2.2 Generating Good Research Questions

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe some common sources of research ideas and generate research ideas using those sources.
  2. Describe some techniques for turning research ideas into empirical research questions and use those techniques to generate questions.
  3. Explain what makes a research question interesting and evaluate research questions in terms of their interestingness.

Good research must begin with a good research question. Yet coming up with good research questions is something that novice researchers often find difficult and stressful. One reason is that this is a creative process that can appear mysterious—even magical—with experienced researchers seeming to pull interesting research questions out of thin air. However, psychological research on creativity has shown that it is neither as mysterious nor as magical as it appears. It is largely the product of ordinary thinking strategies and persistence (Weisberg, 1993). This section covers some fairly simple strategies for finding general research ideas, turning those ideas into empirically testable research questions, and finally evaluating those questions in terms of how interesting they are and how feasible they would be to answer.

Finding Inspiration

Research questions often begin as more general research ideas—usually focusing on some behavior or psychological characteristic: talkativeness, memory for touches, depression, bungee jumping, and so on. Before looking at how to turn such ideas into empirically testable research questions, it is worth looking at where such ideas come from in the first place. Three of the most common sources of inspiration are informal observations, practical problems, and previous research.

Informal observations include direct observations of our own and others’ behavior as well as secondhand observations from nonscientific sources such as newspapers, books, and so on. For example, you might notice that you always seem to be in the slowest moving line at the grocery store. Could it be that most people think the same thing? Or you might read in the local newspaper about people donating money and food to a local family whose house has burned down and begin to wonder about who makes such donations and why. Some of the most famous research in psychology has been inspired by informal observations. Stanley Milgram’s famous research on obedience, for example, was inspired in part by journalistic reports of the trials of accused Nazi war criminals—many of whom claimed that they were only obeying orders. This led him to wonder about the extent to which ordinary people will commit immoral acts simply because they are ordered to do so by an authority figure (Milgram, 1963).

Practical problems can also inspire research ideas, leading directly to applied research in such domains as law, health, education, and sports. Can human figure drawings help children remember details about being physically or sexually abused? How effective is psychotherapy for depression compared to drug therapy? To what extent do cell phones impair people’s driving ability? How can we teach children to read more efficiently? What is the best mental preparation for running a marathon?

Probably the most common inspiration for new research ideas, however, is previous research. Recall that science is a kind of large-scale collaboration in which many different researchers read and evaluate each other’s work and conduct new studies to build on it. Of course, experienced researchers are familiar with previous research in their area of expertise and probably have a long list of ideas. This suggests that novice researchers can find inspiration by consulting with a more experienced researcher (e.g., students can consult a faculty member). But they can also find inspiration by picking up a copy of almost any professional journal and reading the titles and abstracts. In one typical issue of Psychological Science, for example, you can find articles on the perception of shapes, anti-Semitism, police lineups, the meaning of death, second-language learning, people who seek negative emotional experiences, and many other topics. If you can narrow your interests down to a particular topic (e.g., memory) or domain (e.g., health care), you can also look through more specific journals, such as Memory & Cognition or Health Psychology.

Generating Empirically Testable Research Questions

Once you have a research idea, you need to use it to generate one or more empirically testable research questions, that is, questions expressed in terms of a single variable or relationship between variables. One way to do this is to look closely at the discussion section in a recent research article on the topic. This is the last major section of the article, in which the researchers summarize their results, interpret them in the context of past research, and suggest directions for future research. These suggestions often take the form of specific research questions, which you can then try to answer with additional research. This can be a good strategy because it is likely that the suggested questions have already been identified as interesting and important by experienced researchers.

But you may also want to generate your own research questions. How can you do this? First, if you have a particular behavior or psychological characteristic in mind, you can simply conceptualize it as a variable and ask how frequent or intense it is. How many words on average do people speak per day? How accurate are children’s memories of being touched? What percentage of people have sought professional help for depression? If the question has never been studied scientifically—which is something that you will learn in your literature review—then it might be interesting and worth pursuing.

