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How to Write an APA Methods Section | With Examples

Published on February 5, 2021 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

The methods section of an APA style paper is where you report in detail how you performed your study. Research papers in the social and natural sciences often follow APA style. This article focuses on reporting quantitative research methods .

In your APA methods section, you should report enough information to understand and replicate your study, including detailed information on the sample , measures, and procedures used.

Table of contents

Structuring an apa methods section.


Example of an APA methods section

Other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about writing an apa methods section.

The main heading of “Methods” should be centered, boldfaced, and capitalized. Subheadings within this section are left-aligned, boldfaced, and in title case. You can also add lower level headings within these subsections, as long as they follow APA heading styles .

To structure your methods section, you can use the subheadings of “Participants,” “Materials,” and “Procedures.” These headings are not mandatory—aim to organize your methods section using subheadings that make sense for your specific study.

Note that not all of these topics will necessarily be relevant for your study. For example, if you didn’t need to consider outlier removal or ways of assigning participants to different conditions, you don’t have to report these steps.

The APA also provides specific reporting guidelines for different types of research design. These tell you exactly what you need to report for longitudinal designs , replication studies, experimental designs , and so on. If your study uses a combination design, consult APA guidelines for mixed methods studies.

Detailed descriptions of procedures that don’t fit into your main text can be placed in supplemental materials (for example, the exact instructions and tasks given to participants, the full analytical strategy including software code, or additional figures and tables).

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psychology research methods paper example

Begin the methods section by reporting sample characteristics, sampling procedures, and the sample size.

Participant or subject characteristics

When discussing people who participate in research, descriptive terms like “participants,” “subjects” and “respondents” can be used. For non-human animal research, “subjects” is more appropriate.

Specify all relevant demographic characteristics of your participants. This may include their age, sex, ethnic or racial group, gender identity, education level, and socioeconomic status. Depending on your study topic, other characteristics like educational or immigration status or language preference may also be relevant.

Be sure to report these characteristics as precisely as possible. This helps the reader understand how far your results may be generalized to other people.

The APA guidelines emphasize writing about participants using bias-free language , so it’s necessary to use inclusive and appropriate terms.

Sampling procedures

Outline how the participants were selected and all inclusion and exclusion criteria applied. Appropriately identify the sampling procedure used. For example, you should only label a sample as random  if you had access to every member of the relevant population.

Of all the people invited to participate in your study, note the percentage that actually did (if you have this data). Additionally, report whether participants were self-selected, either by themselves or by their institutions (e.g., schools may submit student data for research purposes).

Identify any compensation (e.g., course credits or money) that was provided to participants, and mention any institutional review board approvals and ethical standards followed.

Sample size and power

Detail the sample size (per condition) and statistical power that you hoped to achieve, as well as any analyses you performed to determine these numbers.

It’s important to show that your study had enough statistical power to find effects if there were any to be found.

Additionally, state whether your final sample differed from the intended sample. Your interpretations of the study outcomes should be based only on your final sample rather than your intended sample.

Write up the tools and techniques that you used to measure relevant variables. Be as thorough as possible for a complete picture of your techniques.

Primary and secondary measures

Define the primary and secondary outcome measures that will help you answer your primary and secondary research questions.

Specify all instruments used in gathering these measurements and the construct that they measure. These instruments may include hardware, software, or tests, scales, and inventories.

  • To cite hardware, indicate the model number and manufacturer.
  • To cite common software (e.g., Qualtrics), state the full name along with the version number or the website URL .
  • To cite tests, scales or inventories, reference its manual or the article it was published in. It’s also helpful to state the number of items and provide one or two example items.

Make sure to report the settings of (e.g., screen resolution) any specialized apparatus used.

For each instrument used, report measures of the following:

  • Reliability : how consistently the method measures something, in terms of internal consistency or test-retest reliability.
  • Validity : how precisely the method measures something, in terms of construct validity  or criterion validity .

Giving an example item or two for tests, questionnaires , and interviews is also helpful.

Describe any covariates—these are any additional variables that may explain or predict the outcomes.

Quality of measurements

Review all methods you used to assure the quality of your measurements.

These may include:

  • training researchers to collect data reliably,
  • using multiple people to assess (e.g., observe or code) the data,
  • translation and back-translation of research materials,
  • using pilot studies to test your materials on unrelated samples.

For data that’s subjectively coded (for example, classifying open-ended responses), report interrater reliability scores. This tells the reader how similarly each response was rated by multiple raters.

Report all of the procedures applied for administering the study, processing the data, and for planned data analyses.

Data collection methods and research design

Data collection methods refers to the general mode of the instruments: surveys, interviews, observations, focus groups, neuroimaging, cognitive tests, and so on. Summarize exactly how you collected the necessary data.

Describe all procedures you applied in administering surveys, tests, physical recordings, or imaging devices, with enough detail so that someone else can replicate your techniques. If your procedures are very complicated and require long descriptions (e.g., in neuroimaging studies), place these details in supplementary materials.

To report research design, note your overall framework for data collection and analysis. State whether you used an experimental, quasi-experimental, descriptive (observational), correlational, and/or longitudinal design. Also note whether a between-subjects or a within-subjects design was used.

For multi-group studies, report the following design and procedural details as well:

  • how participants were assigned to different conditions (e.g., randomization),
  • instructions given to the participants in each group,
  • interventions for each group,
  • the setting and length of each session(s).

Describe whether any masking was used to hide the condition assignment (e.g., placebo or medication condition) from participants or research administrators. Using masking in a multi-group study ensures internal validity by reducing research bias . Explain how this masking was applied and whether its effectiveness was assessed.

Participants were randomly assigned to a control or experimental condition. The survey was administered using Qualtrics ( To begin, all participants were given the AAI and a demographics questionnaire to complete, followed by an unrelated filler task. In the control condition , participants completed a short general knowledge test immediately after the filler task. In the experimental condition, participants were asked to visualize themselves taking the test for 3 minutes before they actually did. For more details on the exact instructions and tasks given, see supplementary materials.

Data diagnostics

Outline all steps taken to scrutinize or process the data after collection.

This includes the following:

  • Procedures for identifying and removing outliers
  • Data transformations to normalize distributions
  • Compensation strategies for overcoming missing values

To ensure high validity, you should provide enough detail for your reader to understand how and why you processed or transformed your raw data in these specific ways.

Analytic strategies

The methods section is also where you describe your statistical analysis procedures, but not their outcomes. Their outcomes are reported in the results section.

These procedures should be stated for all primary, secondary, and exploratory hypotheses. While primary and secondary hypotheses are based on a theoretical framework or past studies, exploratory hypotheses are guided by the data you’ve just collected.

This annotated example reports methods for a descriptive correlational survey on the relationship between religiosity and trust in science in the US. Hover over each part for explanation of what is included.

The sample included 879 adults aged between 18 and 28. More than half of the participants were women (56%), and all participants had completed at least 12 years of education. Ethics approval was obtained from the university board before recruitment began. Participants were recruited online through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk; We selected for a geographically diverse sample within the Midwest of the US through an initial screening survey. Participants were paid USD $5 upon completion of the study.

A sample size of at least 783 was deemed necessary for detecting a correlation coefficient of ±.1, with a power level of 80% and a significance level of .05, using a sample size calculator (

The primary outcome measures were the levels of religiosity and trust in science. Religiosity refers to involvement and belief in religious traditions, while trust in science represents confidence in scientists and scientific research outcomes. The secondary outcome measures were gender and parental education levels of participants and whether these characteristics predicted religiosity levels.


