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This research paper does not focus on a psychological process or a specific area of psychological research; it deals instead with research that is defined by its methodology and its applicability to practical ends rather than by its subject matter. As the fundamental method by which theoretical hypotheses are tested, experimentation is essential to psychology, no less than to other areas of science. The goal of all scientific activity is the discovery of regularities of nature and their representation in theories from which predictions can be made. Theories that have proved to be robust—to have stood up under rigorous testing by experimentation—have often, perhaps usually, proved also to be useful to practical ends, sometimes in unanticipated and surprising ways. So, one might argue, any well-designed experimentation aimed at testing a theory has the potential of being useful in a practical sense, even if none of the eventual applications of the theory is of interest to, or even known by, the experimenter.

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We think that this argument, with some qualifications, has considerable force, and we do not wish to contest it here. We note, however, that experimenters differ in the degree to which applied interests motivate their work and that experiments differ with respect to the immediacy of the applicability of their results to practical ends. In this research paper we focus on experimentation that has been motivated explicitly by practical concerns or that has yielded results whose practical implications are relatively direct.

More Experimental Psychology Research Papers:

Basic and Applied Research

The Distinction

The distinction between basic and applied research is a familiar one, not only within psychology but in science generally. Within the psychological research community some investigators are seen primarily as basic scientists and others as explicitly applications oriented. The perception of a cultural divide (Herrmann, Raybeck, & Gruneberg, 1997) is reinforced by association of theoretically oriented researchers mainly with the academy and of those who are more applications oriented mainly with industry or government laboratories. The perception is further strengthened by the fact that some research journals emphasize the theoretical implications of research findings whereas others focus more on practical implications.

Prominent among the properties that are usually mentioned as distinguishing between basic and applied research is motivation: Basic research is said to be motivated primarily by questions of a theoretical nature, whereas applied research is motivated by an interest in solving practical problems. This is not always an easy criterion to apply in specific instances because researchers’ motivations are generally more complex than this simple dichotomy suggests. Many psychologists who do research have both types of interest, although individuals undoubtedly differ with respect to the relative strengths of the influence of theoretical and practical concerns on their choices of problems on which to work.

We believe that basic and applied should not be thought of as two mutually exclusive categories, into one or the other of which all instances of research can be placed unambiguously. Even thinking of basic and applied as representing ends of a continuum is an oversimplification because research often yields results that have both theoretical and practical implications. We view the distinction as better considered a matter of emphasis than as representing a true dichotomy; and although our focus is on work for which the practical motivation is relatively strong, we believe that much of the best research in psychology (as in other areas) is motivated by both theoretical and practical concerns.

History of Distinction in Psychology

Identifying the origin of the distinction between basic and applied research in psychology and tracking its history would prove an interesting study. We make no effort to do this here, but we do note that the distinction was well established by the second decade of the twentieth century. It was recognized explicitly by G. Stanley Hall in an address prepared for the 25th anniversary of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1916 and later published as the lead article in the first issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology (Hall, 1917). Geissler (1917b), in the same issue, contrasted pure and applied psychology this way:

The ultimate aim of pure psychology is . . . to extend and improve our knowledge of mental life with regard to its structural, functional, genetic, and social aspects. . . . On the other hand, applied psychology aims to investigate and improve those conditions and phases of human life and conduct which involve mental life, especially in its social aspects, since practically all human activity is nowadays carried on as a function of social intercourse. (p. 49)

In the foreword to the same issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, the editors, Hall, Baird, and Geissler (1917), in explaining the need for a journal focusing on applied psychology, noted that at the time there already existed several journals and associations that had been established to serve the interests of psychology, but that “none of the existing journals devote themselves to the task of gathering together the results of workers in the various fields of applied psychology, or of bringing these results into relation with pure psychology” (p. 6). They implied that applied psychology did not command the same level of respect as did pure psychology, at least among some members of the profession: “The psychologist finds that the old distinction between pure and applied science is already obscured in his domain; and he is beginning to realize that applied psychology can no longer be relegated to a distinctly inferior plane” (p. 6). Unfortunately, contention about the relative merits of basic and applied work did not end with this observation; many researchers in psychology and other sciences as well have continued to project attitudes of superiority with respect to their own approach to research, whether it is driven primarily by theoretical or practical concerns.

Current Interest in Applications

We believe that interest among research psychologists—and among organizations that represent them—in seeing the results of psychological research applied to practical problems has been on the increase recently and is unusually high at the present time. In saying this, we are mindful of the fact that the founders of the Journal of Applied Psychology noted “an unprecedented interest in the extension of the application of psychology to various fields of human activity” when they introduced the new journal (Hall et al., 1917, p. 5), so possibly our belief is illusory—a consequence of the greater salience of recent than of more remote events and possibly of some wishful thinking on our part.

One indication of the currently high interest in applying psychology to real-world problems is the effort to inform policy makers and the general public of practical implications of psychological research through presentations (e.g., Science and Public Policy Seminars) by psychologists to members of Congress and congressional staffers arranged by the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences (Farley & Null, 1987). Talks given at these seminars, which began in 1982 and have been held at the rate of approximately six per year, have dealt with the applicability of the results of psychological research to education, legal processes, effects of television on behavior, family violence, human error in medicine, and many other topics of general interest and relevance to public policy making. A complete list of the talks that have been given can be obtained at the federation’s Web site, Many, though not all, of the talks have been published by the federation; information regarding whether specific talks exist in print can be obtained either from authors or by an e-mail request to

Further evidence of current interest in drawing attention to the practical applications of the results of psychological research is the APA’s recently established practice of issuing press releases regarding research findings that have been published in APA journals and that are deemed to be of public interest. Recent releases mention findings regarding the effects of emotion suppression on cognitive functioning, the effects of insufficient sleep on preteen children’s physical and mental performance, the relationship between the playing of violent video games and aggressive behavior, effects of a cognitively demanding secondary task on driving performance, and personal and environmental barriers to exercise by older women. Copies of the releases can be accessed at

In response to requests from experimentalists who wanted a journal dedicated to the publication of theoretically grounded experimental studies addressed to practical problems, in 1995 the APA launched the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. This journal is like the other Journals of Experimental Psychology in publishing articles that report experimentation and like the Journal of Applied Psychology in publishing those that address practical concerns, but it is unlike these in that it requires experimental methodology and applied orientation in combination. Articles published during the first few years of the journal’s existence have addressed a wide variety of topics, including education and training, communication and information presentation, decision making, health care and maintenance, driving and highway safety, pilot performance, aging, computer interface design, stress management, eye- and earwitness testimony, consumer behavior, and many others.

In May 2000 the American Psychological Society published the first issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest as a supplement to Psychological Science. The hope expressed by the founding coeditors of this journal, which is scheduled to appear with one major article twice a year, is that the reports that appear in it, all of which are to be commissioned by its editorial board, “will come to be seen as definitive summaries of research on nationally important questions, much like the reports commissioned by the National Research Council, but focused on issues for which psychological research plays a central role” (Ceci & Bjork, 2000, p. 178). The first issue describes ways—well researched by psychologists over many years—in which the accuracy of diagnostic decisions, which are constantly being made with serious consequences in a wide variety of real-world situations, can be enhanced (Swets, Dawes, & Monahan, 2000b; see also Swets, Dawes, & Monahan, 2000a). In the second issue, Lilienfeld, Wood, and Garb (2000; see also Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2001) critically reviewed research on projective testing instruments often used in clinical and forensic settings (Rorschach inkblot test, thematic apperception test, and human figure drawings).