If scientific research has already answered the question of how frequent or intense the behavior or characteristic is, then you should consider turning it into a question about a statistical relationship between that behavior or characteristic and some other variable. One way to do this is to ask yourself the following series of more general questions and write down all the answers you can think of.

  • What are some possible causes of the behavior or characteristic?
  • What are some possible effects of the behavior or characteristic?
  • What types of people might exhibit more or less of the behavior or characteristic?
  • What types of situations might elicit more or less of the behavior or characteristic?

In general, each answer you write down can be conceptualized as a second variable, suggesting a question about a statistical relationship. If you were interested in talkativeness, for example, it might occur to you that a possible cause of this psychological characteristic is family size. Is there a statistical relationship between family size and talkativeness? Or it might occur to you that people seem to be more talkative in same-sex groups than mixed-sex groups. Is there a difference in the average level of talkativeness of people in same-sex groups and people in mixed-sex groups? This approach should allow you to generate many different empirically testable questions about almost any behavior or psychological characteristic.

If through this process you generate a question that has never been studied scientifically—which again is something that you will learn in your literature review—then it might be interesting and worth pursuing. But what if you find that it has been studied scientifically? Although novice researchers often want to give up and move on to a new question at this point, this is not necessarily a good strategy. For one thing, the fact that the question has been studied scientifically and the research published suggests that it is of interest to the scientific community. For another, the question can almost certainly be refined so that its answer will still contribute something new to the research literature. Again, asking yourself a series of more general questions about the statistical relationship is a good strategy.

  • Are there other ways to operationally define the variables?
  • Are there types of people for whom the statistical relationship might be stronger or weaker?
  • Are there situations in which the statistical relationship might be stronger or weaker—including situations with practical importance?

For example, research has shown that women and men speak about the same number of words per day—but this was when talkativeness was measured in terms of the number of words spoken per day among college students in the United States and Mexico. We can still ask whether other ways of measuring talkativeness—perhaps the number of different people spoken to each day—produce the same result. Or we can ask whether studying elderly people or people from other cultures produces the same result. Again, this approach should help you generate many different research questions about almost any statistical relationship.

Evaluating Research Questions

Researchers usually generate many more research questions than they ever attempt to answer. This means they must have some way of evaluating the research questions they generate so that they can choose which ones to pursue. In this section, we consider two criteria for evaluating research questions: the interestingness of the question and the feasibility of answering it.

Interestingness

How often do people tie their shoes? Do people feel pain when you punch them in the jaw? Are women more likely to wear makeup than men? Do people prefer vanilla or chocolate ice cream? Although it would be a fairly simple matter to design a study and collect data to answer these questions, you probably would not want to because they are not interesting. We are not talking here about whether a research question is interesting to us personally but whether it is interesting to people more generally and, especially, to the scientific community. But what makes a research question interesting in this sense? Here we look at three factors that affect the interestingness of a research question: the answer is in doubt, the answer fills a gap in the research literature, and the answer has important practical implications.

First, a research question is interesting to the extent that its answer is in doubt. Obviously, questions that have been answered by scientific research are no longer interesting as the subject of new empirical research. But the fact that a question has not been answered by scientific research does not necessarily make it interesting. There has to be some reasonable chance that the answer to the question will be something that we did not already know. But how can you assess this before actually collecting data? One approach is to try to think of reasons to expect different answers to the question—especially ones that seem to conflict with common sense. If you can think of reasons to expect at least two different answers, then the question might be interesting. If you can think of reasons to expect only one answer, then it probably is not. The question of whether women are more talkative than men is interesting because there are reasons to expect both answers. The existence of the stereotype itself suggests the answer could be yes, but the fact that women’s and men’s verbal abilities are fairly similar suggests the answer could be no. The question of whether people feel pain when you punch them in the jaw is not interesting because there is absolutely no reason to think that the answer could be anything other than a resounding yes.

