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Research 101: Understanding Research Studies

Three General Categories of Research

While we’ve discussed the five general types of research in behavioral and mental health, there are also three other categories to consider.

Behavioral & Treatment Studies

Behavioral or treatment studies examine specific behaviors, treatments or therapies and see how they work on people. In psychology and sociology, most research conducted is of this nature. Such research provides direct insights into human behavior or therapeutic techniques that may be of value for treating a specific kind of disorder. This kind of research also helps us better understand a specific health or mental health concern, and how it manifests itself in a certain group of people (e.g., teenagers versus adults). This is the most “actionable” type of research – research that professionals and individuals can take action based upon its findings.

Organic Studies

Research that examines brain structures, neurochemical reactions via PET or other brain imaging techniques, gene research, or research that examines other organic structures in a human body falls under this category. In most cases, such research helps further our understanding of the human body and how it functions, but doesn’t provide immediate insight or help in dealing with a problem today, or suggest new treatments that will be readily available. For instance, researchers often publish findings about how a particular gene may be correlated with a specific disorder. While such findings may eventually lead to some sort of medical test being developed for the disorder, it may be a decade or two before a finding of this nature translates into an actual test or new treatment method.

While such research is vitally important to our eventual better understanding of how our brains and bodies function, research in this category tends not to have much importance today for people dealing with a mental disorder or mental health problem.

Animal Studies

Research is sometimes conducted on an animal to better understand how a specific organ system (such as the brain) reacts to changes, or how an animal’s behavior may be altered by specific social or environmental changes. Animal research, mostly on rats, in the 1950’s and 1960’s focused on studying animal behavior which, in psychology, led to the field of behaviorism and behavior therapy. More recently, the focus of animal studies has been on their biological makeup, to examine certain brain structures and genes related to health or mental health issues.

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While certain animals have organ systems that may be very similar to human organ systems, results from animal studies are not automatically generalizable to humans. Animal studies are therefore of limited value to the general population. Research news based upon an animal study generally means any possible significant treatments from such a study are at least a decade or more away from being introduced. In many cases, no specific treatments are developed from animal studies, instead they are used to better understand how a human organ system functions or reacts to a change.


Research in the social sciences and in pharmacology is important because it helps us not only better understand human behavior (both normal and dysfunctional behavior), but also to find more effective and less time-consuming treatments to help with a person is suffering from an emotional or mental health issue.

The best kind of research – large-scale, randomized studies – are also the most rare because of their cost and the amount of resources needed to undertake them. Smaller-scale studies also contribute important data points along the way, inbetween the larger studies, while meta-analyses and literature reviews helps us gain a more global perspective and understanding of our knowledge so far.

While animal research and studies into the brain’s structures and genes are important to contributing to our overall better understanding of how our brains and bodies function, behavioral and treatment research provide concrete data that can generally be used immediately to help people improve their lives.

Research 101: Understanding Research Studies

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Research 101: Understanding Research Studies. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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