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II. Sources of Problems to Solve

Problems can be conceptualized at a number of levels. At one level we are all searching for the answer to the question “why do organisms behave the way they do?” Questions with more specificity could proceed from; why do humans behave the way they do, to how does reinforcement affect behavior, to how does reinforcement affect studying, to how does reinforcement affect studying for tests in university males.

Beginners tend to start with relatively specific research problems focused on the face value of the question, but eventually develop a broad research question with great generality. For example, what started as “how can I help my roommate study more?” evolves into “what controls studying in people?” At the beginning, the roommate’s behavior is at issue for itself. Later the person and the behavior are seen as arbitrary instances of a much more important and challenging question. Career long research problems tend to emerge following several years of specific research topics, and require many specific research studies to solve. This section details some of the sources for an initial, relatively specific, research problem. It is intended to help you come up with research which is manageable, enjoyable, and productive.

A very serious impediment facing new researchers is well illustrated by trying to use a foreign language dictionary to learn what foreign words mean. Until you know "enough" of a language, you cannot find out what the words mean. Until you know "enough" of a paradigm, you do not know what unresolved questions remain, or when the paradigm is wrong. "A" below is generally a person's first exposure to a research project for that reason.

In addition to not knowing what unresolved problems remain, is missing the more fundamental broader issue underlying any specific behavior change. When looking at the world, try to see each functional relationship as only an instance of a more general class of relationships.

The simplest source of a problem to solve is to have it given to you as a class assignment, as a directed research project, or as a task while you are an apprentice in someone's lab. You are told what problem to research and how to do it. This is probably an ideal way to assure that your first research topic is a good one.

Example: Students in Experimental Psychology were assigned the task of finding out if social attention made their roommate study more. They were told to measure the amount of time their roommate studied on days during which they expressed interest in their roommate's course material as compared to days when they refrained from talking about academic topics.

Common beliefs, common sense, or proverbs could be right but on the other hand, they could also be wrong. You must verify that they are true before considering them as a source of knowledge. It is possible that some unverified beliefs have the roots of a better idea and therefore would be a worthy research topic. It is critical to note, however, that the task of research is not to simply validate or invalidate common sense but rather to come to understand nature.

Example: It's commonly believed that studying within the two hours preceding a test will decrease test scores. To research this belief a randomly selected half of a class was told to study immediately before taking a test while the other half was prohibited from studying before the test. This research was intended to determine whether or not studying immediately before a test decreased the points earned.

Sometimes people research an issue simply because it occurred to them and it seemed important. The systematic development of the idea is lacking. This is "intuitive" or good guess research. It is risky because you may not be able to get other researchers to understand why the research is important. It is fun because you get to do what interests you at the moment. Alternatively, it could be the application of a general rule of thumb or guessing that a new problem is actually a well-understood function in disguise.

Example: While feeling especially competent after explaining course material to three friends you realize that orally presenting material may help test performance. You conducted a study in which material was orally presented before the test on a random half of the occasions. The research was based on your insightful realization that oral presentation may increase test performance.

This is a research problem that some discussion group feels is interesting. Discussion among friends can often spark our interest in a problem or provides us with the reinforcers for pursuing a question.

Example: After telling a group of friends about your success with oral presentations on test taking, the group talks about it for awhile and becomes interested in the possibility of the subject becoming confused as well as doing better as a result of feedback from the listeners. The group provides you with the idea and the excitement to do research on how students can affect the accuracy of a teacher's understanding.

This is the selection of a research topic based on your special knowledge outside the field. A technique or apparatus with which you are familiar can offer the potential for a major advance in the field of psychology. Sometimes we realize that we can apply a new technique or apparatus to an area to which it has not yet been applied. Because we are specially qualified to succeed, solving the problem can be especially gratifying.

Example: You may know about microelectronics and be good at detailed work. You find out that many researchers are anxious to discover the migration patterns of butterflies so you mount an integrated circuit transmitter on a butterfly and thereby trace the behavior of the free ranging butterfly.

These are research problems which capture your interest while reading. While reading you will often wonder why, or will disagree, or will realize that you have a better idea than the original author.

Example: While you were reading about jet lag and its effects on sleep the first night, you realize that the author failed to control for light cycle. You try stretching either the light period or stretching the dark period to make up the phase shift. You implement this by changing the cabin illumination period on various trans-Atlantic flights, and monitoring the passengers sleep for the next three days.

Initially, it may be hard to know where to start reading on your quest for knowledge. Consider starting at a very broad general level and working your way to the more recondite.

A good place to start is several Introductory Psychology textbooks. Understand the basic area, what it is, how it fits in Psychology, and why it is important. Then look through several middle level textbooks which cover that particular area. Understanding the structure of the area by reading the table of contexts, then read the specific section relevant to your research topic. Read the table of contents and sections relevant to your paper in several more textbooks, paying particular attention to the original research which led to the general paradigm and conclusions. Pay attention to the theoretical significance of various types of results and to the functional relationship depicted in the figures. Note the authors, titles, dates, volume, and pages of the journals and books which are referred to. Then consult Psychological Abstracts. This is a publication that organizes and provides short abstracts of the mass of knowledge provided in journals. The Psychological Abstracts are available in the library. Locate key papers in the Abstracts.
Actively participate while you are reading. At first it will keep you from falling asleep, later it will keep you from thinking about other things, and eventually it will make it a lot of fun.

Underline, write questions and answers in the margins, and keep an idea log. Draw a diagram of the procedure. Consider how the research bears on your interests. Look for what's important.

If the world is perfectly understood, then there can be no surprises. Contrariwise, if something surprises you, then your theoretical framework is inadequate and needs development. If two seemingly similar procedures produce different results, then something is wrong with your understanding of the procedures. They are not actually similar in the important respect of how they affect the dependent variable. Given that an error has been made, something is not correctly understood and must be resolved.

Researchers who propose theoretical accounts for phenomena cannot think through every possible ramification. As you come to understand a theory, potential errors or extensions become apparent. This type of research tests the implications of theories to confirm or reject them. This is classic deductive "normal" science. Using the object in the lake from the first chapter as an example -- this would be deducing "if it is an steam shovel under there, then we should find a long row of high spots coming out of one end." You then test that prediction by probing around trying to find a boom.

If response strength approaches asymptotic response strength on each reinforced trial, then presenting a compound stimulus of asymptotically conditioned stimuli should result in a response decrement on subsequent tests with isolated stimuli. (This is a counter intuitive prediction based on Rescorla-Wagner which is true.)

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Date Last Reviewed: November 17, 2002