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.