Applications

Knowledge cannot prosper,
When Science is One-sided.
The basic and applied must be
United not divided.

Philosophers of science often distinguish between basic science and applied science. In basic research (sometimes called pure research), scientists extend our general understanding by testing theoretically important hypotheses. They ask, “Let’s compare what is with what should be to see if the theory is adequate.” Applied researchers, in contrast, seek information that will let them solve practical problems. They ask, “Let’s understand the nature of this problem so we can do something to solve it” (Forsyth & Snyder, 1991).

This division of effort can lead to problems. On the basic side, researchers often build more and more elaborate theories that have little or no applicability, or they simply lose sight of the social value of their findings. Applied research, in contrast, tends to be too problem-focused and atheoretical. When research becomes wholly applied, it drifts toward technology. In science, applied problems may be the initial source of research questions, but these applied concerns are ultimately placed into a theoretical context. The long term goal of such research includes testing the adequacy of assumptions and hypotheses that make up the theory. In technology, on the other hand, theory and methods are used solely to develop some product—such as a new personality measure, a new way to manage workers, or a more effective advertising campaign. Technological researchers may borrow the theories of science to guide their problem solving, but they don’t test generalizable propositions derived from these theories (Forsyth & Strong, 1986).

Recognizing the limitations of each form of research, social psychologists strive to combine elements of both basic and applied research in their studies of social behavior. They believe that social problems, including conflict, leadership, and group performance, should be solved scientifically for there “is no hope of creating a better world without a deeper scientific insight into the function of leadership and culture” and other essentials of social life (Lewin, 1943, p. 113).

They strive to integrate the basic with the applied in a number of ways. First, social psychologists study not only mundane, commonplace aspects of social life, but also major problems that seriously detract from the quality of our social lives; aggression, air pollution, child abuse, collective violence, cults, destructive obedience, divorce, domestic violence, intergroup conflict, littering, loneliness, mental illness, murder, noise, overcrowding, pornography, prejudice, racism, rape, riots, sexism, suicide, terrorism, vandalism, and violent crime are all examples. Much of social psychology is directly focused on increasing our understanding of social issues and proposing ways to alleviate them.

Second, even when social psychologists pursue primarily basic science goals, their theories and findings can often be applied in many settings. Although social-psychological theories are usually built on logical rather than practical grounds, they can explain problems in a variety of settings (see Table 1-8). Business nearly always involves communication among people, forming impressions of others and their actions, leadership and decision making processes in groups, competition and cooperation, and persuasion. All of these processes are actively studied by social psychologists. Similarly, social-psychological theories suggest ways to increase patient compliance with doctors’ treatment regimens, offer insight into the processes that underlie therapeutic change in psychotherapy, and explain how students react to success and failure in academic settings. Thus, even though social psychology’s theories are often developed by academic researchers who test them through laboratory experimentation, these theories can have great practical significance. As Lewin remarked, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (1951, p. 169).

Several of my research interests lean in toward application. With my colleagues I have conducted several studies of environmental preservation, with a focus on conservation of watersheds. I have also written extensively on group psychotherapy and on ways to improve the productivity and functioning of groups.

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