Religiosity was measured using the Centrality of Religiosity scale (Huber, 2003). The Likert scale is made up of 15 questions with five subscales of ideology, experience, intellect, public practice, and private practice. An example item is “How often do you experience situations in which you have the feeling that God or something divine intervenes in your life?” Participants were asked to indicate frequency of occurrence by selecting a response ranging from 1 (very often) to 5 (never). The internal consistency of the instrument is .83 (Huber & Huber, 2012).

Trust in Science

Trust in science was assessed using the General Trust in Science index (McCright, Dentzman, Charters & Dietz, 2013). Four Likert scale items were assessed on a scale from 1 (completely distrust) to 5 (completely trust). An example question asks “How much do you distrust or trust scientists to create knowledge that is unbiased and accurate?” Internal consistency was .8.

Potential participants were invited to participate in the survey online using Qualtrics ( The survey consisted of multiple choice questions regarding demographic characteristics, the Centrality of Religiosity scale, an unrelated filler anagram task, and finally the General Trust in Science index. The filler task was included to avoid priming or demand characteristics, and an attention check was embedded within the religiosity scale. For full instructions and details of tasks, see supplementary materials.

For this correlational study , we assessed our primary hypothesis of a relationship between religiosity and trust in science using Pearson moment correlation coefficient. The statistical significance of the correlation coefficient was assessed using a t test. To test our secondary hypothesis of parental education levels and gender as predictors of religiosity, multiple linear regression analysis was used.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Normal distribution
  • Measures of central tendency
  • Chi square tests
  • Confidence interval
  • Quartiles & Quantiles


  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Thematic analysis
  • Cohort study
  • Peer review
  • Ethnography

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Conformity bias
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Availability heuristic
  • Attrition bias
  • Social desirability bias

In your APA methods section , you should report detailed information on the participants, materials, and procedures used.

  • Describe all relevant participant or subject characteristics, the sampling procedures used and the sample size and power .
  • Define all primary and secondary measures and discuss the quality of measurements.
  • Specify the data collection methods, the research design and data analysis strategy, including any steps taken to transform the data and statistical analyses.

You should report methods using the past tense , even if you haven’t completed your study at the time of writing. That’s because the methods section is intended to describe completed actions or research.

In a scientific paper, the methodology always comes after the introduction and before the results , discussion and conclusion . The same basic structure also applies to a thesis, dissertation , or research proposal .

Depending on the length and type of document, you might also include a literature review or theoretical framework before the methodology.

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Writing the Experimental Report: Methods, Results, and Discussion

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Written for undergraduate students and new graduate students in psychology (experimental), this handout provides information on writing in psychology and on experimental report and experimental article writing.

Method section

Your method section provides a detailed overview of how you conducted your research. Because your study methods form a large part of your credibility as a researcher and writer, it is imperative that you be clear about what you did to gather information from participants in your study.

With your methods section, as with the sections above, you want to walk your readers through your study almost as if they were a participant. What happened first? What happened next?

The method section includes the following sub-sections.

I. Participants: Discuss who was enrolled in your experiment. Include major demographics that have an impact on the results of the experiment (i.e. if race is a factor, you should provide a breakdown by race). The accepted term for describing a person who participates in research studies is a participant not a subject.

II. Apparatus and materials: The apparatus is any equipment used during data collection (such as computers or eye-tracking devices). Materials include scripts, surveys, or software used for data collection (not data analysis). It is sometimes necessary to provide specific examples of materials or prompts, depending on the nature of your study.

III. Procedure: The procedure includes the step-by-step how of your experiment. The procedure should include:

  • A description of the experimental design and how participants were assigned conditions.
  • Identification of your independent variable(s) (IV), dependent variable(s) (DV), and control variables. Give your variables clear, meaningful names so that your readers are not confused.
  • Important instructions to participants.
  • A step-by-step listing in chronological order of what participants did during the experiment.

Results section

The results section is where you present the results of your research-both narrated for the readers in plain English and accompanied by statistics.

Note : Depending on the requirements or the projected length of your paper, sometimes the results are combined with the discussion section.

Organizing Results

Continue with your story in the results section. How do your results fit with the overall story you are telling? What results are the most compelling? You want to begin your discussion by reminding your readers once again what your hypotheses were and what your overall story is. Then provide each result as it relates to that story. The most important results should go first.

Preliminary discussion: Sometimes it is necessary to provide a preliminary discussion in your results section about your participant groups. In order to convince your readers that your results are meaningful, you must first demonstrate that the conditions of the study were met. For example, if you randomly assigned subjects into groups, are these two groups comparable? You can't discuss the differences in the two groups until you establish that the two groups can be compared.

Provide information on your data analysis: Be sure to describe the analysis you did. If you are using a non-conventional analysis, you also need to provide justification for why you are doing so.

Presenting Results : Bem (2006) recommends the following pattern for presenting findings:

  • Remind readers of the conceptual hypotheses or questions you are asking
  • Remind readers of behaviors measured or operations performed
  • Provide the answer/result in plain English
  • Provide the statistic that supports your plain English answer
  • Elaborate or qualify the overall conclusion if necessary

Writers new to psychology and writing with statistics often dump numbers at their readers without providing a clear narration of what those numbers mean. Please see our Writing with Statistics handout for more information on how to write with statistics.

Discussion section

Your discussion section is where you talk about what your results mean and where you wrap up the overall story you are telling. This is where you interpret your findings, evaluate your hypotheses or research questions, discuss unexpected results, and tie your findings to the previous literature (discussed first in your literature review). Your discussion section should move from specific to general.

Here are some tips for writing your discussion section.

  • Begin by providing an interpretation of your results: what is it that you have learned from your research?
  • Discuss each hypotheses or research question in more depth.
  • Do not repeat what you have already said in your results—instead, focus on adding new information and broadening the perspective of your results to you reader.
  • Discuss how your results compare to previous findings in the literature. If there are differences, discuss why you think these differences exist and what they could mean.
  • Briefly consider your study's limitations, but do not dwell on its flaws.
  • Consider also what new questions your study raises, what questions your study was not able to answer, and what avenues future research could take in this area.

Example: Here is how this works.

References section

References should be in standard APA format. Please see our APA Formatting guide for specific instructions.


  • MJC Library & Learning Center
  • Research Guides

PSYCH 102 - Research Methods

  • APA Style, 7th Edition
  • Select Your Topic
  • Develop Your Topic
  • Know Your Sources
  • How to Search the Literature

APA Tutorial

Formatting your paper, headings organize your paper (2.27), video tutorials, reference list format (9.43).

  • Elements of a Reference

Reference Examples (Chapter 10)

Dois and urls (9.34-9.36), in-text citations.

  • In-Text Citations Format
  • In-Text Citations for Specific Source Types


What is apa style.

Cover Art

APA style was created by social and behavioral scientists to standardize scientific writing. APA style is most often used in:

  • psychology,
  • social sciences (sociology, business), and

If you're taking courses in any of these areas, be prepared to use APA style.

For in-depth guidance on using this citation style, refer to Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association , 7th ed. We have several copies available at the MJC Library at the call number  BF 76.7 .P83 2020 .

APA Style, 7th ed.

In October 2019, the American Psychological Association made radical changes its style, especially with regard to the format and citation rules for students writing academic papers. Use this guide to learn how to format and cite your papers using APA Style, 7th edition.

You can start by viewing the  video tutorial .

For help on all aspects of formatting your paper in APA Style, see   The Essentials  page on the APA Style website.