Among other topics for which Psychology in the Public Interest has commissioned papers are the relationship between academic achievement and class size, the question of whether certain herbal products affect cognitive functioning, the relationship of self-esteem to academic performance and social adjustment, the effectiveness of coaching for the Scholastic Achievement Test, and the best ways to teach reading to different types of learners. One of the stated considerations that motivated the establishment of this journal and the approach it represents to publicizing findings from psychological research that are deemed to be of public interest was the concern that psychologists too often have presented research findings to the public prematurely and in conflicting ways.

There are other reasons for believing that interest in applications of psychological research is relatively high at the present (Nickerson, 1998). We note here the American Psychological Society’s identification, under the “Human Capital Initiative,” of six priority areas for psychological research: productivity in the workplace, schooling and literacy, the aging society, drug and alcohol abuse, health, and violence in America (“Human Capital,” 1992). To date the society has issued six reports as follow-ups to the announcement of this initiative: “The Changing Nature of Work,” “Vitality for Life: Research for Productive Aging,” “Reducing Mental Disorders: A Behavioral Science Research Plan for Psychopathology,” “Doing the Right Thing: A Research Plan for Healthy Living,” “Reducing Violence: A Research Agenda,” and “Basic Research in Psychological Science: A Human Capital Initiative Report.” These reports are available from the communications office of the American Psychological Society, or they can be downloaded from

Historical Roots of Applied Experimental Psychology

Perhaps the first stimulus for applied experimental psychology is to be found in the work of astronomers in the late 1700s. Before the development of accurate chronoscopes, the British Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, required a procedure by which he could accurately measure the time of transit of a star. According to Sanford (1888), he used the “eye and ear” method, attributed to Bradley:

When the star is about to make its transit, the observer reads off the time from his clock and then, while he watches the star in the telescope, continues to count the second beats. He fixes firmly in mind (as the moving image approaches the wire) its place at the last beat before it crosses the wire, and its place at the first beat after, and from the distances of these two points from the wire, estimates by eye the time of the crossing in tenths of a second. The role of the mind in observations by this method is fixing the exact place of the star at the first beat, the holding of the same in memory, the fixing of the place of the second beat, the comparison of the two and the expression of their relation in tenths. (p. 7)

The story goes that Maskelyne fired his assistant, David Kinnebrook, because the latter’s star measurements differed by as much as 0.8 s from those of his supervisor. The result of this event, 30 or more years later, was a series of behavioral experiments to study individual differences in what became known as the personal equation. It was this very practical problem that motivated the initial studies of human reaction time. Over the next 100 years investigators of the personal equation continued to modify their measurement methodology to take advantage of the improved technology for measuring and recording events in time.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the prevailing belief that the conduction velocity of nerves was infinitely short, or at least not measurable, several nineteenth-century scientists showed interest in the possibility of measuring the speed of neurological and mental processes. The mid-nineteenthcentury experiments of Hermann Helmholtz on the speed of transmission of the neural impulse in frogs are widely recognized as outstanding examples of pioneering research in this area. It was Frans Donders (1868/1969), however, who, building on the work of Helmholtz, firmly established the measurement of human reaction times and the taking of reaction-time differences as a means of measuring the speed of mental processes. The approach that Donders developed was quickly adopted as a primary investigative tool by researchers for use in both theoretically and practically motivated experiments, and it remains so to this day. Extensive accounts of the earliest days of experimental psychology include Boring (1929/1950), Heidbreder (1935), Woodworth (1938), and Woodworth and Schlosberg (1954).

Early Experimental and Applied Journals

The Journal of Experimental Psychology and the Journal of Applied Psychology were established at about the same time, the first issue of the former appearing in 1916 and that of the latter in 1917. The Journal of Experimental Psychology was established under the auspices of the APA; the Journal of Applied Psychology began as a private journal, financed by its editors, and became an APA journal in 1943.

The scope of the Journal of Applied Psychology, as described in the front material of the first issue, was to include the following:

(a) The application of psychology to vocational activities, such as law, art, public speaking, industrial and commercial work, and problems of business appeal. (b) Studies of individual mentalities, such as types of character, special talents, genius, and individual differences, including the problems of mental diagnosis and vocational prognosis. (c) The influence of general environmental conditions, such as climate, weather, humidity, temperature; also such conditions as nutrition, fatigue, etc. (d) The psychology of everyday activities, such as reading, writing, speaking, singing, playing games or musical instruments, sports, etc. (pp. i, ii)

Contributors of original articles to the journal were admonished that emphasis was to be laid on “clear and accurate statement of results, together with their practical applications” (iii).

There is no editorial or front matter in the first issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, so we could not make a direct comparison of the stated objectives of the two journals. However, the main difference between them appears to have been that articles to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology were to report experiments but did not have to be applied (although they could be), whereas those to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology had to be applied but did not have to report experiments (although they could).

To get an idea of the overlap between the two journals, we scanned the first two volumes of each looking especially for applied studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and for experimental studies in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Of course, not everyone will agree on what constitutes an applied or an experimental study, so our estimates are subjective, but we considered roughly 10% of the 62 articles (not counting discussions) published in the first two volumes of the Journal of Experimental Psychology to be applied in the sense that the authors appeared to have been motivated, at least in part, by an interest in some practical problem and discussed how their results might be applied to it.The majority of articles lack any explicit mention of the relevance of the findings to any practical ends; this is not to suggest that the investigators had no interest in practical issues, but only to note that they did not emphasize them in reporting their experiments. Examples of studies we classified as applied for purposes of this exercise are shown in Table 1.

Experimental Psychology Research Paper

“Experimental” was given a relatively broad connotation for determining appropriateness for the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Many of the articles in the first two volumes of the journal did not report experimentation in the strict sense of involving controlled manipulation of variables, use of control groups, and so on. Several of the reported experiments were relatively informal. About one quarter of the articles focused on methodology; some described puzzles designed for testing purposes; and several others involved mental testing.

Of 67 articles published in the first two volumes of the Journal of Applied Psychology, a large majority would not be considered experimental in the narrowest sense of the term (but as we have noted, many of the articles appearing in the early issues of the Journal of Experimental Psychology probably would not pass that test either). We estimate that not more than 10% would be considered experimental in a sense that would make them appropriate for any of the Journals of Experimental Psychology today. Articles included observational studies, anecdotal reports, essays, position papers, and descriptions of tests, training courses, and research plans. Examples of studies that we consider most likely to be judged by experimentalists to be experimental are shown in Table 2.

