Research Methods in Psychology

Correlational Research

What Is Correlational Research?

Correlational research is a type of non-experimental research in which the researcher measures two variables and assesses the statistical relationship (i.e., the correlation) between them with little or no effort to control extraneous variables. There are essentially two reasons that researchers interested in statistical relationships between variables would choose to conduct a correlational study rather than an experiment. The first is that they do not believe that the statistical relationship is a causal one, meaning that one variable is responsible for creating a change in a second variable. For example, a researcher might evaluate the validity of a brief extraversion test by administering it to a large group of participants along with a longer extraversion test that has already been shown to be valid. This researcher might then check to see whether participants’ scores on the brief test are strongly correlated with their scores on the longer one. Neither test score is thought to cause the other, so there is no independent variable to manipulate. In fact, the terms independent variable and dependent variable do not apply to this kind of research.

The other reason that researchers would choose to use a correlational study rather than an experiment is that the statistical relationship of interest is thought to be causal, but the researcher cannot manipulate the independent variable because it is impossible, impractical, or unethical. For example, Allen Kanner and his colleagues thought that the number of “daily hassles” (e.g., rude salespeople, heavy traffic) that people experience affects the number of physical and psychological symptoms they have (Kanner, Coyne, Schaefer, & Lazarus, 1981). But because they could not manipulate the number of daily hassles their participants experienced, they had to settle for measuring the number of daily hassles—along with the number of symptoms—using self-report questionnaires. Although the strong positive relationship they found between these two variables is consistent with their idea that hassles cause symptoms, it is also consistent with the idea that symptoms cause hassles or that some third variable (e.g., neuroticism) causes both.

A common misconception among beginning researchers is that correlational research must involve two quantitative variables, such as scores on two extraversion tests or the number of hassles and number of symptoms people have experienced. However, the defining feature of correlational research is that the two variables are measured—neither one is manipulated—and this is true regardless of whether the variables are quantitative or categorical. Imagine, for example, that a researcher administers the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale to 50 American college students and 50 Japanese college students. Although this “feels” like a between-subjects experiment, it is a correlational study because the researcher did not manipulate the students’ nationalities. The same is true of the study by Cacioppo and Petty comparing college faculty and factory workers in terms of their need for cognition. It is a correlational study because the researchers did not manipulate the participants’ occupations.

Consider a hypothetical study on the relationship between whether people make a daily list of things to do (a “to-do list”) and stress. Notice that it is unclear whether this is an experiment or a correlational study because it is unclear whether the independent variable was manipulated. If the researcher randomly assigned some participants to make daily to-do lists and others not to, then it is an experiment. If the researcher simply asked participants whether they made daily to-do lists, then it is a correlational study. The distinction is important because if the study was an experiment, then it could be concluded that making the daily to-do lists reduced participants’ stress. But if it was a correlational study, it could only be concluded that these variables are statistically related. Perhaps being stressed has a negative effect on people’s ability to plan ahead (the directionality problem). Or perhaps people who are more conscientious are more likely to make to-do lists and less likely to be stressed (the third-variable problem). The crucial point is that what defines a study as experimental or correlational is not the variables being studied, nor whether the variables are quantitative or categorical, nor the type of graph or statistics used to analyze the data. It is how the study is conducted.

8.1  Data Collection in Correlational Research

Again, the defining feature of correlational research is that neither variable is manipulated. It does not matter how or where the variables are measured. A researcher could have participants come to a laboratory to complete a computerized backward digit span task and a computerized risky decision-making task and then assess the relationship between participants’ scores on the two tasks. Or a researcher could go to a shopping mall to ask people about their attitudes toward the environment and their shopping habits and then assess the relationship between these two variables. Both of these studies would be correlational because no independent variable is manipulated. However, because some approaches to data collection are strongly associated with correlational research, it makes sense to discuss them here. The two we will focus on are naturalistic observation and archival data. A third, survey research, is discussed in its own chapter.

Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation is an approach to data collection that involves observing people’s behavior in the environment in which it typically occurs. Thus naturalistic observation is a type of field research (as opposed to a type of laboratory research). It could involve observing shoppers in a grocery store, children on a school playground, or psychiatric inpatients in their wards. Researchers engaged in naturalistic observation usually make their observations as unobtrusively as possible so that participants are often not aware that they are being studied. Ethically, this is considered to be acceptable if the participants remain anonymous and the behavior occurs in a public setting where people would not normally have an expectation of privacy. Grocery shoppers putting items into their shopping carts, for example, are engaged in public behavior that is easily observable by store employees and other shoppers. For this reason, most researchers would consider it ethically acceptable to observe them for a study. On the other hand, one of the arguments against the ethicality of the naturalistic observation of “bathroom behavior” discussed earlier in the book is that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy even in a public restroom and that this expectation was violated.

Researchers Robert Levine and Ara Norenzayan used naturalistic observation to study differences in the “pace of life” across countries (Levine & Norenzayan, 1999). One of their measures involved observing pedestrians in a large city to see how long it took them to walk 60 feet. They found that people in some countries walked reliably faster than people in other countries. For example, people in the United States and Japan covered 60 feet in about 12 seconds on average, while people in Brazil and Romania took close to 17 seconds.

Because naturalistic observation takes place in the complex and even chaotic “real world,” there are two closely related issues that researchers must deal with before collecting data. The first is sampling. When, where, and under what conditions will the observations be made, and who exactly will be observed? Levine and Norenzayan described their sampling process as follows:

 Male and female walking speed over a distance of 60 feet was measured in at least two locations in main downtown areas in each city. Measurements were taken during main business hours on clear summer days. All locations were flat, unobstructed, had broad sidewalks, and were sufficiently uncrowded to allow pedestrians to move at potentially maximum speeds. To control for the effects of socializing, only pedestrians walking alone were used. Children, individuals with obvious physical handicaps, and window-shoppers were not timed. Thirty-five men and 35 women were timed in most cities. (p. 186)

Precise specification of the sampling process in this way makes data collection manageable for the observers, and it also provides some control over important extraneous variables. For example, by making their observations on clear summer days in all countries, Levine and Norenzayan controlled for effects of the weather on people’s walking speeds.

The second issue is measurement. What specific behaviors will be observed? In Levine and Norenzayan’s study, measurement was relatively straightforward. They simply measured out a 60-foot distance along a city sidewalk and then used a stopwatch to time participants as they walked over that distance. Often, however, the behaviors of interest are not so obvious or objective. For example, researchers Robert Kraut and Robert Johnston wanted to study bowlers’ reactions to their shots, both when they were facing the pins and then when they turned toward their companions (Kraut & Johnston, 1979). But what “reactions” should they observe? Based on previous research and their own pilot testing, Kraut and Johnston created a list of reactions that included “closed smile,” “open smile,” “laugh,” “neutral face,” “look down,” “look away,” and “face cover” (covering one’s face with one’s hands). The observers committed this list to memory and then practiced by coding the reactions of bowlers who had been videotaped. During the actual study, the observers spoke into an audio recorder, describing the reactions they observed. Among the most interesting results of this study was that bowlers rarely smiled while they still faced the pins. They were much more likely to smile after they turned toward their companions, suggesting that smiling is not purely an expression of happiness but also a form of social communication.

Naturalistic observation has revealed that bowlers tend to smile when they turn away from the pins and toward their companions, suggesting that smiling is not purely an expression of happiness but also a form of social communication.

