences how psychology is evolving as a science.
    I maintain a view that psychology isn’t a science, but that it can become one, and your blog has highlighted one of the key reasons I say this.
    esults currently aren’t always emprical, but they are slowly becoming emprical, and measurable in ways other than simple opinion and interpretation due to technological advances.

    As I said before it’s a great read, and it’s made me think about my views of psychology as a science, and although I still don’t see it as a science, I’m now wondering if it’s closer than I was first claiming it to be as you’ve shown some great examples of where the field has improved and evolved more toward what might be considered as being closer to the ‘core’ sciences.

  5. I think overall your blog is very well structured and you portrayed both sides to the debate in an informative way. You have obviously done your background research and you have referenced well, however introducing a bit of your own idea through your blog would make it far more enticing to read and for creating a critical discussion. It is clear that there are Psychological studies which are truly empirical, the only issue is that not all Psychological studies are though as they are influenced by human cognition and emotion.

  6. I think you make some very good points about psychology and how we view research. The point whether psychological research is empirical or i think very much depends on the specific research taking place, so while some research within psychology may be classified as empirical, others research studies may not be. I think it is a very relevant topic to modern psychology, especially regarding the argument about whether psychology can be classified as a science or not. It is very difficult for all psychological research to be empirical because of the areas psychology looks at; such as human behaviour and emotion.

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