Experimental Psychology Research Paper

Experimental Psychology in World War II

Controlled experimentation was being used to investigate the effects of various situational factors on human performance before World War II—examples of this work include studies by McFarland (1932) on the effects of oxygen deprivation and those by Fletcher and Munson (1933, 1937) on the masking properties of auditory noise—but the war presented a need for many more studies of these sorts, and research efforts were mobilized on both sides of the Atlantic. In Great Britain well-known experimental psychologists, including Sir Frederic Bartlett, Norman Mackworth, and J. K. W. (Kenneth) Craik, played leading roles in this effort. The main centers of activity were first at Cambridge University, under Bartlett, and later at the newly established Applied Psychology Research Unit (APRU) of the Medical Research Council, also in Cambridge, under Craik. The APRU went on to become a leading establishment in Great Britain for the scientific study of problems relating to the human use of technology. Bartlett (1943, 1948) studied the effects of fatigue on human performance. Mackworth developed the first laboratory tests designed to simulate the requirements for sustained attention when monitoring a radar screen and spawned the field of vigilance research (Mackworth, 1950). Craik abstracted the requirements of antiaircraft gunnery into laboratory tracking tasks and, through experiments using a simulated cockpit that he built, advanced understanding of perceptual-motor performance generally. Not only did Craik (1947, 1948) contribute as an experimentalist, but his theoretical ideas, some of which were published after his untimely death in 1945, also were influential both in psychology and in the emerging area of feedback systems or cybernetics.

In the United States, S. S. Stevens collected at the Harvard Psychoacoustics Laboratory a cadre of psychologists who soon would become well known, including James Egan, Karl Kryter, J. C. R. Licklider, George Miller, and Irwin Pollack. Among other achievements, this group improved intelligibility-testing techniques and explored methods for improving the understanding of speech in aircraft cockpits (Egan, 1944; Miller, 1947). Licklider (1946) experimentally investigated peak clipping and discovered that he could enhance the intelligibility of speech in a radio transmission system by using signal power to increase the signal amplitude even though the system amplitude-handling capability was limited and peak clipping would result.

Harvard University had a broader contract with the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) that included funding for the Electro-Acoustics Laboratory and the Radio Research Laboratory, as well as subcontracts with other university laboratories that were working on humanmachine interaction. In early 1945, just before the end of the war, the NDRC was asked to fund a new activity examining behavioral issues in naval combat information centers. Immediately after the war, this work was turned over to Johns Hopkins University, where Clifford Morgan, Alphonse Chapanis, Wendell Garner, John Gebhard, and Robert Sleight became key contributors in a laboratory that identified with most of the psychological issues associated with the design of large-scale systems with which people had to interact (Chapanis, 1999). The creation of this laboratory led to publication of “Lectures on Men and Machines: An Introduction to Human Engineering,” by Chapanis, Garner, Morgan, and Sanford in 1947, and then to the first text to use the title, Applied Experimental Psychology, by Chapanis, Garner, and Morgan in 1949.

Another distinguished team, which included Paul Fitts and Arthur Melton, was assembled in Washington, DC, by J. R. Flanagan to develop improved methods for selecting and training Army Air Force pilots. At the time, all testing was done with paper and pencil. This group developed the first reliable apparatus tests for evaluating the skills associated with flying (Bray, 1948; Fitts, 1947a, 1947b). Psychological testing was also used in connection with the selection of officers and key military personnel in Germany at least during the early days of the war; however, test results served primarily to guide the clinical judgment of those responsible for personnel assignments. “Concepts of objectivity, standardization, reliability and validity were almost entirely lacking” (Fitts, 1946, p. 160). The psychological testing program was inexplicably abandoned in Germany in 1942.

Postwar Developments

The contributions of psychologists to the war effort in the United States were widely recognized; as a result, each military service set up a laboratory for the continued study of the behavioral and psychological issues relevant to equipment design. In 1945 Paul Fitts became the first director of the Army Air Force Psychology Branch of the Aeromedical Laboratory at Wright Patterson Field in Ohio, while Arthur Melton became head of an Army Air Force program on personnel selection and training in San Antonio, TX. In the same year, Franklin V. Taylor, with the assistance of Henry Birmingham, established the first Navy human engineering program at the Naval Research Laboratory. The following year, the Human Engineering Division of the Naval Electronics Laboratory was established in San Diego under Arnold Small. The army’s Human Engineering Laboratory was formed by the Army Ordnance Corps at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore in 1952, initially under the direction of Ben Ami Blau. In each of these establishments, the focus was on designing military equipment to make it easier for operational personnel to use and on improving the availability and readiness of the military forces through personnel selection and training. In the military sphere human performance is pushed to its limits, and there is a need to understand what those limits are and how to design to take account of them. It is significant that all the military services recognized the importance of human performance capacities and limitations in the operation of their equipment and began in-depth experimental investigations of them soon after World War II ended.

The desire among researchers with special interests in applied problems to be affiliated with associations that represented specifically those interests found expression in the establishment in Great Britain of the Ergonomics Research Society in 1949. In 1957 both Division 21 of the APA (then known as the Society of Engineering Psychologists, and now known as the Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology) and the Human Factors Society (now known as the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society) came into existence. There now are numerous associations and societies of a similar sort in several countries, as well as organizations and journals, that represent more focused interests within applied experimental psychology broadly defined. Although researchers who affiliate with these organizations continue to focus attention on implications of human capabilities and limitations for system and equipment design and operation, interests have broadened into process control, transportation systems, health systems, human-computer interaction (HCI), design for the aging population, and many other areas.

During the 1960s and 1970s the most significant stimuli to further growth in the field in the United States were associated with initiatives of various government regulatory organizations. Many of these initiatives were stimulated by one or more levels of advocacy from the public sector. For example, Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed and related advocacy led to the establishment of the National Highway Safety Bureau (NHSB) to carry out safety programs under the NationalTraffic and MotorVehicle SafetyAct of 1966 and the Highway Safety Act of 1966. In 1970 the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration was created as the successor to the NHSB. The critical incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power generation plant in 1979 marshaled the public support that led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to establish a Division of Human Factors Safety in 1980. These agencies, which focused predominantly on issues of safety, recognized that accidents are seldom exclusively physical in origin—that they almost always involve human error and that an understanding of human sensory, cognitive, and motor processes is essential to reducing that error.

In the 1980s and 1990s, although safety was still an important focus, the emphasis shifted somewhat to questions of ease of use of products of technology, and increased attention was given to the user interface in computer software design. Computers have become ubiquitous in the workplace and in the home. Not only are desktop computers commonplace, but most modern appliances and workplace systems, from videocassette recorders and hospital patient monitors to automated teller machines and vehicle navigation systems, also have one or more computers embedded in them somewhere. Usability has become a major objective of effective software design and evaluation, and many of the methods of experimental psychology have been adapted to respond to this need.

Status of the Field Today

How should we think of applied experimental psychology as it exists today? As a discipline (like high-energy physics or biochemistry)? An occupational specialty (like forensic psychology or vocational counseling)? A topical focus (like vision or working memory)? A methodology (like eyemovement tracking or evoked-potential recording)? We think it is none of these, but rather a domain of psychological research defined as experimentation with a practical purpose; it encompasses that work within experimental psychology that is motivated to a significant degree by practical concerns. We say “to a significant degree” because we do not wish to suggest that it is driven only by practical concerns; as already noted, we believe that much of the best applied work is motivated by, and contributes substantively to, both practical and theoretical interests.

Practical but not Atheoretical

The last point deserves emphasis. Sometimes applied work is assumed necessarily to be atheoretical. We take issue with this view. It is possible for work to be motivated by the desire to answer an immediate practical question and to be atheoretical, and it is possible for work to be motivated by a purely theoretical question that has no obvious relevance to any real-world problem; but it is not essential that practical work be atheoretical or that theoretical work be divorced from applications.