When the observations require a judgment on the part of the observers—as in Kraut and Johnston’s study—this process is often described as coding. Coding generally requires clearly defining a set of target behaviors. The observers then categorize participants individually in terms of which behavior they have engaged in and the number of times they engaged in each behavior. The observers might even record the duration of each behavior. The target behaviors must be defined in such a way that different observers code them in the same way. This is the issue of inter-rater reliability. Researchers are expected to demonstrate the inter-rater reliability of their coding procedure by having multiple raters code the same behaviors independently and then showing that the different observers are in close agreement. Kraut and Johnston, for example, video recorded a subset of their participants’ reactions and had two observers independently code them. The two observers showed that they agreed on the reactions that were exhibited 97% of the time, indicating good inter-rater reliability.

Archival Data

Another approach to correlational research is the use of archival data, which are data that have already been collected for some other purpose. An example is a study by Brett Pelham and his colleagues on “implicit egotism”—the tendency for people to prefer people, places, and things that are similar to themselves (Pelham, Carvallo, & Jones, 2005). In one study, they examined Social Security records to show that women with the names Virginia, Georgia, Louise, and Florence were especially likely to have moved to the states of Virginia, Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida, respectively.

As with naturalistic observation, measurement can be more or less straightforward when working with archival data. For example, counting the number of people named Virginia who live in various states based on Social Security records is relatively straightforward. But consider a study by Christopher Peterson and his colleagues on the relationship between optimism and health using data that had been collected many years before for a study on adult development (Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988). In the 1940s, healthy male college students had completed an open-ended questionnaire about difficult wartime experiences. In the late 1980s, Peterson and his colleagues reviewed the men’s questionnaire responses to obtain a measure of explanatory style—their habitual ways of explaining bad events that happen to them. More pessimistic people tend to blame themselves and expect long-term negative consequences that affect many aspects of their lives, while more optimistic people tend to blame outside forces and expect limited negative consequences. To obtain a measure of explanatory style for each participant, the researchers used a procedure in which all negative events mentioned in the questionnaire responses, and any causal explanations for them, were identified and written on index cards. These were given to a separate group of raters who rated each explanation in terms of three separate dimensions of optimism-pessimism. These ratings were then averaged to produce an explanatory style score for each participant. The researchers then assessed the statistical relationship between the men’s explanatory style as college students and archival measures of their health at approximately 60 years of age. The primary result was that the more optimistic the men were as college students, the healthier they were as older men. Pearson’s r was +.25.

This is an example of content analysis—a family of systematic approaches to measurement using complex archival data. Just as naturalistic observation requires specifying the behaviors of interest and then noting them as they occur, content analysis requires specifying keywords, phrases, or ideas and then finding all occurrences of them in the data. These occurrences can then be counted, timed (e.g., the amount of time devoted to entertainment topics on the nightly news show), or analyzed in a variety of other ways.

Key Takeaways

·         Correlational research involves measuring two variables and assessing the relationship between them, with no manipulation of an independent variable.

·         Correlational research is not defined by where or how the data are collected. However, some approaches to data collection are strongly associated with correlational research. These include naturalistic observation (in which researchers observe people’s behavior in the context in which it normally occurs) and the use of archival data that were already collected for some other purpose.

8.2  Assessing Relationships among Multiple Variables

Most complex correlational research involves measuring several variables—often both categorical and quantitative—and then assessing the statistical relationships among them. For example, researchers Nathan Radcliffe and William Klein studied a sample of middle-aged adults to see how their level of optimism (measured by using a short questionnaire called the Life Orientation Test) relates to several other variables related to having a heart attack (Radcliffe & Klein, 2002). These included their health, their knowledge of heart attack risk factors, and their beliefs about their own risk of having a heart attack. They found that more optimistic participants were healthier (e.g., they exercised more and had lower blood pressure), knew about heart attack risk factors, and correctly believed their own risk to be lower than that of their peers.

