Psychology, in its efforts to become a rigorous scientific discipline, has adapted many of the same methodological principles as more traditional branches of science, such as chemistry or physics. By following this path, psychology aims to test out various hypotheses about the phenomenon to be studied: the human psyche. Now, psychology itself is diverse: it may incorporate behavioral psychology, social psychology, familial psychology, and other sub-branches. Yet by committing to scientific principles such as the experimental method, psychology can approach its subject matter in its diverse forms in a manner that attains the standards set by standard empirical science.
The experimental method, as an approach, allows the psychologist to treat the human psyche in the context of a particular problematic in the same way that a physical scientist would treat a natural phenomenon. Therefore, what is emphasized in the experimental method is arguably above all a sense in which one tries to ascertain how different variables relate to each other, and thereby verify or cancel one’s hypotheses concerning how these variables relate to each other.
According to this schema, therefore, the experimental method involves various phenomena that play different roles, which can be classed in terms of the aforementioned variables alongside invariables. Namely, the experimental method works by trying to provide a stable framework in which the experiment itself is conducted. At the same time, however, this basic stable invariant structure is accompanied by variables that are deliberately changed, so as to find out if a standard relationship of cause and effect between phenomena can be established and therefore provide a rigorous account of how such phenomena interact and interrelate.
This what the “experimental” part of the method means: it means taking the framework of the scientific experiment, and then applying it to psychological phenomenon. The experiment aims to separate variables from invariables to determine relationships.
This is best illustrated in the psychological setting by taking an example. The psychologist Milgram developed an experiment where he could analyze the psychological phenomenon of obedience. He relied on participants which were random and those that he knew personally who knew the point of the experiment. Accordingly, he controlled the variables of those participants he knew, and those he did not. The point of the experiment was to test obedience to command: his confidantes were connected to electrodes, while the random participants were instructed to give the confidantes an electric shock when they did something incorrectly. The participants would increase the shock when errors more frequently occurred. If the participants had some hesitation to induce the shock, they were instructed that this was part of the experiment and was necessary, thereby showing how people would listen to authority even in situations where the orders can be called ethically wrong, in this sense, clearly administering pain to another individual. Milgram’s experiment revealed that 65% of those clearly followed instructions, showing a clear inclination for obedience in a controlled, authoritarian setting.
In an example such as this therefore the principles of experimental method are clear. There is an unknown phenomenon to be researched, in this case the psychological phenomenon of obedience. A controlled setting must be established so as to get the best results, not varying in terms of the set-up: all participants are active in the same process. What becomes variable in this case is the reaction of those participants themselves as to what they will do. And it is exactly this variable that is measured in such an experiment. If a consistent pattern is noted, therefore a hypothesis can be made that human beings are therefore inclined towards, for example, a certain psychological disposition.
Accordingly, the experimental method allows the scientist to reduce invariables when addressing a complex psychological phenomenon, so as to form firm conclusions about this subject. Relying on factors such as basic empirical evidence, and the key difference between variables and invariables, phenomena may be tested. This, in turn, leads to a movement from hypothesis to conclusion that can be scientifically rigorous as opposed to merely abstract and speculative.