  • sans serif fonts such as 11-point Calibri, 11-point Arial, or 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode, or
  • serif fonts such as 12-point Times New Roman, 11-point Georgia, or normal (10-point) Computer Modern (the default font for LaTeX)
  • There are exceptions for the  title page ,  tables ,  figures ,  footnotes , and  displayed equations .
  • Margins :  Use 1-in. margins on every side of the page.
  • Align the text of an APA Style  paper to the left margin . Leave the right margin uneven, or “ragged.”
  • Do not use full justification for student papers.
  • Do not insert hyphens (manual breaks) in words at the end of line. However, it is acceptable if your word-processing program automatically inserts breaks in long hyperlinks (such as in a DOI or URL in a reference list entry).
  • Indent the first line of each paragraph of text 0.5 in . from the left margin. Use the tab key or the automatic paragraph-formatting function of your word-processing program to achieve the indentation (the default setting is likely already 0.5 in.). Do not use the space bar to create indentation. 
  • There are exceptions for the  title page ,  section labels ,  abstract ,  block quotations ,  headings ,  tables and figures ,  reference list , and  appendices .

Paper Elements

Student papers generally include, at a minimum: 

  • Title Page (2.3)
  • Text (2.11)
  • References  (2.12)

Student papers may include additional elements such as tables and figures depending on the assignment. So, please check with your teacher!

Student papers generally  DO NOT  include the following unless your teacher specifically requests it:

  • Running head
  • Author note

For complete information on the  order of pages , see the APA Style website.

Number your pages consecutively starting with page 1. Each section begins on a new page. Put the pages in the following order:

  • Page 1: Title page
  • Page 2: Abstract (if your teacher requires an abstract)
  • Page 3: Text 
  • References begin on a new page after the last page of text
  • Footnotes begin on a new page after the references (if your teacher requires footnotes)
  • Tables begin each on a new page after the footnotes (if your teacher requires tables) 
  • Figures begin on a new page after the tables (if your teacher requires figures)
  • Appendices begin on a new page after the tables and/or figures (if your teacher requires appendices)

Sample Papers With Built-In Instructions

To see what your paper should look like, check out these sample papers with built-in instructions.

APA Style uses five (5) levels of headings to help you organize your paper and allow your audience to identify its key points easily. Levels of headings establish the hierarchy of your sections just like you did in your paper outline.

APA tells us to use "only the number of headings necessary to differentiate distinct section in your paper." Therefore, the number of heading levels you create depends on the length and complexity of your paper.

See the chart below for instructions on formatting your headings:

Levels of Headings

Use Word to Format Your Paper:

Use Google Docs to Format Your Paper:

Placement:  The reference list  appears at the end of the paper, on its own page(s). If your research paper ends on page 8, your References begin on page 9.

Heading:  Place the section label References  in bold at the top of the page, centered.

Arrangement:  Alphabetize entries by author's last name. If source has no named author, alphabetize by the title, ignoring A, An, or The. (9.44-9.48)

Spacing:  Like the rest of the APA paper, the reference list is double-spaced throughout. Be sure NOT to add extra spaces between citations.

Indentation:  To make citations easier to scan, add a  hanging indent  of 0.5 in. to any citation that runs more than one line. Use the paragraph-formatting function of your word processing program to create your hanging indent.  

See Sample References Page (from APA Sample Student Paper):

Sample References page

Elements of Reference List Entries: (Chapter 9)

Where to find reference information for a journal article

References generally have four elements, each of which has a corresponding question for you to answer:

  • Author:   Who is responsible for this work? (9.7-9.12)
  • Date:   When was this work published? (9.13-9.17)
  • Title:   What is this work called? (9.18-9.22)
  • Source:   Where can I retrieve this work? (9.23-9.37)

By using these four elements and answering these four questions, you should be able to create a citation for any type of source.

For complete information on all of these elements, checkout the APA Style website.

This infographic shows the first page of a journal article. The locations of the reference elements are highlighted with different colors and callouts, and the same colors are used in the reference list entry to show how the entry corresponds to the source.

To create your references, you'll simple look for these elements in your source and put them together in your reference list entry.

American Psychological Association.  Example of where to find reference information for a journal article  [Infographic]. APA Style Center.

Below you'll find two printable handouts showing APA citation examples. The first is an abbreviated list created by MJC Librarians. The second, which is more comprehensive, is from the APA Style website. Feel free to print these for your convenience or use the links to reference examples below:

  • APA Citation Examples Created by MJC Librarians for you.
  • Common References Examples (APA Handout) Printable handout from the American Psychological Association.
  • APA Style Quick Reference Guide See how to format three typical types of references.
  • Journal Article
  • Magazine Article
  • Newspaper Article
  • Edited Book Chapter
  • Webpage on a Website

Classroom or Intranet Sources

  • Classroom Course Pack Materials
  • How to cite ChatGPT
  • Dictionary Entry
  • Government Report
  • Legal References (Laws & Cases)
  • TED Talk References
  • Religious Works
  • Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Archival Documents and Collections

You can view the entire Reference Examples website below and view a helpful guide to finding useful APA style topics easily:

  • APA Style: Reference Examples
  • Navigating the not-so-hidden treasures of the APA Style website
  • Missing Reference Information

Sometimes you won't be able to find all the elements required for your reference. In that case, see the  instructions in Table 9.1 of the APA style manual in section 9.4 or the APA Style website below:

  • Direct Quotation of Material Without Page Numbers

The DOI or URL is the final component of a reference list entry. Because so much scholarship is available and/or retrieved online, most reference list entries end with either a DOI or a URL.

  • A  DOI  is a unique alphanumeric string that identifies content and provides a persistent link to its location on the internet. DOIs can be found in database records and the reference lists of published works.
  • A  URL  specifies the location of digital information on the internet and can be found in the address bar of your internet browser. URLs in references should link directly to the cited work when possible.

When to Include DOIs and URLs:

  • Include a DOI for all works that have a DOI, regardless of whether you used the online version or the print version.
  • If an online work has both a DOI and a URL, include only the DOI.
  • For works without DOIs from websites (not including academic research databases), provide a URL in the reference (as long as the URL will work for readers).
  • For works without DOIs from most academic research databases, do not include a URL or database information in the reference because these works are widely available. The reference should be the same as the reference for a print version of the work.
  • For works from databases that publish original, proprietary material available only in that database (such as the UpToDate database) or for works of limited circulation in databases (such as monographs in the ERIC database), include the name of the database or archive and the URL of the work. If the URL requires a login or is session-specific (meaning it will not resolve for readers), provide the URL of the database or archive home page or login page instead of the URL for the work. (See APA Section 9.30 for more information). 
  • If the URL is no longer working or no longer provides readers access to the content you intend to cite, try to find an archived version using the Internet Archive , then use the archived URL. If there is no archived URL, do not use that resource.

Format of DOIs and URLs:

Your DOI should look like this:

Follow these guidelines from the APA Style website.

APA Style uses the  author–date citation system , in which a brief in-text citation points your reader to the full reference list entry at the end of your paper. The in-text citation appears within the body of the paper and briefly identifies the cited work by its author and date of publication. This method enables your reader to locate the corresponding entry in the alphabetical reference list at the end of your paper.