This approach is often used to assess the validity of new psychological measures. For example, when John Cacioppo and Richard Petty created their Need for Cognition Scale—a measure of the extent to which people like to think and value thinking—they used it to measure the need for cognition for a large sample of college students, along with three other variables: intelligence, socially desirable responding (the tendency to give what one thinks is the “appropriate” response), and dogmatism (Caccioppo & Petty, 1982). The results of this study are summarized in Table 8.2 “Correlation Matrix Showing Correlations Among the Need for Cognition and Three Other Variables Based on Research by Cacioppo and Petty”, which is a correlation matrix showing the correlation (Pearson’s r) between every possible pair of variables in the study. For example, the correlation between the need for cognition and intelligence was +.39, the correlation between intelligence and socially desirable responding was −.02, and so on. (Only half the matrix is filled in because the other half would contain exactly the same information. Also, because the correlation between a variable and itself is always +1.00, these values are replaced with dashes throughout the matrix.) In this case, the overall pattern of correlations was consistent with the researchers’ ideas about how scores on the need for cognition should be related to these other constructs.


Table 8.2 Correlation Matrix Showing Correlations Among the Need for Cognition and Three Other Variables Based on Research by Cacioppo and Petty



Need for cognition


Social desirability


Need for cognition








Social desirability








When researchers study relationships among a large number of conceptually similar variables, they often use a complex statistical technique called factor analysis. In essence, factor analysis organizes the variables into a smaller number of clusters, such that they are strongly correlated within each cluster but weakly correlated between clusters. Each cluster is then interpreted as multiple measures of the same underlying construct. These underlying constructs are also called “factors.” For example, when people perform a wide variety of mental tasks, factor analysis typically organizes them into two main factors—one that researchers interpret as mathematical intelligence (arithmetic, quantitative estimation, spatial reasoning, and so on) and another that they interpret as verbal intelligence (grammar, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and so on). The Big Five personality factors have been identified through factor analyses of people’s scores on a large number of more specific traits. For example, measures of warmth, gregariousness, activity level, and positive emotions tend to be highly correlated with each other and are interpreted as representing the construct of extroversion. As a final example, researchers Peter Rentfrow and Samuel Gosling asked more than 1,700 college students to rate how much they liked 14 different popular genres of music (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2008). They then submitted these 14 variables to a factor analysis, which identified four distinct factors. The researchers called them Reflective and Complex (blues, jazz, classical, and folk), Intense and Rebellious (rock, alternative, and heavy metal), Upbeat and Conventional (country, soundtrack, religious, pop), and Energetic and Rhythmic (rap/hip-hop, soul/funk, and electronica).

Two additional points about factor analysis are worth making here. One is that factors are not categories. Factor analysis does not tell us that people are either extroverted or conscientious or that they like either “reflective and complex” music or “intense and rebellious” music. Instead, factors are constructs that operate independently of each other. So people who are high in extroversion might be high or low in conscientiousness, and people who like reflective and complex music might or might not also like intense and rebellious music. The second point is that factor analysis reveals only the underlying structure of the variables. It is up to researchers to interpret and label the factors and to explain the origin of that particular factor structure. For example, one reason that extroversion and the other Big Five operate as separate factors is that they appear to be controlled by different genes (Plomin, DeFries, McClean, & McGuffin, 2008).

8.3  Exploring Causal Relationships

Another important use of complex correlational research is to explore possible causal relationships among variables. This might seem surprising given that “correlation does not imply causation.” It is true that correlational research cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another. Complex correlational research, however, can often be used to rule out other plausible interpretations.

The primary way of doing this is through the statistical control of potential third variables. Instead of controlling these variables by random assignment or by holding them constant as in an experiment, the researcher measures them and includes them in the statistical analysis. Consider some research by Paul Piff and his colleagues, who hypothesized that being lower in socioeconomic status (SES) causes people to be more generous (Piff, Kraus, Côté, Hayden Cheng, & Keltner, 2011). They measured their participants’ SES and had them play the “dictator game.” They told participants that each would be paired with another participant in a different room. (In reality, there was no other participant.) Then they gave each participant 10 points (which could later be converted to money) to split with the “partner” in whatever way he or she decided. Because the participants were the “dictators,” they could even keep all 10 points for themselves if they wanted to.

