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"I need an idea for my psychology research project!"

Coming up with good research ideas in psychology is one of the hardest things for students to do. One of the major obstacles students face is their failure to see that many questions with apparently obvious answers haven't really been answered at all. For example, if you asked an average person why filthy people are less likable, the average person would probably answer you with a statement that more or less restates the question and doesn't explain anything (e.g., "Because we don't like dirty people").

If you're willing to probe more deeply into a research issue, you'll find a huge amount of unanswered questions in psychology. At first a very basic question like, "Why do we have emotions?" seems to have too obvious an answer. But in fact psychologists have many different ideas about what emotions might be for, suggesting that we don't yet have a complete answer to this very simple question.

In 1973, William J. McGuire, a social psychologist at Yale, published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that reviewed ways that young researchers can generate research ideas. The list below is based on McGuire's article:

1. Do intensive case study.

Studying one individual (such as a roommate) or group (such as a class) intensively can spark ideas about why people do certain things.

2. Think carefully about paradoxical incidents.

All around us people are doing things that seem to be the opposite of what you would expect. For example, given the enormous expense of placing bibles (that are unlikely to even be opened) in hotel rooms, why do the Gideons continue this practice? And when misfortune strikes, why do people sometimes think in ways that make them feel even worse?

3. Push analogies to their limits.

Some of the things people do can be explained fairly well by analogy. For example, some psychologists believe self-control works like a muscle, such that it can get worn out when used. Take these analogies to their limits to spark new ideas. For example, can self-control also be strengthened with practice, like a muscle?

4. Use the hypotheticodeductive method.

Combine various pieces of common sense or mix pieces of common sense with existing research. For example, self-esteem is an attitude toward oneself. If this is true, what properties of attitudes have not yet been applied to the study of self-esteem?

5. Analyze the functions of psychological phenomena.

Ask yourself what a particular behavior or psychological experience is for. For example, if stereotyping prevents our minds from having to work too hard, are people who are stereotyping able to pay more attention to an unrelated task than people who are actively trying not to stereotype?

6. Analyze practitioners' rules of thumb.

People who have to practice psychology, marketing, management, parenting, etc. can't afford to wait around for research psychologists to definitively answer every important question with data. So they are already using many rules of thumb or best guesses about what the best course of action is in various situations. Scrutinize these rules of thumb: are practitioners right, wrong, or right under these conditions and wrong under those?

7. Think carefully about conflicting results.

Often seemingly contradictory results emerge from different laboratories. Why is that? Is there something that differs in the methods used, or some important cultural differences that may account for the conflicting results?

8. Try to account for exceptions.

Certain principles are fairly well-established, such as the idea that people are attracted to others who are similar to themselves. But of course there are exceptions to this: most women are not romantically attracted to other women (though a few are), and most egotists don't care for other egotists. Why do these exceptions exist?

9. Think about the simpler pieces of complex relationships between variables.

Psychologists are fond of flow charts, path models, and other complex depictions of the inter-relationships between variables. Very often these simpler pieces of these complicated models have not been fully tested. For example, it is fairly well-established that heat makes people aggressive by activating irritable emotions. But why does heat activate irritable emotions? And why do irritable emotions make people aggressive?

Have fun with your research project!

If you have a free moment, you can click on the survey link in the next sentence to participate in a short research study online. Complete a psychological survey!