Each work you cite  must  appear in the reference list, and each work in the reference list must be cited in the text (or in a table, figure, footnote, or appendix) except for the following (See APA, 8.4):

  • Personal communications (8.9)
  • General mentions of entire websites, whole periodicals (8.22), and common software and apps (10.10) in the text do not require a citation or reference list entry.
  • The source of an epigraph does not usually appear in the reference list (8.35)
  • Quotations from your research participants do not need citations or reference list entries (8.36)
  • References included in a statistical meta-analysis, which are marked with an asterisk in the reference list, may be cited in the text (or not) at the author’s discretion. This exception is relevant only to authors who are conducting a meta-analysis (9.52).

Formatting Your In-Text Citations

Parenthetical and Narrative Citations: ( See APA Section  8.11)

In APA style you use the author-date citation system for citing references within your paper. You incorporate these references using either a  parenthetical   or a  narrative  style.

Parenthetical Citations

  • In parenthetical citations, the author name and publication date appear in parentheses, separated by a comma. (Jones, 2018)
  • A parenthetical citation can appear within or at the end of a sentence.
  • When the parenthetical citation is at the end of the sentence, put the period or other end punctuation after the closing parenthesis.
  • If there is no author, use the first few words of the reference list entry, usually the "Title" of the source: ("Autism," 2008) See APA 8.14
  • When quoting, always provide the author, year, and specific page citation or paragraph number for nonpaginated materials in the text (Santa Barbara, 2010, p. 243).  See APA 8.13
  • For most citations, the parenthetical reference is placed BEFORE the punctuation: Magnesium can be effective in treating PMS (Haggerty, 2012).

Narrative Citations 

In narrative citations, the author name or title of your source appears within your text and the publication date appears in parentheses immediately after the author name. 

  • Santa Barbara (2010) noted a decline in the approval of disciplinary spanking of 26 percentage points from 1968 to 1994.

In-Text Citation Checklist

  • In-Text Citation Checklist Use this useful checklist from the American Psychological Association to ensure that you've created your in-text citations correctly.

In-Text Citations for Specific Types of Sources

Quotations from Research Participants

Personal Communications

Secondary Sources  

Use NoodleTools to Cite Your Sources  

NoodleTools can help you create your references and your in-text citations.

  • NoodleTools Express No sign in required . When you need one or two quick citations in MLA, APA, or Chicago style, simply generate them in NoodleTools Express then copy and paste what you need into your document. Note: Citations are not saved and cannot be exported to a word processor using NoodleTools Express.
  • NoodleTools (Login Full Database) This link opens in a new window Create and organize your research notes, share and collaborate on research projects, compose and error check citations, and complete your list of works cited in MLA, APA, or Chicago style using the full version of NoodleTools. You'll need to Create a Personal ID and password the first time you use NoodleTools.

See How to Use NoodleTools Express to Create a Citation in APA Format

Additional NoodleTools Help

  • NoodleTools Help Desk Look up questions and answers on the NoodleTools Web site
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How to Write an Abstract APA Format

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

An APA abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of an article, research paper, dissertation, or report.

It is written in accordance with the guidelines of the American Psychological Association (APA), which is a widely used format in social and behavioral sciences. 

An APA abstract summarizes, usually in one paragraph of between 150–250 words, the major aspects of a research paper or dissertation in a prescribed sequence that includes:
  • The rationale: the overall purpose of the study, providing a clear context for the research undertaken.
  • Information regarding the method and participants: including materials/instruments, design, procedure, and data analysis.
  • Main findings or trends: effectively highlighting the key outcomes of the hypotheses.
  • Interpretations and conclusion(s): solidify the implications of the research.
  • Keywords related to the study: assist the paper’s discoverability in academic databases.

The abstract should stand alone, be “self-contained,” and make sense to the reader in isolation from the main article.

The purpose of the abstract is to give the reader a quick overview of the essential information before reading the entire article. The abstract is placed on its own page, directly after the title page and before the main body of the paper.

Although the abstract will appear as the very first part of your paper, it’s good practice to write your abstract after you’ve drafted your full paper, so that you know what you’re summarizing.

Note : This page reflects the latest version of the APA Publication Manual (i.e., APA 7), released in October 2019.

Structure of the Abstract

[NOTE: DO NOT separate the components of the abstract – it should be written as a single paragraph. This section is separated to illustrate the abstract’s structure.]

1) The Rationale

One or two sentences describing the overall purpose of the study and the research problem(s) you investigated. You are basically justifying why this study was conducted.

  • What is the importance of the research?
  • Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?
  • For example, are you filling a gap in previous research or applying new methods to take a fresh look at existing ideas or data?
  • Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer can experience an array of psychosocial difficulties; however, social support, particularly from a spouse, has been shown to have a protective function during this time. This study examined the ways in which a woman’s daily mood, pain, and fatigue, and her spouse’s marital satisfaction predict the woman’s report of partner support in the context of breast cancer.
  • The current nursing shortage, high hospital nurse job dissatisfaction, and reports of uneven quality of hospital care are not uniquely American phenomena.
  • Students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are more likely to exhibit behavioral difficulties than their typically developing peers. The aim of this study was to identify specific risk factors that influence variability in behavior difficulties among individuals with SEND.

2) The Method

Information regarding the participants (number, and population). One or two sentences outlining the method, explaining what was done and how. The method is described in the present tense.

  • Pretest data from a larger intervention study and multilevel modeling were used to examine the effects of women’s daily mood, pain, and fatigue and average levels of mood, pain, and fatigue on women’s report of social support received from her partner, as well as how the effects of mood interacted with partners’ marital satisfaction.
  • This paper presents reports from 43,000 nurses from more than 700 hospitals in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, and Germany in 1998–1999.
  • The study sample comprised 4,228 students with SEND, aged 5–15, drawn from 305 primary and secondary schools across England. Explanatory variables were measured at the individual and school levels at baseline, along with a teacher-reported measure of behavior difficulties (assessed at baseline and the 18-month follow-up).

3) The Results

One or two sentences indicating the main findings or trends found as a result of your analysis. The results are described in the present or past tense.

  • Results show that on days in which women reported higher levels of negative or positive mood, as well as on days they reported more pain and fatigue, they reported receiving more support. Women who, on average, reported higher levels of positive mood tended to report receiving more support than those who, on average, reported lower positive mood. However, average levels of negative mood were not associated with support. Higher average levels of fatigue but not pain were associated with higher support. Finally, women whose husbands reported higher levels of marital satisfaction reported receiving more partner support, but husbands’ marital satisfaction did not moderate the effect of women’s mood on support.
  • Nurses in countries with distinctly different healthcare systems report similar shortcomings in their work environments and the quality of hospital care. While the competence of and relation between nurses and physicians appear satisfactory, core problems in work design and workforce management threaten the provision of care.
  • Hierarchical linear modeling of data revealed that differences between schools accounted for between 13% (secondary) and 15.4% (primary) of the total variance in the development of students’ behavior difficulties, with the remainder attributable to individual differences. Statistically significant risk markers for these problems across both phases of education were being male, eligibility for free school meals, being identified as a bully, and lower academic achievement. Additional risk markers specific to each phase of education at the individual and school levels are also acknowledged.

4) The Conclusion / Implications

A brief summary of your conclusions and implications of the results, described in the present tense. Explain the results and why the study is important to the reader.

  • For example, what changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work?
  • How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Implications of these findings are discussed relative to assisting couples during this difficult time in their lives.

  • Resolving these issues, which are amenable to managerial intervention, is essential to preserving patient safety and care of consistently high quality.
  • Behavior difficulties are affected by risks across multiple ecological levels. Addressing any one of these potential influences is therefore likely to contribute to the reduction in the problems displayed.