Of special relevance to the focus of this research paper are numerous examples of theoretical ideas and constructs that have been put forth and developed by investigators who were keenly interested in practical problems and who were motivated to help solve them. Among the names that come immediately to mind in this regard are Frederic Bartlett (1932, 1943, 1948), Paul Fitts (1951, 1954; Fitts & Seeger, 1953), and Donald Broadbent (1957, 1958, 1971). These and many other investigators who could be mentioned did work that simultaneously addressed theoretical and practical interests. Among the theoretical ideas that have been closely associated with applied work—sometimes guiding that work and sometimes being informed by it—are theories of human motor skills, information theory (and communications theory more generally), detection and decision theory, and game theory.

An Interdisciplinary Field

Much applied experimentation is interdisciplinary in the sense that addressing applied problems in specific domains requires knowledge of those domains. If, for example, one wishes to do research on teaching or learning for the express purpose of helping to increase the effectiveness of classroom instruction, one must know more than a little about education from a practitioner’s point of view. Or if one wants to work on the objective of decreasing the frequency of human error in the operating room or in the delivery of medical services more generally, one needs to know a lot—or to work with someone who knows a lot—about medical procedures and systems.

Many psychological researchers who work in highly applied areas, such as the human factors of aviation, nuclear power plant control, or manufacturing, have training both in psychology and in their area of application. Others work as members of research teams that depend on domain specialists to contribute the domain-specific knowledge to the operation, but even here the psychologist is likely to need a more-than-passing acquaintance with the relevant disciplines in order to ensure a smoothly functioning and productive team endeavor.

Laboratory and Field Experimentation

Experimentation, as we are using the term, includes both laboratory and field studies. People doing applied research are keenly aware of the considerable differences that typically characterize laboratory and field work. Variables are easier to control in the laboratory than in the field; as a consequence, the results of laboratory experiments typically are easier to interpret. However, the increased control usually comes at the expense of less realism than one has in operational realworld situations, so while the laboratory results may be easier to interpret, they are likely to be harder to apply without qualification to the real-world situations of interest.

A strategy that has been recommended for applied research involves both laboratory and field research. Hypotheses can be tested in a preliminary fashion in simplified or abstracted laboratory simulations of real-world situations, perhaps using students as participants, and then the findings can be checked with people functioning in their normal realworld contexts. This approach is illustrated by the work of Gopher, Weil, and Bareket (1994) in checking the extent to which effects of training with a simulation of certain aspects of flight control transfer to performance in an actual flight situation. Unfortunately, too often only the first step is taken, and the assumption is made that the results obtained will transfer to the operational situations of interest. We believe that the development of a trustworthy store of psychological knowledge that can be applied in confidence to real-world problems requires a continuing interplay between laboratory and field experimentation where what is learned in each context is informing further work in the other, and theory is being refined by the outcomes of both types of research.

Closely Related Disciplines

Defined as psychological experimentation that is explicitly addressed to practical concerns, applied experimental psychology overlaps considerably with several other disciplines. Most obviously, it has much in common with human-factors psychology (which for purposes of this research paper can be considered synonymous with ergonomics or engineering psychology, although for some purposes somewhat different connotations are given to these terms; Nickerson, 1999; Pew, 2000; Wogalter, Hancock, & Dempsey, 1998). It intersects also with many subfields in psychology that are defined by a focus on an area of application, such as organizational/ industrial psychology, military psychology, aviation psychology, forensic psychology, consumer psychology, and the psychology of aging, among several others. Researchers in each of these and other subfields conduct experimental studies addressed to practical questions of special interest to people involved in these areas and hence provide many examples of applied experimental psychology.


The kinds of settings in which applied experimental psychologists work are as varied as are the fields of activity. Many applied experimentalists work in universities, and their work is frequently associated with institutes or other organizations that specialize in applied work, perhaps with a specific focus, such as transportation, education, aging, disabilities, or computer technology. Major employers of experimentalists are the various branches and research laboratories of the federal government. Notable among these are the laboratories of the military services, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Transportation, and the National Institutes of Health.

Several for-profit and nonprofit companies provide opportunities for applied experimentalists. These include the American Institutes of Research, Anacapa Sciences, and CHI Systems. Many large corporations have human-factors groups that either work on their own in-house research and development programs or on systems-development projects done under contract for the government or other organizations. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin in the aerospace industry and Ford and General Motors in the automotive industry are examples of such companies in the United States. Productdevelopment projects may involve experimentation during design or concept development stages as well as during product test and evaluation.

Many organizations in the computer and communications industries, especially the software side of these industries, have vested interests in research on HCI and in the evaluation of product usability. IBM, Xerox, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems are notable among large companies that provide opportunities for research and development in this area. However, while controlled experimentation has played, and continues to play, an important role in providing results that inform the design of user-friendly products, much of the testing and evaluation that is done is limited by costeffectiveness concerns to heuristic analyses or other shortcut methods based on the expert judgment of one or a few specialists (Nielson, 1994).

The National Research Council’s Committee on Human Factors issued a report in 1992 that provides demographic information, including employment information, on human factors specialists, many of whom are applied experimentalists (VanCott & Huey, 1992). Other sources of information regarding where applied experimental psychologists work include P. J. Woods (1976), Super and Super (1988), and Nickerson (1997).

Examples of Recent Applied Experimental Work

Applied experimental work is performed in essentially all areas of psychology. Here our intent is to illustrate, by reference to specific studies, the range of subjects addressed. We focus primarily on relatively recent work, but there is no paucity of comparable examples from earlier times, a few of which were mentioned in the section on the historical roots of applied experimental psychology. It will be obvious from the examples given that applications of experimental psychology are not limited to the design of devices or systems that people use or with which they interact. This is a major focus of human-factors or engineering psychology, but experimental psychology has many applications that do not fall in this category.

Memory Enhancement

Interest in the development of devices and procedures for enhancing memory (mnemonics) predates the emergence of experimental psychology as a discipline by many centuries, and the search for ways to improve memory continues to the present day (McEvoy, 1992; Wenger, & Payne, 1995). Recent experimentation in this area is illustrated by the method of expanding practice first investigated by Landauer and Bjork (1978), and subsequently by Cull, Shaughnessy, and Zechmeister (1996). The method involves increasing the spacing between successive rehearsals of any given item in the list to be recalled, and it has proved to be effective in various contexts.

Another focus of research has been the keyword mnemonic of associating visual images with words that are to be learned. Since it was originally proposed by Atkinson (1975), the method has been studied and applied in many contexts, including the learning of foreign-language vocabulary (Atkinson & Raugh, 1975), state capitals (Levin, Shriberg, Miller, McCormick, & Levin, 1980), and science vocabulary (King-Sears, Mercer, & Sindelar, 1992). Interest in determining the strengths and limitations of the method continues to motivate research (Thomas & Wang, 1996).

The ability to associate names with faces—to remember the names of people to whom one has recently been introduced—is a sufficiently valuable social asset to have motivated many efforts to find ways to improve it (e.g., McCarty, 1980; Morris & Fritz, 2000). Morris and Fritz demonstrated that recall of the names of the members of a group of modest size can be enhanced by a simple game that applies the principle of expanding practice to the process of making introductions. Other experimentally developed techniques for enhancing memory for names, often involving the use of imagery or word-image associations, have also proved tobeeffective(Furst,1944;Morris,Jones,&Hampson,1978).

