Methods of Research

Industrial/organizational psychology borrowed much from many other areas of psychology during its growth and has retained the strong research orientation common to them, along with many of the research methods each has developed and many of the findings that each has generated. Bringing psychological methods to work settings where experts from many other disciplines are studying some of the same problems results in conflicts, but it also produces a richness of information beyond the scope of any one of the disciplines.

In most cases, the most feasible approach to data collection for I/O psychologists is field research, an approach in which evidence is gathered in a "natural" setting, such as the workplace. (By contrast, laboratory research involves an artificial, contrived setting.) Systematic observation of ongoing work can often give a psychologist needed information without greatly disturbing the workers involved. Generally, they will be told that data are being gathered, but when the known presence of an observer likely would change what is being studied, unobtrusive methods might be used. Information from hidden cameras, or observations from researchers pretending to be workers and actually engaging in whatever must be done, can be used when justified.

Again studying within the actual work setting, I/O psychologists may sometimes take advantage of natural experiments, situations in which a change not deliberately introduced may be studied for its effect on some important outcome. If, for example, very extreme, unseasonable temperatures resulted in uncontrollably high, or low, temperatures in an office setting, a psychologist could assess the effects on employee discomfort, absenteeism, or productivity.

Still studying within the actual work setting, an I/O psychologist may arrange a quasi-experiment, a situation in which the researcher changes some factor to assess its effect while having only partial control over other factors that might influence that change. For example, the psychologist might study the effects of different work schedules by assigning one schedule to one department of a company, a second schedule to a second department, and a third schedule to a third department. The departments, the people, and the differences in the work itself would prevent the strategy from being a true experiment, but it still could produce some useful data.

An experiment, as psychology and other sciences define it, is difficult to arrange within work settings, but it may be worth the effort to evaluate information gathered by other methods. In the simplest form of experiment, the researcher randomly assigns the people studied into two groups and, while holding constant all other factors that might influence the experiment's outcome, presents some condition (known as an independent variable) to one group of subjects (the experimental group) and withholds it from another (the control group). Finally, the researcher measures the outcome (the dependent variable) for both groups.

Carrying out a true experiment almost always requires taking the people involved away from their typical activities into a setting obviously designed for study (usually called the laboratory, even though it may bear little resemblance to a laboratory of, say, a chemist). The need to establish a new, artificial setting and the need to pull workers away from their work to gather information are both troublesome, as is the risk that what is learned in the laboratory setting may not hold true back in the natural work setting.

Correlational methods, borrowed from psychometrics, complement the observational and experimental techniques just described. Correlation is a mathematical technique for comparing the similarity of two sets of data (literally, to determine their co-relation). An important example of the I/O psychologist's seeking information on relationships is found in the process of hiring-test validation, answering the question of the extent to which test scores and eventual work performance are correlated. To establish validity, a researcher must demonstrate a substantial relationship between scores and performance, evidence that the test is measuring what is intended.

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