The above examples of abstracts are from the following papers:

Aiken, L. H., Clarke, S. P., Sloane, D. M., Sochalski, J. A., Busse, R., Clarke, H., … & Shamian, J. (2001). Nurses’ reports on hospital care in five countries . Health affairs, 20(3) , 43-53.

Boeding, S. E., Pukay-Martin, N. D., Baucom, D. H., Porter, L. S., Kirby, J. S., Gremore, T. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2014). Couples and breast cancer: Women’s mood and partners’ marital satisfaction predicting support perception . Journal of Family Psychology, 28(5) , 675.

Oldfield, J., Humphrey, N., & Hebron, J. (2017). Risk factors in the development of behavior difficulties among students with special educational needs and disabilities: A multilevel analysis . British journal of educational psychology, 87(2) , 146-169.

5) Keywords

APA style suggests including a list of keywords at the end of the abstract. This is particularly common in academic articles and helps other researchers find your work in databases.

Keywords in an abstract should be selected to help other researchers find your work when searching an online database. These keywords should effectively represent the main topics of your study. Here are some tips for choosing keywords:

Core Concepts: Identify the most important ideas or concepts in your paper. These often include your main research topic, the methods you’ve used, or the theories you’re discussing.

Specificity: Your keywords should be specific to your research. For example, suppose your paper is about the effects of climate change on bird migration patterns in a specific region. In that case, your keywords might include “climate change,” “bird migration,” and the region’s name.

Consistency with Paper: Make sure your keywords are consistent with the terms you’ve used in your paper. For example, if you use the term “adolescent” rather than “teen” in your paper, choose “adolescent” as your keyword, not “teen.”

Jargon and Acronyms: Avoid using too much-specialized jargon or acronyms in your keywords, as these might not be understood or used by all researchers in your field.

Synonyms: Consider including synonyms of your keywords to capture as many relevant searches as possible. For example, if your paper discusses “post-traumatic stress disorder,” you might include “PTSD” as a keyword.

Remember, keywords are a tool for others to find your work, so think about what terms other researchers might use when searching for papers on your topic.

The Abstract SHOULD NOT contain:

Lengthy background or contextual information: The abstract should focus on your research and findings, not general topic background.

Undefined jargon, abbreviations,  or acronyms: The abstract should be accessible to a wide audience, so avoid highly specialized terms without defining them.

Citations: Abstracts typically do not include citations, as they summarize original research.

Incomplete sentences or bulleted lists: The abstract should be a single, coherent paragraph written in complete sentences.

New information not covered in the paper: The abstract should only summarize the paper’s content.

Subjective comments or value judgments: Stick to objective descriptions of your research.

Excessive details on methods or procedures: Keep descriptions of methods brief and focused on main steps.

Speculative or inconclusive statements: The abstract should state the research’s clear findings, not hypotheses or possible interpretations.

  • Any illustration, figure, table, or references to them . All visual aids, data, or extensive details should be included in the main body of your paper, not in the abstract. 
  • Elliptical or incomplete sentences should be avoided in an abstract . The use of ellipses (…), which could indicate incomplete thoughts or omitted text, is not appropriate in an abstract.

APA Style for Abstracts

An APA abstract must be formatted as follows:

Include the running head aligned to the left at the top of the page (professional papers only) and page number. Note, student papers do not require a running head. On the first line, center the heading “Abstract” and bold (do not underlined or italicize). Do not indent the single abstract paragraph (which begins one line below the section title). Double-space the text. Use Times New Roman font in 12 pt. Set one-inch (or 2.54 cm) margins. If you include a “keywords” section at the end of the abstract, indent the first line and italicize the word “Keywords” while leaving the keywords themselves without any formatting.

Example APA Abstract Page

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APA Style Abstract Example

Further Information

  • APA 7th Edition Abstract and Keywords Guide
  • Example APA Abstract
  • How to Write a Good Abstract for a Scientific Paper or Conference Presentation
  • How to Write a Lab Report
  • Writing an APA paper

How long should an APA abstract be?

An APA abstract should typically be between 150 to 250 words long. However, the exact length may vary depending on specific publication or assignment guidelines. It is crucial that it succinctly summarizes the essential elements of the work, including purpose, methods, findings, and conclusions.

Where does the abstract go in an APA paper?

In an APA formatted paper, the abstract is placed on its own page, directly after the title page and before the main body of the paper. It’s typically the second page of the document. It starts with the word “Abstract” (centered and not in bold) at the top of the page, followed by the text of the abstract itself.

What are the 4 C’s of abstract writing?

The 4 C’s of abstract writing are an approach to help you create a well-structured and informative abstract. They are:

Conciseness: An abstract should briefly summarize the key points of your study. Stick to the word limit (typically between 150-250 words for an APA abstract) and avoid unnecessary details.

Clarity: Your abstract should be easy to understand. Avoid jargon and complex sentences. Clearly explain the purpose, methods, results, and conclusions of your study.

Completeness: Even though it’s brief, the abstract should provide a complete overview of your study, including the purpose, methods, key findings, and your interpretation of the results.

Cohesion: The abstract should flow logically from one point to the next, maintaining a coherent narrative about your study. It’s not just a list of disjointed elements; it’s a brief story of your research from start to finish.

What is the abstract of a psychology paper?

An abstract in a psychology paper serves as a snapshot of the paper, allowing readers to quickly understand the purpose, methodology, results, and implications of the research without reading the entire paper. It is generally between 150-250 words long.

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50+ Topics of Psychology Research

How to Find Psychology Research Topics for Your Student Paper

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

psychology research methods paper example

Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.

psychology research methods paper example

Are you searching for a great topic for your psychology paper ? Sometimes it seems like coming up with topics of psychology research is more challenging than the actual research and writing. Fortunately, there are plenty of great places to find inspiration and the following list contains just a few ideas to help get you started.

Finding a solid topic is one of the most important steps when writing any type of paper. It can be particularly important when you are writing a psychology research paper or essay. Psychology is such a broad topic, so you want to find a topic that allows you to adequately cover the subject without becoming overwhelmed with information.

In some cases, such as in a general psychology class, you might have the option to select any topic from within psychology's broad reach. Other instances, such as in an  abnormal psychology  course, might require you to write your paper on a specific subject such as a psychological disorder.

As you begin your search for a topic for your psychology paper, it is first important to consider the guidelines established by your instructor.

Topics of Psychology Research Within Specific Branches

The key to selecting a good topic for your psychology paper is to select something that is narrow enough to allow you to really focus on the subject, but not so narrow that it is difficult to find sources or information to write about.

One approach is to narrow your focus down to a subject within a specific branch of psychology. For example, you might start by deciding that you want to write a paper on some sort of social psychology topic. Next, you might narrow your focus down to how persuasion can be used to influence behavior.

Other social psychology topics you might consider include:

  • Prejudice and discrimination (i.e., homophobia, sexism, racism)
  • Social cognition
  • Person perception
  • Social control and cults
  • Persuasion , propaganda, and marketing
  • Attraction, romance, and love
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Prosocial behavior

Psychology Research Topics Involving a Disorder or Type of Therapy

Exploring a psychological disorder or a specific treatment modality can also be a good topic for a psychology paper. Some potential abnormal psychology topics include specific psychological disorders or particular treatment modalities, including:

  • Eating disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Seasonal affective disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Profile a  type of therapy  (i.e., cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, psychoanalytic therapy)

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Human Cognition

Some of the possible topics you might explore in this area include thinking, language, intelligence, and decision-making. Other ideas might include:

  • False memories
  • Speech disorders
  • Problem-solving

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Human Development

In this area, you might opt to focus on issues pertinent to  early childhood  such as language development, social learning, or childhood attachment or you might instead opt to concentrate on issues that affect older adults such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Some other topics you might consider include:

  • Language acquisition
  • Media violence and children
  • Learning disabilities
  • Gender roles
  • Child abuse
  • Prenatal development
  • Parenting styles
  • Aspects of the aging process

Do a Critique of Publications Involving Psychology Research Topics

One option is to consider writing a critique paper of a published psychology book or academic journal article. For example, you might write a critical analysis of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams or you might evaluate a more recent book such as Philip Zimbardo's  The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil .

Professional and academic journals are also great places to find materials for a critique paper. Browse through the collection at your university library to find titles devoted to the subject that you are most interested in, then look through recent articles until you find one that grabs your attention.

Topics of Psychology Research Related to Famous Experiments

There have been many fascinating and groundbreaking experiments throughout the history of psychology, providing ample material for students looking for an interesting term paper topic. In your paper, you might choose to summarize the experiment, analyze the ethics of the research, or evaluate the implications of the study. Possible experiments that you might consider include:

  • The Milgram Obedience Experiment
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment
  • The Little Albert Experiment
  • Pavlov's Conditioning Experiments
  • The Asch Conformity Experiment
  • Harlow's Rhesus Monkey Experiments

Topics of Psychology Research About Historical Figures

One of the simplest ways to find a great topic is to choose an interesting person in the  history of psychology  and write a paper about them. Your paper might focus on many different elements of the individual's life, such as their biography, professional history, theories, or influence on psychology.

While this type of paper may be historical in nature, there is no need for this assignment to be dry or boring. Psychology is full of fascinating figures rife with intriguing stories and anecdotes. Consider such famous individuals as Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, Harry Harlow, or one of the many other  eminent psychologists .

Psychology Research Topics About a Specific Career

​Another possible topic, depending on the course in which you are enrolled, is to write about specific career paths within the  field of psychology . This type of paper is especially appropriate if you are exploring different subtopics or considering which area interests you the most.

In your paper, you might opt to explore the typical duties of a psychologist, how much people working in these fields typically earn, and the different employment options that are available.

Topics of Psychology Research Involving Case Studies

One potentially interesting idea is to write a  psychology case study  of a particular individual or group of people. In this type of paper, you will provide an in-depth analysis of your subject, including a thorough biography.

Generally, you will also assess the person, often using a major psychological theory such as  Piaget's stages of cognitive development  or  Erikson's eight-stage theory of human development . It is also important to note that your paper doesn't necessarily have to be about someone you know personally.

In fact, many professors encourage students to write case studies on historical figures or fictional characters from books, television programs, or films.

Psychology Research Topics Involving Literature Reviews

Another possibility that would work well for a number of psychology courses is to do a literature review of a specific topic within psychology. A literature review involves finding a variety of sources on a particular subject, then summarizing and reporting on what these sources have to say about the topic.

Literature reviews are generally found in the  introduction  of journal articles and other  psychology papers , but this type of analysis also works well for a full-scale psychology term paper.

Topics of Psychology Research Based on Your Own Study or Experiment

Many psychology courses require students to design an actual psychological study or perform some type of experiment. In some cases, students simply devise the study and then imagine the possible results that might occur. In other situations, you may actually have the opportunity to collect data, analyze your findings, and write up your results.

Finding a topic for your study can be difficult, but there are plenty of great ways to come up with intriguing ideas. Start by considering your own interests as well as subjects you have studied in the past.

Online sources, newspaper articles, books , journal articles, and even your own class textbook are all great places to start searching for topics for your experiments and psychology term papers. Before you begin, learn more about  how to conduct a psychology experiment .

A Word From Verywell

After looking at this brief list of possible topics for psychology papers, it is easy to see that psychology is a very broad and diverse subject. While this variety makes it possible to find a topic that really catches your interest, it can sometimes make it very difficult for some students to select a good topic.

If you are still stumped by your assignment, ask your instructor for suggestions and consider a few from this list for inspiration.

  • Hockenbury, SE & Nolan, SA. Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers; 2014.
  • Santrock, JW. A Topical Approach to Lifespan Development. New York: McGraw-Hill Education; 2016.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Research Paper

Category: psychology research paper examples.

Psychology Research Paper Examples

The diversity of the APA divisions clearly reflects the changing face of contemporary psychology as well as represents wide subjects of psychological research. They include General Psychology (Division 1), the Study of Social Issues (Division 9), Clinical Psychology (Division 12), Pharmacology and Substance Abuse (Division 28), Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (Division 33), Media Psychology (Division 46), International Psychology (Division 52), and Trauma Psychology (Division 56).

Clearly, psychology research paper topics in the 21st century continue to be diverse and evolving. Whether the research paper deals with a traditional topic or a cutting-edge topic, you will find that it presents the materials in a decidedly contemporary manner. We hope that students will enjoy reading the research papers on different psychology topics as much as we have enjoyed collecting them for you.

Browse psychology research paper examples below.

Psychology Research Paper

Sample Methods of Personality Psychology Research Paper. Browse other  research paper examples and check the list of research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a religion research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our research paper writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

All empirical research methods in psychology are concerned with the measurement of variation and covariation. Three methods for studying three types of variation and covariation can be identified. Experimental methods discern how behavior and experience vary across different environments. Developmental methods describe how behavior and experience vary over time. Finally, differential methods measure relatively enduring differences in characteristics of persons and the covariation among these differences. Although personality psychology occasionally employs experimental and developmental methods, its primary use of differential methods defines its distinctive position in psychology (Cronbach 1957). The specific methods used by personality psychologists can be further defined by (a) the type of individual differences under study, (b) the source of information about these differences, and (c) the purpose of assessing individuals’ distinguishing attributes.

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Get 10% off with fall23 discount code, 1. types of differences measured.

Gordon Allport’s (1937) definitive etymological analysis of the term ‘personality’ finds that persona, the Latin root of ‘personality,’ originally referred to a mask worn by actors, and thus connoted a false or superficial appearance. Before long, however, persona also came to designate more substantial attributes that qualify a person to perform particular roles. Today, ‘external’ and ‘internal’ aspects of personality continue to be distinguished. Ordinary-language descriptions of personality often refer to external social impressions. Trait terms representing these impressions tend to be broad and evaluative (e.g., nice, charming, nasty, irritating), and sometimes metaphorical (cold, prickly, warm, slick). Social impressions are explained by observable behavioral traits. For example, to impress others as ‘warm,’ a person must consistently smile, make eye-contact, talk tenderly, express affection, and show kindness and sympathy. External (social and behavioral) aspects of personality are typically measured by observer judgment (see Sect. 2.2).

Behavioral consistencies, in turn, are explained by ‘inner’ traits that guide and motivate behavior. Inner traits that refer to persistent thoughts, expectations, attitudes, thinking styles, and mental abilities are called ‘cognitive traits.’ Inner traits involving recurring feelings and emotional dispositions are called ‘emotional’ or ‘motivational traits.’ Personality psychologists often rely on the self-report method (see Sect. 2.3) to assess inner traits. Cognitive styles and competencies (e.g., creativity), are typically assessed by performance tasks (see Sect. 2.4).

2. Types Of Individual Differences Data

Differential methods can be organized according to the types of the data one can use to study individual differences. The acronym LOST conveniently summarizes the four major types of individual differences data: life events, observer judgments, self-reports, and tests, or L-data, O-data, S-data, and T-data (see Block 1977).

