Understanding Psychology at A level and GCSE: 5


Here is the fifth in our new series of Psychology blogs – useful for anyone revising for exams or thinking about taking up Psychology as a new subject at A level or GCSE.

Research Methods in Psychology: Theory and Hypothesis

A psychologist may have a theory about an aspect of human behaviour.  A theory in general language usually means something like a guess or a hunch. In psychology, it is important to understand that theory does not have this meaning.  A theory in psychology, as in science generally, is based on a hypothesis and then tested in experiments and research.

In psychology, a theory has two important components: –

  1. It describes a behaviour.
  2. It makes predictions about future behaviours.

A theory is therefore a concept or idea that we can test. It is not just a guess. It is the framework psychologists use to describe an aspect of human behaviour. So it provides a model to understand human behaviours, thoughts and emotions. A theory is an idea that psychologists have about how and why people think and behave in the way they do that can be tested.

So to test a theory, the psychologist will need to ask a question – this is known as setting up a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a testable statement. It is a prediction of what a psychologist expects to happen in an experiment/research.

For example, to test my theory that people in my office prefer to drink out of blue cups, I need to ask a question, or set up a hypothesis.  I decide that I want to know if there are more blue cups in a cupboard than red? I am going to conduct an experiment. So my hypothesis might be –

“There will be more blue cups in the staff room cupboard than red.”

I will then go off and conduct an experiment. I will count the red cups and count the blue cups in the cupboard.

My hypothesis was that there would be more blue cups. I find that there are five red cups and four blue cups. So I have disproved my hypothesis. There are actually more red cups than blue. My theory was disproved by the experiment.

This is a simple example, but it shows what a hypothesis is.  If I were to conduct psychological research, I may conduct experiments with a hypothesis such as –

  • Distraction will affect the number of words recalled from a list.
  • Women are better drivers than men.
  • Boys are better at science than girls.
  • Students who revise in the morning do better in exams.

All of these are testable statements. They are hypotheses (the plural of hypothesis). We could conduct experiments to test these hypotheses.

Tracey Jones

Psychology Tutor – Oxford Open Learning

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