Researchers have shown great interest in the development of ways and devices to aid people—especially elderly people, but also people who maintain full and tight schedules—to remember to carry through on plans and intentions (e.g., to keep appointments, take medications, and perform timecritical tasks; J. E. Harris, 1978; Herrmann, Brubaker, Yoder, Sheets, & Tio, 1999; Kapur, 1995). The desirability of such aids is evidenced by the ease with which many people forget to keep appointments, take medications, and so on, without them. Identification of the determinants of the effectiveness of proposed approaches and devices intended to aid prospective memory has been the focus of some experimentation (Herrmann, Sheets, Wells, & Yoder, 1997).

Eyewitness and Earwitness Testimony

Much experimentation has been done on eyewitness (Sobel & Pridgen, 1981; Wells, 1993) and earwitness (Bull & Clifford, 1984; Read & Craik, 1995; Olsson, Juslin, & Winman, 1998) testimony in recent years; these topics are of considerable practical interest because of their relevance to court proceedings. What factors contribute to the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of such testimony? How is the accuracy of testimony influenced by methods of interrogation? What makes eyewitness or earwitness testimony more or less credible to jurors? What special considerations are necessary when the eyewitness or earwitness is a young child, and especially when the child is the alleged victim of abuse? These and many related questions have been subjects of experimental research.

Lineup procedures have been the focus of many studies (R. C. L. Lindsay & Wells, 1980; Malpass & Devine, 1984; Wells & Lindsay, 1980). One question that has received attention is whether sequential lineups are more or less effective than simultaneous lineups; sequential lineups appear to be superior to simultaneous lineups at least in the sense that they are less likely to yield false identifications (R. C. L. Lindsay & Wells, 1985). How the confidence with which identifications are made relates to the accuracy of those identifications has been another question of interest; overconfidence is not an unusual finding (Juslin, Olsson, & Winman, 1996; Loftus, Donders, Hoffman, & Schooler, 1989; Wells & Bradfield, 1998), and some data show that confidence may increase as a result of interrogation without a corresponding increase in accuracy (Shaw, 1996). A related question has to do with the degree to which the confidence expressed by a witness determines the credence that is given by jurors to the witness’s testimony; it appears that more confident witnesses tend to be seen as more credible (Cutler, Penrod, & Stuve, 1988; R. C. L. Lindsay, Wells, & O’Connor, 1989).

The reliability of testimony of very young children (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Dent & Flin, 1992; Poole & Lindsay, 2001) and of very elderly people (Bornstein, 1995; Yarmey, 1984; Yarmey & Kent, 1980) has been studied experimentally. Experimentation has shown that having children draw pictures relating to experiences, especially emotional experiences, can facilitate their verbal recall of those experiences (Butler, Gross, & Hayne, 1995; Gross & Hayne, 1998, 1999). Especially relevant to the assessment of the reliability of testimony is the finding of the possibility of eliciting “memories” of events in one’s past that did not occur (Hyman & Kleinknecht, 1999;Loftus,1997;Pezdek,Finger,&Hodge,1997).Suchresults are especially relevant to reports by adults of having recovered lost memories of molestation or other forms of abuse as children. The problem of suggestibility more generally has motivated some experimentation (Gudjonsson, 1992; D. S. Lindsay, 1990; Tomes & Katz, 1997), as has interest in the effects of sleep deprivation on suggestibility in interrogation procedures (Blagrove, 1996; Blagrove &Akehurst, 2000).

A topic closely related to eyewitness testimony is that of face recognition, which has also been the focus of much experimentation. How reliable is the recognition of faces captured by a high-quality video camera relative to that of faces in photographs? Some work suggests that recognition based on video shots is not very reliable (Bruce et al., 1999; Henderson, Bruce, & Burton, 2001)—an important finding in view of the widespread use of closed-circuit TV systems for security surveillance.

Human-Computer Interaction

There are few, if any, areas that have stimulated more experimental work in recent years than that of HCI. Interest has grown sufficiently rapidly to have stimulated the establishment of several new journals focused on the subject. Topics investigated within this domain include e-mail and other computer-mediated human communication (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses, & Geller, 1985), computer-supported work by groups or teams (special issues of Human-Computer Interaction, 1992, and Interacting with Computers, 1992; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991), interface design (Fisher, Yungkurth, & Moss, 1990; Norman, 1991; Paap & Roske-Hofstrand, 1986), and a host of others (Helander, Landauer, & Prabhu, 1997).

Work in this general area has been spurred by a rapid increase in the number of people who use computers more or less daily for professional or personal purposes. The first heavy users of computers, during the middle of the twentieth century, were for the most part technically oriented people. Many of them were working on the development of computer technology itself or were specialists who were applying it to computationally intensive tasks. With the production of affordable desktop computers and the proliferation of computer networks, more and more people who were not trained in computer science or related technical areas became computer users, and the need for the design of interfaces and software with their requirements in mind became increasingly important.

Much of the early experimental work focused on the design of input-output devices. Efforts to design keyboards that improve on the standard QWERTY layout predate modern computer technology by many years, but the proliferation of computer users for whom the keyboard is the main input device has increased interest not only in the possibility of alternative key arrangements but in other aspects of keyboard design (e.g., split keyboards and chord keyboards; Lewis, Potosnak, & Magyar, 1997). Questions of what should appear on a visual interface and how the display should be laid out motivated much experimentation on the design of option menus and icons (Norman, 1991; Paap & Cooke, 1997) and on the management of objects that sometimes are (at least partially) visible and sometimes not (Marcus, 1997).

Making computer technology accessible to people with various types of disabling conditions represents a special challenge that has also motivated research (Elkind, Nickerson, Van Cott, & Williges, 1995; Newell & Gregor, 1997). Experimentation with natural language and speech for communicating with computer systems has been ongoing for several years; these technologies are sufficiently mature that they are beginning to be applied in practical situations (Makhoul, Jelinek, Rabiner, Weinstein, & Zue, 1990; Ogden & Bernick, 1997). The research that has brought these technologies to their current state of development has revealed much about human language and speech understanding.

The short history of computing technology has been one of a steady increase in the amount of computing power that can be packaged in a given space and that can be obtained for a given cost. Although there are limits to what can be accomplished by advances in miniaturization, they have not yet been realized. Already the state of the art provides people with access (in a physical though not necessarily a psychological sense) to enormous amounts of information via the Internet and the World Wide Web, and it makes possible the embedding of computing power into the instruments and objects of everyday life. Research challenges for the future are likely to have less to do with questions of the design of inputoutput devices and more with questions of how to help people interact effectively with extremely large information repositories and with objects and environments that have increasingly cognition-like capabilities (Nickerson, 1995).

Part-Task Training

Training of certain types—especially for tasks involving interaction with complex machines that are costly to build and operate, such as aircraft—is a very expensive undertaking. For this reason there has long been interest in the possibility of doing training of some aspects of such tasks with much less costly devices. Whether such part-task training is effective in any particular case is an empirical question and is best answered by experiment. Many years of research on the topic have yielded mixed results (Lintern & Gopher, 1980; Stammers, 1982; Wightman & Lintern, 1985).