2.1 L-Data: Life Events

‘Life events’ refer to relatively objective facts about people that are often a matter of public record. Some examples are birth date, number of years of education and degrees obtained, marital status and number of children, occupational record, church attendance, hospitalizations, membership in societies, criminal convictions, leadership positions, and property ownership. Although life event information is often actually obtained by self-report methods (Sect. 2.3) its factuality can be independently verified. Research indicates a very high correlation between self-reported and independently verified life events, even under highly evaluative conditions such as applying for employment.

In both applied (see Sects. 3.1 and 3.2) and basic (see Sect. 3.3) personality research, life events are sometimes used as criteria to be predicted by other types of personality data and sometimes as predictors themselves. When gathered by self-report, L-data is interpreted according to self-report methods (Sect. 2.3).

2.2 O-data: Observer Judgments

Observer judgments are a fundamental source of information about external traits for two reasons (Block 1978, Hofstee 1994). First, an observer’s judgment of external traits is direct and noninferential. Second, idiosyncratic biases and errors of judgment tend to cancel out when judgments are averaged across multiple observers. This means that even inner traits may be more validly assessed by observer judgments than self-reports, despite an individual’s privileged access to his or her inner thoughts and feelings (Hofstee 1994).

2.2.1 Retrospective, Integrative Judgments Versus One-Time, Direct Observation. Observer judgments are often made by acquaintances who use their past knowledge to summarize their perceptions of someone’s personality. Concern about potential distortions and memory limitations involved in making retrospective judgments lead some psychologists to favor direct behavioral observation. Despite potential distortions, retrospective judgments are more likely than single encounters to produce the representative sampling necessary for accurately assessing relatively enduring characteristics of individuals (Kenrick and Funder 1988).

2.2.2 Normative And Ipsative Frames Of Reference For Observer Judgments. For observer judgments to indicate what is distinctive about someone’s personality, the judgments must be compared to some reference point. Take, for example, a study in which observers record from behind one-way glass instances of different types of behavior in a nursery school classroom over a period of one year. At the end of the year, a particular behavior count by itself—say 42 acts of aggression—is insufficient for describing a child as relatively aggressive or nonaggressive. A normative frame of reference would compare the number of aggressive acts for that child to the average number of aggressive acts across all children. An ipsative frame of reference compares the number of aggressive acts for the child to all other types of acts recorded for that child.

In retrospective observer judgments, judges are often instructed to compare a person to people in general with a rating scale. The middle point (e.g., ‘3’ on a 1–5 rating scale) represents a theoretical normative reference point (i.e., people in general), while greater numbers represent higher levels of the trait and lesser numbers lower levels. Unipolar rating scales are anchored by a single trait word at the high end, while bipolar scales are also anchored with the psychological opposite at the low end (e.g., ‘thoughtful’ vs. ‘inconsiderate’). Defining the anchors with concrete, descriptive phrases instead of abstract adjectives improves measurement validity. Often scores on several related rating scales will be averaged to produce an overall score on a trait. For example, broad extraversion versus introversion might be assessed by the average of ratings on more specific scales such as talkative vs. silent, outgoing vs. reserved, and so forth.

When interpreting rating scores, psychologists need to consider whether to take the numerical score at face value. For example, a rating of 4 on a 1–5 scale of thoughtfulness is above the theoretical norm of 3, but if the computed average rating for a large group of people is 4.5, a rating of 4 could be interpreted as a relatively low level of thoughtfulness. This problem is further complicated when some judges restrict their ratings to one portion of the scale. A 5 might actually indicate a much higher value from a judge who assigns mostly 3s than from a judge who assigns mostly 4s and 5s.

Psychologists unwilling to accept scores at face value will recalibrate all of a judge’s ratings with respect to the mean of all ratings made by that judge. This process is called ‘ipsatizing’ scores. Some rating procedures expressly call for ipsative assessment in the act of judgment itself. For example, judges using the California Q-set (Block 1978) are required to sort 100 personality descriptions into nine categories following a specified distribution (five descriptions in each of the extremely characteristic and uncharacteristic categories, eight descriptions in each of the quite characteristic and uncharacteristic categories, and so forth, to 18 characteristics in the relative neutral or un- important category).

Formats other than rating scales for observer judgment of personality include questionnaires and adjective checklists. Items in some personality questionnaires are phrased in ways that allow either self- report (Sect. 2.3) or observer judgment. Adjective check lists contain a set of adjectives that judges check if they believe them to apply to the person being judged. Scores on adjective check lists are computed by counting the number of judges who check a particular adjective and/or by summing the checks for a group of adjectives considered to measure the same trait.

Factors that potentially limit the validity of observer judgments include misleading communications, stereotypes, and gossip about those being judged; unfairly positive or negative attitudes from judges who like or dislike the targets; and insufficient knowledge due to judges knowing the target only in certain roles and settings. These limitations and methods for over-coming them are discussed by Block (1978), Hofstee (1994) and Kenrick and Funder (1988).

2.3 S-Data: Self-Reports

The two basic types of self-report instruments are projective tests and objective questionnaires. In projective testing, respondents are asked to finish incomplete phrases or construct stories about intentionally ambiguous images. Following guidelines developed by the test author and community of test users, psychologists score the respondent’s protocol for psychological themes. Proponents of projective tests claim that these instruments are able to tap deep, unconscious needs and motives; critics insist that scoring projective protocols is too subjective and unreliable. Research indicates that carefully designed projective tests can be as reliable and valid as objective measures.

Personality questionnaires (Angleitner and Wiggins 1986) rarely consist of questions anymore. Instead, questionnaire items are statements about one’s self and other people. Respondents express how much they agree with each statement or the degree to which they think the statement applies to them. The most comprehensive personality questionnaires contain several hundred items. Any subset of items within a personality questionnaire that is scored for a particular trait is called a ‘personality scale.’ The major personality questionnaires contain as many as several dozen different scales. Items are collected into scales and responses to items are scored according to one of four strategies outlined below: empirical, rational-intuitive, theoretical, or factor-analytic.

2.3.1 Empirical Scales. Paul Meehl (1945) argued that psychologists would be naively optimistic to take questionnaire item responses at face value or to attempt to judge their hidden psychological meanings expertly. More prudent, he suggested, would be to treat each item response as a bit of behavior whose meaning must be determined by its empirical correlates. Empirical scales are constructed by locating all items on a questionnaire that tends to be answered differently by two groups known by other methods to differ on a particular personality trait. A person’s score on an empirical scale is defined by the number of responses that match the responses given by one of the groups used in original scale construction. That is, if a person answers many items the same way as a group of people known to be aggressive, that person is considered likely to be aggressive also.

2.3.2 Rational-Intuitive Scales. The rational-intuitive approach to personality scales suggests personality traits can be assessed straightforwardly by items whose content, according to common sense, seems relevant to the trait (Wolfe 1993). Thus, a person who endorses items such as ‘I am an aggressive person’ and disagrees with items such as ‘I never get in fights’ would receive points on a rational-intuitive personality scale of aggressiveness. The obviousness of rational-intuitive scales perennially raises concerns about self-enhancement (exaggerating socially desirable traits and denying undesirable traits), but research indicates that respondents self-enhance on personality questionnaires no more than they do in everyday life. Furthermore, research indicates that rational-intuitive scales validly predict relevant criteria as well as scales constructed by any other method.