A second important factor to consider when deciding if a research question is interesting is whether answering it will fill a gap in the research literature. Again, this means in part that the question has not already been answered by scientific research. But it also means that the question is in some sense a natural one for people who are familiar with the research literature. For example, the question of whether human figure drawings can help children recall touch information would be likely to occur to anyone who was familiar with research on the unreliability of eyewitness memory (especially in children) and the ineffectiveness of some alternative interviewing techniques.

A final factor to consider when deciding whether a research question is interesting is whether its answer has important practical implications. Again, the question of whether human figure drawings help children recall information about being touched has important implications for how children are interviewed in physical and sexual abuse cases. The question of whether cell phone use impairs driving is interesting because it is relevant to the personal safety of everyone who travels by car and to the debate over whether cell phone use should be restricted by law.

Feasibility

A second important criterion for evaluating research questions is the feasibility of successfully answering them. There are many factors that affect feasibility, including time, money, equipment and materials, technical knowledge and skill, and access to research participants. Clearly, researchers need to take these factors into account so that they do not waste time and effort pursuing research that they cannot complete successfully.

Looking through a sample of professional journals in psychology will reveal many studies that are complicated and difficult to carry out. These include longitudinal designs in which participants are tracked over many years, neuroimaging studies in which participants’ brain activity is measured while they carry out various mental tasks, and complex nonexperimental studies involving several variables and complicated statistical analyses. Keep in mind, though, that such research tends to be carried out by teams of highly trained researchers whose work is often supported in part by government and private grants. Keep in mind also that research does not have to be complicated or difficult to produce interesting and important results. Looking through a sample of professional journals will also reveal studies that are relatively simple and easy to carry out—perhaps involving a convenience sample of college students and a paper-and-pencil task.

A final point here is that it is generally good practice to use methods that have already been used successfully by other researchers. For example, if you want to manipulate people’s moods to make some of them happy, it would be a good idea to use one of the many approaches that have been used successfully by other researchers (e.g., paying them a compliment). This is good not only for the sake of feasibility—the approach is “tried and true”—but also because it provides greater continuity with previous research. This makes it easier to compare your results with those of other researchers and to understand the implications of their research for yours, and vice versa.

Key Takeaways

  • Research ideas can come from a variety of sources, including informal observations, practical problems, and previous research.
  • Research questions expressed in terms of variables and relationships between variables can be suggested by other researchers or generated by asking a series of more general questions about the behavior or psychological characteristic of interest.
  • It is important to evaluate how interesting a research question is before designing a study and collecting data to answer it. Factors that affect interestingness are the extent to which the answer is in doubt, whether it fills a gap in the research literature, and whether it has important practical implications.
  • It is also important to evaluate how feasible a research question will be to answer. Factors that affect feasibility include time, money, technical knowledge and skill, and access to special equipment and research participants.

Exercises

  1. Practice: Generate five research ideas based on each of the following: informal observations, practical problems, and topics discussed in recent issues of professional journals.
  2. Practice: Generate five empirical research questions about each of the following behaviors or psychological characteristics: long-distance running, getting tattooed, social anxiety, bullying, and memory for early childhood events.
  3. Practice: Evaluate each of the research questions you generated in Exercise 2 in terms of its interestingness based on the criteria discussed in this section.
  4. Practice: Find an issue of a journal that publishes short empirical research reports (e.g., Psychological Science, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin). Pick three studies, and rate each one in terms of how feasible it would be for you to replicate it with the resources available to you right now. Use the following rating scale: (1) You could replicate it essentially as reported. (2) You could replicate it with some simplifications. (3) You could not replicate it. Explain each rating.

References

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.

Weisberg, R. W. (1993). Creativity: Beyond the myth of genius. New York, NY: Freeman.

This is a derivative of Research Methods in Psychology by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.