Illustrative of recent work in the area is that of several investigators who have been successful in showing that practice with Space Fortress, a computer game that is intended to capture some aspects of flying tasks, can facilitate subsequent training of pilots of both fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft (Gopher et al., 1994; Hart & Battiste, 1992). Space Fortress was used in a coordinated set of studies sponsored by the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency to investigate the relative effectiveness of a variety of training strategies, most of which involved part-task training. The composite task— doing well at the Space Fortress game—was the same for all participants, but the variety of training regimens used reflected experimenters’differing ideas about how best to break down the composite task and train people on the components. The set of studies is described in a special volume of Acta Psychologica (Donchin, Fabiani, & Sanders, 1989).

The use of simulation for training purposes constitutes a part-task approach to training, inasmuch as any simulator faithfully represents only some subset of the characteristics of the real-world situation of interest. A great deal of experimentation has been required to bring the state of the art of simulation to the point where it can be the primary means of training people to perform many complex tasks, piloting and other aviation tasks being perhaps the most notable examples. How realistic a simulation must be in order to be effective for training purposes is a perennial question (Hays & Singer, 1989), and the answer appears to depend on the specifics of the task that must be learned.

Aviation Psychology

As we have already noted, many of the problems that engaged experimental psychologists during World War II had to do with military aviation. Much research continued this focus after the war, but attention began to be given to problems within commercial and civil aviation as well. Today the problems encountered in aviation psychology are considerably broader in range than are those that occupied researchers in the early days of the field. The development of multifunction glass-cockpit displays—cathode ray tubes, liquid crystal plasma displays—that have less resolution but much greater flexibility than dedicated traditional instruments or paper maps has raised a host of questions about how to make the best use of the new technologies. Heads-up displays projected on an aircraft’s windscreen provide new challenges to the visual system (Wickens & Long, 1995). They have received extensive research attention in the aviation context and are beginning to be examined for potential use in automotive systems as well (Weintraub, 1992). There remain unresolved questions regarding how best to match displays to pilots’ preferred ways of conceptualizing an airspace (Wickens & Prevett, 1995). Helmet-mounted displays are also receiving attention from experimenters because of their potential uses in aviation, especially in nighttime flight (Seagull & Gopher, 1997).

Over the past 20 years, flying, especially of commercial and military transport aircraft, has changed from being predominately a task of perceptual motor control to being one of supervisory management of automated avionics systems, from computer-controlled artificial stability systems to flightmanagement computers (Billings, 1996). The applied psychology questions often concern the relationship between the aircrew and the automated systems. Does the introduction of automation actually reduce mental workload? Does it lead to complacency on the part of the aircrew? Under what conditions does the aircrew establish trust in the automation (Parasuraman & Riley, 1997)? What are the training implications of introducing high levels of automation?

Flight training has been a major interest of aviation psychologists from the beginnings of the field; the rapidly changing technology has brought new challenges to this problem area as well (Salas, Bowers, & Prince, 1998). The use of simulation and the part-task approach in the training of piloting was noted in the preceding section. In recent years there has been great interest in the study of the training and performance of aircrew teams and of individuals as members of teams (Prince & Salas, 1993; Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 1997). Interpersonal team factors involving the captain and first officer, and, when present, the engineer are considered critical determinants of aviation safety (Helmreich & Foushee, 1993). This concern has led to research by psychologists in the area that has been called cockpit resource management, a goal of which is to help members of aircrews interact with greater sensitivity and respect for each other without violating the requisite authority relationships. Commercial airlines have widely adopted such programs and are showing interest in applying similar methods in air traffic control, training of crew operations, and other critical team activities.

Planning is currently underway to introduce advanced technology and major procedure revisions in the management of the national airspace by the Federal Aviation Administration. With research support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, researchers are exploring concepts of free flight in which aircrews and airline operations centers are given more opportunity to select the routes they fly. The success of such procedural modifications will depend on how well human factors are taken into account in the development and implementation of these plans (Wickens, Mavor, & McGee, 1997). We can expect continued applied experimental psychological research in support of these developments.

Highway Safety

Work relating to highway safety has been going on since the early 1930s, although a special impetus for it was provided by the establishment of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970. There has been a sustained interest in research concerning the head and rear lighting of automobiles; the design, location, coding, and standardization of vehicle controls, especially as the number and variety of secondary controls has increased; the design, location, coding, and standardization of vehicle displays; driver performance and its role as a causal or preventive agent for accidents, and especially the problem of driving under the influence of alcohol; safety education and driver training programs; and the effects of aging on driving performance (Peacock & Karwowski, 1993). Behavioral research led to the recommendation that rear brake lights be located in a different position than running lights (Crosley & Allen, 1966; Nickerson, Baron, Collins, & Crothers, 1968) and eventually to the practice of locating them above the vehicle’s trunk. Most studies of the effectiveness of the high location have concluded that it has reduced the incidence of rear-end collisions, but the magnitude of the reduction appears to be considerably less than was originally assumed (Mortimer, 1998). Much attention has been given to the problem of driving at night or under generally poor lighting conditions (Leibowitz & Owens, 1977; Owens & Tyrell, 1999); this attention is well-deserved in view of the high incidence of traffic fatalities in industrialized countries (Evans, 1991) and the fact that a large percentage of these fatalities occurs at nighttime (Owens, Helmers, & Sivak, 1993).

In 1991 two major programs impacting behavioral science research were initiated. The first was the Intelligent Transportation Systems Program, which includes a number of initiatives directed at improving traffic flow and traffic management for commercial and private vehicles. One component of this program, the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative, aims to accelerate the development and availability of advanced safety and information systems applied to all types of vehicles. The goal is to integrate driver assistance and motorist information functions so that vehicles operate more safely and efficiently. It includes in-vehicle navigation, traffic advisory, and emergency response functions. There is currently concern about the best ways to communicate this information to the vehicle driver. Government contractors and commercial companies are conducting studies to evaluate alternative approaches, such as heads-up displays and speech, and the impact on vehicle safety of introducing such systems (Kantowitz, Lee, & Kantowitz, 1997).

The second notable program is the development of a major high-fidelity driving simulator, the National Advanced Driving Simulator, which is intended to be a national asset. Nearing completion at the University of Iowa, the simulator will provide an experimental resource, including a scientific staff of engineers and behavioral scientists, for a wide variety of experimental studies relating to highway safety. It is expected to be used in both government and commercial research and development efforts, particularly in support of such projects as the Intelligent Transportation Systems Program. On the basis of these developments, continued growth can be expected in the application of psychological research methods and data to national driver-highway-system problems (Bloomfield et al., 1995; Kantowitz et al., 1997).

In this and the preceding section we have focused on research relating to aviation and highway safety. We should note that although most of the psychological work pertaining to transportation safety has in fact dealt with airspace operations or highway traffic, work has also been done on rail and maritime safety as well. Multiple-fatality accidents have occurred with disturbing frequency in both contexts, and human error has often been implicated as the major causal factor (Secretary of State for Transport, 1989; Wilson, 1992). Ship disasters claiming the lives of 200 or more people are not uncommon; the World Almanac (1998) lists twelve such incidents between 1981 and 1997. It seems clear that transportation safety will deserve the attention of applied researchers for the foreseeable future.