2.3.3 Theoretical Scales. Like rational-intuitive scales, theoretical scales are comprised of items whose content is judged to be relevant to the personality characteristic being assessed. The difference is that the relevance is not apparent to common sense and can only be seen by professionals versed in a particular theory. For example, the theoretical items ‘I am fascinated by fire,’ ‘I would do anything on a dare,’ ‘My father and I always fought,’ ‘I own a gun,’ and ‘Women find me charming’ seem unrelated to common sense, but, to a Freudian, these are items likely to be endorsed by a man with a phallic personality character resulting from an unresolved Oedipal conflict.

2.3.4 Factor-Analytic Scales. Factor-analysis is a statistical method for identifying clusters of items that tend to be answered the same way. This method, like the empirical method, begins with a large set of items that are administered to a group of respondents. If respondents who agree with item ‘A’ also tend to agree with items ‘B,’ ‘C,’ ‘D,’ and so forth, these items are deemed to measure the same psychological trait (Briggs and Cheek 1986). The nature of the trait is normally determined by rational-intuitive inspection of the content of the items. Factor analysis can be applied to scales as well as items, and factor analytic research has repeatedly indicated that much of the content of personality falls into five broad factor domains: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and a fifth factor variously called intellect, imagination, or openness to experience. Many psychologists regard the ‘Big Five’ or ‘Five-factor model’ (Wiggins 1996) as a major integrating focus for future research.

2.4 T-Data: Laboratory Tests

Assessing personality by testing respondents in laboratories or other controlled conditions is motivated by two interests. The first is establishing objective, replicable procedures that cannot be affected by biases and errors potentially found in observer judgments or self-reports. In particular, the measurement of involuntary reactions such as changes in electrodermal conductivity or heart rate to assess anxiety, or pupil dilation to assess interest, is seen as a way of circumventing dissembling that can occur with self-reports. Unfortunately, as Block (1977, 1978) points out, T-data are always indirect measures of personality, and laboratory tests that might seem to be reasonable measures of personality have a record of failing unpredictably.

The second motivation for using laboratory tests is the particular suitability of such procedures for measuring certain traits. Laboratory tests are particularly apt for assessing cognitive performance variables. For example, a personality theory built around the mental accessibility of different concepts would naturally be tested by measuring reaction time to words representing different concepts. Cognitive styles are almost invariably measured by performance tasks.

Personality theories that attempt to explain mental or behavioral differences in terms of underlying biological differences also require laboratory facilities to assess those differences. In addition to traditional psychophysiological recordings, new laboratory tests for measuring the physical basis of personality include biochemical assaying, positron emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Details of these methods can be found in sources such as Davidson (1999), and Pickering and Gray (1999).

3. Three Purposes Of Measurement

The three major purposes for measuring individual differences are: (a) making decisions about people, (b) helping people make decisions, and (c) conducting basic research. All three cases involve prediction (for further information see Wiggins 1973). In decision-making, personality assessments are used to predict how an individual person will think, feel, behave, or be perceived by others if various courses of action are pursued. In research, predictions are made about how different forms of individual differences are related to one another.

3.1 Making Decisions About People

In clinical and counseling psychology, personality scores are used to predict what course of therapy will best help persons with psychological problems. In personnel psychology, personality scores are used to predict which individuals will perform best if hired and placed in particular jobs. Some applied psychologists endorse what they call an ‘assessment’ approach to these decisions, in which the decision maker intuitively weighs all the information gathered about the person. In contrast, a ‘statistical’ approach inserts personality scores into a mathematical equation developed from past empirical research. Studies indicate that statistical predictions are almost invariably more accurate than assessment predictions.

3.2 Helping People Make Decisions

Methods for helping people make decisions with personality measures differ from making decisions about people only in terms of who is making the decisions. Individuals seeking greater satisfaction in personal relationships, for example, may complete a personality questionnaire to increase self-insight, much as they might read a self-help psychology book. Likewise, individuals uncertain about career choice can complete questionnaires that predict which careers would be most satisfying. Traditionally, psychologists interpret and discuss personality scores with clients, but some self-help personality measures are completely self-administered.

3.3 Basic Research: Uncovering Covariation Among Variables

The usefulness of all applied personality methods depends upon the ability of researchers to construct valid personality measures and to ascertain reliable covariation among these measures. This process, called ‘construct validation,’ is identical with any other type of scientific hypothesis testing (Hogan and Nicholson 1988). In the typical case, construct validation takes the following form. A researcher’s theory predicts that individual differences in a particular personality trait (say, conscientiousness) will covary with differences in some L-data (say, job performance). A method is devised to measure the personality trait with O-, S-, or T-data and the life event with Ldata. Successful prediction supports both the validity of the measures and the theory that led to the prediction. Predictive failure means either the hypothesis was incorrect, a procedural error occurred (inappropriate research sampling, administration, or scoring), or one or both of the measures lack validity. Progress in personality research occurs when many successful predictions leads to the acceptance of a measure as ‘well-validated.’ Careful research with well-validated measures always advances knowledge because even predictive failures indicate the need to revise hypotheses.

Because valid measurement is crucial to the entire personality enterprise, a significant amount of personality research is directed at improving measurement methods. Some of this research aims to clarify the dynamics of the measurement process, that is, the psychological processes that occur during observer judgments and self-reports. A second line of research employs computers to administer, score, and interpret personality tests. When computer programs for analyzing personality data are combined with artificial intelligence, ‘observers’ with artificially constructed personalities will some day make ‘observer judgments’ of personality worldwide over the Internet.


  • Allport G W 1937 Personality: A Psychological Interpretation. H Holt, New York
  • Angleitner A, Wiggins J S 1986 Personality Assessment via Questionnaires. Springer-Verlag, Berlin
  • Block J 1977 Advancing the psychology of personality: Paradigmatic shift or improving the quality of research? In: Magnusson D, Endler N S (eds.) Personality at the Crossroads: Current Issues in Interactional Psychology. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 37–64
  • Block J 1978 The Q-Sort Method in Personality Assessment and Psychiatric Research. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, CA
  • Briggs S R, Cheek J M 1986 The role of factor analysis in the development and evaluation of personality scales. Journal of Personality 54: 106–48
  • Cronbach L J 1957 The two disciplines of scientific psychology. American Psychologist 12: 671–84
  • Davidson R J 1999 Biological bases of personality. In: Derlega V J, Winstead B A, Jones W H (eds.) Personality: Contemporary Theory and Research, 2nd edn. Nelson Hall, Chicago, pp. 101–25
  • Hofstee W K B 1994 Who should own the definition of personality? European Journal of Personality 8: 149–62
  • Hogan R, Nicholson R A 1988 The meaning of personality test scores. American Psychologist 43: 621–6
  • Kenrick D T, Funder D C 1988 Profiting from controversy: Lessons from the person-situation debate. American Psychologist 43: 23–34
  • Meehl P E 1945 The ‘dynamics’ of structured personality tests. Journal of Clinical Psychology 1: 296–303
  • Pickering A D, Gray A D 1999 The neuroscience of personality. In: Pervin L A, John O P (eds.) Handbook of Personality: Theory and Research, 2nd edn. Guilford Press, New York, pp. 277–99
  • Wiggins J S 1973 Personality and Prediction: Principles of Personality Assessment. Addison-Wesley Pub Co, Reading, MA
  • Wiggins J S (ed.) 1996 The Fi e-Factor Model of Personality. Guilford Press, New York
  • Wolfe R N 1993 A commonsense approach to personality measurement. In: Craik K H, Hogan R, Wolfe R N (eds.) Fifty Years of Personality Psychology. Plenum Press, New York, pp. 269–90


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