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Discovering Psychology: Updated Edition

Understanding Research

Understanding Research is the second program in the Discovering Psychology series. This program examines how we know what we know. You'll explore the scientific method, the distinction between fact and theory, and the different ways in which data are collected and applied, both in labs and in real-world settings.

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Essay: Research in Action

Research often begins with a question. Traditionally, answers have been found in lab experiments, surveys, test groups, and interviews.

This program provides an example of research in a field setting. Psychologist Dr. Christina Maslach of the University of California at Berkeley studies job burnout, what causes it, and what can be done to prevent it. Instead of using traditional lab settings, Dr. Maslach conducts her research where the burnout is happening, in the workplace, using a real-world setting as a lab.

By taking this “fly-on-the-wall” approach, Dr. Maslach studies stress as it occurs, relying on subjects’ live experiences rather than just their memories or perceptions of past experiences. In this case, she has developed a scale to measure job burnout and a scale to measure the health of the workplace environment. Scientific methods to ensure accuracy are part of her approach. She collects data from carefully controlled measurements and observations, and the research process is methodical. The experiment can then be reproduced and the data tested by other researchers. By sharing data through publishing results, psychologists provide new understandings and new tools, as well as fodder for new questions and debates.

Through this consistent, long-term work, Dr. Maslach’s research has shed light not only on individual employees’ behavior, but also on the behavior of an entire organization. The application of this research helps individuals develop mechanisms for coping with stress, and assists organizations in evaluating the health and effectiveness of the workplace.

A profile of Professor Maslach is available at on the Social Psychology Network website.


Autonomic Arousal: The involuntary change in bodily activities that relates to the peripheral nervous system, such as a person’s heart rate or sweating, in response to physical or psychological stimuli.

Double-Blind Procedure: An experimental technique used to determine the effect of a treatment or stimulus, while eliminating biased expectations. The process consists of all parties unaware of which participants are the subjects and which are the controls in an experiment.

Job Burnout: The deterioration of one’s job performance due to factors such as stress and lack of support.

Placebo Effect: The clinical response to a treatment that occurs independent of its physiological effect. In medicine, a placebo is a substance that has no direct pharmacological effect, such as a sugar pill.

Psychometric Research: Studies in the field of psychology that specialize in mental testing and developing standardized methods for collecting data and assessing psychological phenomena.

Scientific Method: A framework of approaches and procedures for forming a hypothesis and gathering and interpreting objective information through experimentation. Seeks to minimize sources of bias and to yield dependable, and independently testable, information.