Q&A with Experimental Cognitive Psychologist, Alice Healy, Ph.D.
Q: What is experimental psychology and how does it differ from other forms of psychology?
Experimental psychology, as you can tell from its name, is defined in terms of the experimental method. In the experimental method, the primary definition is that you manipulate an independent variable and measure a dependent variable. You measure the effects of that manipulation on behavior or performance. Because we've controlled for everything else and just manipulated the one variable, we can say that any difference we get in conditions is caused by that manipulation. That's what makes it exciting. Experimental psychology really encompasses all the fields of psychology: cognitive, clinical, developmental and social psychology. But the way the term is used today, it really refers to cognitive psychology and animal behavior.
Q: How did you become interested in experimental psychology?
I really became interested as an undergraduate at Vassar College. In my freshman year, as part of one of my psychology courses, I had to do an original experiment. I got very interesting results, and it just turned me on to the field. I've gotten a number of my students to become experimental psychologists by requiring them to also do an original experiment. You can't do a whole new experiment from the beginning to end in your first class in physics, biology or chemistry. You can in psychology. I have a student whose very first experiment was expanded upon, and the study was just accepted for publication. You can contribute to the field from the very beginning.
Q: What kind of background is helpful for the field?
I think [Short Code Error: type value must be either online or ground] are just going to be greater. Cognitive and experimental psychologists are going to have to make sure that their research has possible applications. They're not going to be able to get funding if the research doesn't. There's more and more interest in doing research that will have an impact on the outside world.
Q: Any other recommendations for aspiring experimental psychologists?
First, try to do an experiment. Work with a professor in an independent study or take a class that will allow you to do creative experiments. Doing an experiment is the best way to learn how to. Also, you can and should start reading articles in the professional literature: for instance, the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Psychonomic Society journals such as Memory & Cognition.