Medicine and Health

Both the rapid increase in the elderly population and the constant development of new medicines and technological devices for use in outpatient treatment of various types of illnesses and impairments have motivated concern among psychologists regarding the adequacy of the design of medical devices from a user’s point of view (Klatzky & Ayoub, 1995). Devices that are intended to be used by people without medical training in the home need to be designed not only so that they serve the function that they are intended to serve when properly used, but also so that proper use is easy, the possibility of incorrect use is minimized, and the consequences are not disastrous when the latter occurs. The question of what can be done through training to help people who are chronically ill cope more effectively with their medical problems has stimulated some research (McWilliam et al., 1999).

The identification of factors that influence the likelihood that people will voluntarily get medical examinations or take disease-prevention measures has been the focus of some experimentation (Chapman, & Coups, 1999; Chapman & Sonnenberg, 2000; Klatzky & Messick, 1995; Klatzky, Messick, & Loftus, 1992). Efforts have been made to determine the relative effectiveness of various methods of promoting self-examination and participation in medical screening for skin cancer (Mickler, Rodrigue, & Lescano, 1999), prostate cancer (Davidson, Kirk, Degner, & Hassard, 1999), and breast and cervical cancer (Holden, Moore, & Holiday, 1998), among other diseases.

Interest in the question of how to design and deliver messages that will motivate health maintenance and illnessprevention activities has stimulated experimental work (Wright, 1999). Some researchers have found that health messages are likely to be more effective in evoking riskreducing behavior changes if tailored to meet recipients’ individual needs than if presented in more generic form (Kreuter, Bull, Clark, & Oswald, 1999); others have begun to explore the possibility of applying computer technology to the production of such individually tailored messages (DeVries & Brug, 1999; Dijkstra & DeVries, 1999).

Human error has been mentioned several times already as a focus of experimental work in various contexts. Interest in the subject stems in large part from the fact that such errors can have severe consequences, as when they lead to industrial accidents, airplane crashes, or train wrecks (Reason, 1990; Senders & Moray, 1991; D. D. Woods & Cook, 1999). Notable among the contexts in which such human error has been studied are transportation and process control; recently, however, much attention has been focused on human error in medical contexts. Although errors that occur in the operating room—as when a surgeon performs the right operation on the wrong limb—are likely to get more press than those that occur in more mundane settings, serious consequences can occur when medicine is misprescribed, interactions among medicines are overlooked, a prescription is misread, printed instructions are misunderstood, or medications are not taken as prescribed. Identifying the various types of medical errors that occur and finding ways to eliminate them or decrease their frequency of occurrence have become important objectives for experimental research (Bogner, 1994).

Sensory, Motor, and Cognitive Aids for Disabled People

The number of people in the United States who have physical or mental disabilities that constitute serious impediments to employment or daily living is not known precisely but is unquestionably large. Elkind (1990) has estimated that about 40% of the 30% of the U.S. population that reports having some type of disability (i.e., about 12% of the entire population) has a disability that can be considered severe. A1997 report of the U.S. Census Bureau gives a lower figure (19.7%) as the percentage of the U.S. population with some level of disability, but essentially the same (12.3%) as the percentage having a severe disability. The 1999 Statistical Abstract (U.S. Census Bureau, 1999, Table 627) gives about 17 million as the number of people between 16 and 64 years of age with “work disability,” which is about 10% of the population in this age group. This figure is also consistent with the earlier estimates if we assume that the percentage of children with comparable disabilities is similar whereas that of older people is undoubtedly higher. In any case, the percentage of the population that experiences nontrivial difficulties because of physical or mental disabilities is large enough to represent a major national concern for both economic and humanitarian reasons. The situation may be assumed to be comparable in other countries as well.

Much experimentation has been driven by an interest in developing aids for people who have disabilities of various sorts. Many devices have been developed to help people function effectively despite one or another type of handicap; these include mechanical limbs, automatic readers that will output speech or a tactile representation of what is read, tactile maps, sonar canes, and navigation systems for visually impaired people (Loomis, Golledge, Klatzky, 1998; Redden & Stern, 1983; Stern & Redden, 1982). Generally a great deal of experimentation with potential users of such systems is required to determine whether they will be effective in operational situations, or how they might be made so. As Mann (1982) has noted, there is going to be no shortage of hardware in the future—the ability to package ever larger amounts of computer power in very small spaces ensures that there will be many attempts to build sophisticated devices to help meet the needs of people with disabilities—but much experimentation will be required to ensure the utility of the inventions. Many of the questions that need to be addressed are psychological: “How do you organize and present information to the ‘wrong’ sense, so that it is logical to the blind person or the deaf person? . . . How do you operate a sort of mechanical organ player so that it modulates sensations on the skin and in the ear and projects a sense of what this room looks like and how to negotiate it?” (Mann, 1982, p. 73).

The Psychology of Aging

Between 1890 and 1990, the average life expectancy at birth increased by about 75% for Whites and just about doubled for non-Whites in the United States (Johnson, 1997). Spectacular increases have been realized also in other industrialized countries. It is not surprising that as the percentage of the population that lives far beyond conventional retirement age has been steadily increasing, more and more attention has been paid by researchers to questions of special relevance to the elderly (Fisk & Rogers, 1996; Rogers & Fisk, 2000).

Research has been motivated by concern for understanding and meeting special needs that many elderly people are likely to have with respect to transportation (Barr & Eberhard, 1991; Eberhard & Barr, 1992; Kostyniuk & Kitamura, 1987), communication (Czaja, Guerrier, Nair, & Landauer, 1993), work performance (Czaja & Sharit, 1998; Salthouse, Hambrick, Lukas, & Dell, 1996; Salthouse & Maurer, 1996), and health care (Gardner-Bonneau & Gosbee, 1997; Klatzky & Ayoub, 1995), among other aspects of living. Many researchers have been seeking ways to enhance the cognitive functioning of the elderly; much of this work has focused on memory, which often tends to show decreasing functionality with increasing age (Verhaeghen, Marcoen, & Goossens, 1992; West, 1989;Yesavage, Rose, & Bower, 1983).

The question of how the ability to perform complex tasks may change with advancing age has been given some attention, as has that of what can be done to compensate for typical losses in sensory acuity and motor strength and dexterity. Airplane piloting and automobile driving are two such tasks that have been the focus of research on aging (Hardy & Parasuraman, 1997). Interest in the effects of aging on automobile driving has been fueled by the changing demographics of the driving population. As the general population’s age distribution continues to shift to the right, the percentage of all automobile drivers who are elderly should continue to increase proportionately; some difficulties might be expected simply from the fact that highways have typically been designed on the basis of data collected with young male drivers (Waller, 1991). The effects on driving performance of decreases in visual acuity—especially for night vision—that may be so gradual that they go unnoticed illustrates one focus of experimental work in this area (Leibowitz, 1996).

Difficulties that some elderly people have in using hightech devices have also stimulated experimental research. Elderly people often can benefit from specially designed interfaces, and optimal approaches to training in their use may differ from those that are more effective with younger people. These observations pertain to personal computers (Charness, Schuman, & Boritz, 1992; Czaja, 1997; Czaja & Sharit, 1998), automated teller machines (Mead & Fisk, 1998; Rogers, Fisk, Mead, Walker, & Cabrera, 1996), and homebased medical devices (Klatzky & Ayoub, 1995). The implications that declining sensory acuity with increasing age has for such activities as reading Braille has also stimulated experimental research (Stevens, Foulke, & Patterson, 1996).