As these researchers expected, participants who were lower in SES tended to give away more of their points than participants who were higher in SES. This is consistent with the idea that being lower in SES causes people to be more generous. But there are also plausible third variables that could explain this relationship. It could be, for example, that people who are lower in SES tend to be more religious and that it is their greater religiosity that causes them to be more generous. Or it could be that people who are lower in SES tend to come from ethnic groups that emphasize generosity more than other ethnic groups. The researchers dealt with these potential third variables, however, by measuring them and including them in their statistical analyses. They found that neither religiosity nor ethnicity was correlated with generosity and were therefore able to rule them out as third variables. This does not prove that SES causes greater generosity because there could still be other third variables that the researchers did not measure. But by ruling out some of the most plausible third variables, the researchers made a stronger case for SES as the cause of the greater generosity.

Many studies of this type use a statistical technique called multiple regression. This involves measuring several independent variables (X1, X2, X3,…Xi), all of which are possible causes of a single dependent variable (Y). The result of a multiple regression analysis is an equation that expresses the dependent variable as an additive combination of the independent variables. This regression equation has the following general form:

b1X1+ b2X2+ b3X3+ … + biXi= Y.

The quantities b1, b2, and so on are regression weights that indicate how large a contribution an independent variable makes, on average, to the dependent variable. Specifically, they indicate how much the dependent variable changes for each one-unit change in the independent variable.

The advantage of multiple regression is that it can show whether an independent variable makes a contribution to a dependent variable over and above the contributions made by other independent variables. As a hypothetical example, imagine that a researcher wants to know how the independent variables of income and health relate to the dependent variable of happiness. This is tricky because income and health are themselves related to each other. Thus if people with greater incomes tend to be happier, then perhaps this is only because they tend to be healthier. Likewise, if people who are healthier tend to be happier, perhaps this is only because they tend to make more money. But a multiple regression analysis including both income and happiness as independent variables would show whether each one makes a contribution to happiness when the other is taken into account. Research like this, by the way, has shown both income and health make extremely small contributions to happiness except in the case of severe poverty or illness (Diener, 2000).

The examples discussed in this section only scratch the surface of how researchers use complex correlational research to explore possible causal relationships among variables. It is important to keep in mind, however, that purely correlational approaches cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another. The best they can do is show patterns of relationships that are consistent with some causal interpretations and inconsistent with others.

Key Takeaways

·         Researchers often use complex correlational research to explore relationships among several variables in the same study.

·         Complex correlational research can be used to explore possible causal relationships among variables using techniques such as multiple regression. Such designs can show patterns of relationships that are consistent with some causal interpretations and inconsistent with others, but they cannot unambiguously establish that one variable causes another.

References from Chapter 8

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.

Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness, and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55, 34–43.

Kanner, A. D., Coyne, J. C., Schaefer, C., & Lazarus, R. S. (1981). Comparison of two modes of stress measurement: Daily hassles and uplifts versus major life events. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 4, 1–39.

Kraut, R. E., & Johnston, R. E. (1979). Social and emotional messages of smiling: An ethological approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 1539–1553.

Levine, R. V., & Norenzayan, A. (1999). The pace of life in 31 countries. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 30, 178–205.

MacDonald, T. K., & Martineau, A. M. (2002). Self-esteem, mood, and intentions to use condoms: When does low self-esteem lead to risky health behaviors? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 299–306.

Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J. T. (2005). Implicit egotism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 106–110.

Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23–27.

Piff, P. K., Kraus, M. W., Côté, S., Hayden Cheng, B., & Keltner, D. (2011). Having less, giving more: The influence of social class on prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 771–784.

Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., McClearn, G. E., & McGuffin, P. (2008). Behavioral genetics (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.

Radcliffe, N. M., & Klein, W. M. P. (2002). Dispositional, unrealistic, and comparative optimism: Differential relations with knowledge and processing of risk information and beliefs about personal risk. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 836–846.

Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2008). The do re mi’s of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236–1256.    

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