Descriptive research methods are used to define the who, what, and where of human behavior and other psychological phenomena.

Psychologists and researchers use a myriad of tools when studying human and animal behavior.

Descriptive research methods in psychology are designed to scientifically describe or explain what happens to whom and where, as opposed to how or why it happens.

This type of research is often conducted in a natural setting and may be the precursor to other types of scientific research that delves deeper into a phenomenon. The goal, according to a 2016 paper, is finding the “ultimate truth.”

There are three main methods used in descriptive research, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Descriptive research methods are scientific tools used by researchers and psychologists for gathering information and describing the specifics of behaviors, patterns, and other phenomena. These methods focus on the who, what, and where, versus the why or how.

In psychology, descriptive research is used often to define certain behaviors or traits that are observed. Because descriptive research is typically concerned with the “raw truth,” it is often conducted as naturally as possible without introducing any manipulation or variables.

Descriptive research may be an initial step before the other two types of psychological research are conducted:

  • Correlational research: examines two variables at once, and may be used to identify patterns of relationships
  • Experimental research: determines cause and effect by exposing one group to a particular variable, while another is not exposed to the variable

Descriptive research does not typically rely on a hypothesis and may be more flexible than the other types of psychological research. This type of research can act as a springboard for further exploration by allowing scientists to gather information needed to form a hypothesis. That hypothesis could then serve as the basis for a correlational study or a formal experiment.

There are three methods scientists use to obtain descriptive research:

  • observation
  • case studies
  • surveys

Each method comes with strengths and weaknesses. Scientists may opt for one method over another depending on the type of information they need and from whom.

The observational method refers to scientists watching the behavior of animals or humans in a natural setting. Researchers may use the data to pinpoint trends or patterns that might warrant further exploration.

The goal of the observational method is to provide an unbiased “snapshot” of a particular population at a particular time, according to a 2020 research review rating the efficacy of different descriptive research methods.

However, this method must be conducted carefully to garner accurate results. If the subjects being observed are aware someone is watching them, they might become uncomfortable and change their behavior. This is sometimes called “the Hawthorne effect.”

Yet, there are some ways a researcher may be able to mitigate the Hawthorne effect, such as trying to blend in so well that the observers do not notice the researchers, or telling the participant they are observing something different from what they’re actually looking at.

Additionally, researchers may also transmit bias to those they observe, resulting in the participants adjusting their behavior to the bias.

For these reasons, the observational method may be more accurate for scientists studying animal behavior, rather than human.

Case studies typically focus on an individual or small group of people and can provide a wealth of information about something very specific in its natural setting.

The goal of this research method is to provide detailed information about a contained phenomenon in a natural environment. For example, a person or small group of people with a rare disease or trait might be observed by a researcher to produce data on that specific disease or trait.

This precision can pose benefits and risks to case studies.

Participants may be less likely to drop out or refuse to follow up with researchers in this type of research format, which can increase the accuracy of case study findings.

And despite the ability case studies have to collect a lot of information about something particular, scientists and researchers may still be unable to generalize their findings to the greater population. Thus, a case study may not be representative, which can make findings unreliable beyond the case study’s specific scope.

One challenge of the case study is that the definition of this descriptive research method can vary widely among scientists, across and even within disciplines. Yet, some scientists suggest that case studies can and should be used more broadly, as one 2020 paper argues.

When a broad sample size is needed to assess specific information, a researcher’s best tool may be a survey. The goal of a survey is to gain insight into a particular behavior among a large group of people.

Survey research involves participants responding to researchers’ questions through questionnaires, virtually or in person. Surveys can assess a broader variety of people in their sample than a case study, but cannot provide the same depth of information.

As a descriptive research method, surveys can have similar inaccuracies to observation. Participants may change their answers out of concern or fear for how they could be perceived.

Virtual versus in-person surveys

Online surveys may be more accurate because participants are not answering questions face-to-face with an interviewer. However, because no interviewer is present, answers cannot be discussed beyond what is provided.

Online surveys may also have lower response rates. In-person interviews might provide better response rates, but are often more expensive to produce. Phone interviews may be faster and cheaper, but are commonly less in-depth and risk participants dropping out.

Descriptive research methods can be crucial for psychological researchers to establish and describe the natural details of a particular phenomenon.

There are three major methods of descriptive research:

  • observation
  • case studies
  • surveys

These research methods are not based on a hypothesis, but rather serve as a means for gathering data before diving deeper into other types of scientific research. Descriptive research is often the first step in forming a hypothesis or answering a question.

Each method of descriptive research has risks and benefits, including the possibility of bias, often as a result of participants adjusting their behavior as a consequence of being watched.

Without descriptive research, it may be virtually impossible to reach the stage of scientific experimentation where cause and effect are determined, or to prove correlation among a specific set of variables.