Descriptive Research Design: Definition, Example & Types

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Chris Clause

In this lesson you will learn to define descriptive research as well as to identify the three main types of descriptive research used in the field of psychology. Following this lesson you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

We also recommend watching Descriptive Research Design: Definition, Examples & Types and Within-Subject Designs: Definition, Types & Examples


In the field of research psychology there are a lot of choices when it comes to research methodology. Knowing which method to use may seem tough, but first asking yourself what is the question that needs to be answered? oftentimes will lead you in the right direction.

Maybe you want to know if a relationship exists between two things, like how much time a person spends studying for a test and their subsequent grade on that test, so you design a correlational study. Or, perhaps you want to know how manipulating or changing the amount of time one group of people study affects their test score, so you design an experimental study. Or possibly you are not interested in how things are related, or how manipulating one thing affects another - you simply want to observe and describe something in an effort to understand it better. This is the essence of descriptive research in the field of psychology, and is the focus of this lesson.


As the name implies, descriptive research methods are used when the researcher wants to describe specific behavior as it occurs in the environment. There are a variety of descriptive research methods available, and once again, the nature of the question that needs to be answered drives which method is used. Traditionally, descriptive research involves three main categories: observation, case studies, and surveys. Let's take a closer look at each of these individually.


Observational research involves, well, observing. Say for instance you were interested in learning more about how toddlers from different cultures engage in play activities. You would not want to impact their natural inclinations to behave and engage in play activity, so you would watch from afar or perhaps through a two-way mirror, simply observing and noting what you are seeing. After you complete all of your observations, you can then make inferences about the differences and similarities that were noted. Nothing has been manipulated and hopefully they didn't even know you were there.

Case Study

Another type of descriptive research method is called a case study. A case study involves making detailed observations about one specific case. For instance, a medical student who is interested in learning more about a particularly unique patient might study the behaviors and thought processes of that one individual. This could consist of observations or interviews, but like observational research, there is no influence from the researcher. The intent is simply to examine closely the qualities and characteristics f of this one case.


Last but not least is survey research. Surveys are quite common in everyday life and while you have no doubt participated in some sort of survey in your lifetime, you probably did not think about the survey being used for research purposes. Marketing companies use survey research regularly in order to gauge the interests, preferences, and motivation of a target group of people. It is relatively easy for a soda company to track their target demographic group's behavior by simply focusing on product sales. What their behavior doesn't tell us is why someone chose to purchase, or not purchase, a particular product. This is where surveys are so valuable. By asking a series of specific self-reported questions, surveys allow for an anonymous peek inside the thought processes of large numbers of people simultaneously, allowing for an opportunity to describe what is not outwardly observable.


Descriptive research can be used to increase understanding and knowledge about the behavior and thought processes of people. There are three main types of descriptive research commonly used in the field of psychology. Observational research involves observing and noting the behavior of individuals or groups of individuals without influencing their behavior. Case studies are used when a detailed account of a specific target individual or group is desired. Survey research allows for anonymous access into the thought processes and behaviors of a target group of people by asking them to report this information themselves.

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