We have mentioned a few problem areas in which applied psychological experimentation has been done to good effect. Many more could be mentioned. A desire to address practical problems motivated much of the earliest work in experimental psychology and has continued to play a major role in setting the research agenda for many experimentalists to the present day.

Future Challenges for Applied Experimental Psychology

Practical challenges for experimental psychology come from many quarters. Without any claim of exhaustiveness, we mention three major (not entirely independent) categories— psychological, social, and technological—and give some examples of each. Many of the examples could be placed in more than one category. A better understanding of aging, for example, is desirable for individuals who must deal with its effects in their personal lives, for institutions that must respond to the social implications of an aging populace, and for technologists who want their products to be usable by elderly people. A similar comment could be made with respect to the problem of designing devices and environments to increase accessibility of resources for people with various types of disabilities, or with respect to many other topics. For convenience, however, we place each example in only one category, even when it requires a bit of arbitrariness to do so.


A better understanding of basic cognitive processes of learning, thinking, decision making, problem solving, and the like is important for both theoretical and practical reasons. Much research on these topics is motivated primarily by an interest in advancing psychological theory—broadening and deepening the knowledge base represented by psychology as a science. But each of these topics is important also from a practical point of view. Educational goals and techniques, for example, need to be informed by a clear understanding of how children learn and of what facilitates or inhibits learning.

Can experiments be done that will shed light on why people do things (smoke, intentionally expose themselves to excessive sunlight, take illicit drugs, engage in risky driving, etc.) that are known to be harmful to them or to have a high probability of being so? Can such experiments reveal effective ways of decreasing the likelihood of high-risk behavior? Essentially, any form of unnecessarily risky behavior represents a challenge to research to explain it and perhaps to find a way to modify it. Consider, for illustrative purposes, risky driving. Automobile accidents remain a major cause of accidental death in the United States and most other industrialized countries, and this despite the considerable improvements that have been made in automobiles and highways from a safety point of view over the last few decades. It is clear that many automotive deaths are the direct result of risky driving—driving too fast, driving while drinking, following leading vehicles too closely, running traffic lights, passing with insufficient forward vision, failing to use seat belts, driving vehicles that are in ill repair, and purposefully using a vehicle as a weapon (road rage).

In any particular case of risky driving, it could be either that the driver underestimates the magnitude of the risk that is being taken or that he or she is fully aware of the risk and is taking it willingly.The driver in the first situation is analogous to a person who skates on thin ice believing it to be thick; the one in the second to a person who willingly skates on ice that he or she knows to be thin. The distinction is important for practical purposes because the two cases call for different approaches to modifying the risky behavior: The first calls for finding a way to make the driver aware of the risk that is being taken; the second requires something more than effecting this awareness, which the driver already has.

Documented egocentric biases of various sorts may be causal factors in risky behavior. Many investigators have found that people tend to consider specified positive events to be more likely to happen to themselves than to another person, and to consider specified negative events to be more likely to happen to someone else than to themselves (Dunning, 1993; D. M. Harris & Guten, 1979; Linville, Fischer, & Fischhoff, 1993). People appear to be likely to discount the seriousness of a risk if they believe themselves to be especially susceptible to it (Block & Keller, 1995; Ditto, Jemmott, & Darley, 1988; Ditto & Lopez, 1992; Kunda, 1987). Such egocentric biases have shown up in the tendency of drivers to consider themselves more expert and safer than average (Svenson, 1981; Svenson, Fischhoff, & MacGregor, 1985) and in people judging their chances of being involved in an automobile accident to be higher when they are a passenger in an automobile than when driving it themselves (Greening & Chandler, 1997; McKenna, 1993; McKenna, Stanier & Lewis, 1991). The question of how people can be made better aware of the real risks that they are taking in specific cases is a major challenge for future research.


In 1998 representatives from more than 90 organizations concerned with scientific psychology convened a summit that became known as the 1998 Summit of Psychological Science Societies. Emerging from this meeting was a resolution composed of six recommendations, the fourth of which called upon “psychological scientists to equip themselves and their students and to educate the public to address the issues of importance to society” (“Summit ‘98,” 1998, p. 14). This resolution is in keeping with other evidences, mentioned earlier in this research paper, of the currently strong interest among research psychologists and organizations that represent them in seeing the results of psychological research applied to practical problems.

Many of the most pressing problems that society faces have their roots in human behavior. These include problems of violence and crime, of drug addiction and substance abuse, of lifestyles that work against the maintenance of health, and of behavior that causes detrimental environmental change. There is a need for the development and use of more effective approaches to education, conflict resolution, wellness maintenance, and protection of the environment.

The nature of work has changed drastically for many people in the recent past, especially with the infusion of information technology in many workplaces. More and more jobs involve the hands-on use of this technology. Changes in job opportunities and job requirements are driven primarily by the market and not by considerations of workers’satisfaction with what they do. A better understanding is needed of what makes the difference between jobs and avocational pursuits that people find fulfilling and deeply satisfying and those that they find meaningless or acceptable only as a means of making a living.

Changing demographics brings some research challenges as well. The percentage of the U.S. population that is over 65 grew steadily from about 4% in 1900 to about 13% by the end of the century. The most rapidly growing age group in terms of percentage is the 85 and older group, which has been predicted to increase from 1.6% of the U.S. population in 2000 to about 4.6% by 2050 (World Almanac, 1998). Such changes in population statistics harbor a host of research challenges, many of which have barely begun to be addressed (Czaja, 1990).

The increasing concentration of the population in and around major cities is a worldwide phenomenon (Vining, 1985). Changing immigration patterns (Kasarda, 1988) are rapidly modifying the ethnic and cultural composition of many cities and increasing the importance of developing a better understanding of how best to maintain social stability and coherence in an increasingly diverse society. Finding more effective ways to promote understanding and tolerance of individual differences is a continuing challenge.

How to foster cooperation and the pursuit of win-win strategies in interpersonal dealings is another important question for research. It would be good to know more about how altruism relates to personal and social mores and to what extent it can be cultivated (Schwartz, 1977). How to deal with social dilemmas and the “tragedy of the commons” (Hardin, 1968; Glance & Huberman, 1994; Platt, 1973) is a question on which considerable research has been done but on which much more is needed. Hardin (1968) illustrated the conflict that can occur between self-interest and the common good with a metaphor of a herdsman who can realize a substantial personal benefit at little personal cost by adding an animal to his herd that is grazing on common land. The benefit that comes from having an additional animal is his alone, whereas the cost, in terms of slightly less grazing land per animal, is shared by all users of the common. When every herdsman sees the situation the same way, and each works in what appears to be his own best short-term interest, they collectively ruin the land. The commons tragedy plays itself out in many forms, and the challenge is to find ways to motivate behaviors that contribute to the common good.


Applied experimental psychologists have an important role to play in helping to ensure that the products of technology are well matched not only to the needs but also to the capabilities and limitations of their users. For years the complaint has been heard that the development of new technologies has been outstripping the knowledge required to incorporate them usefully into applications. Landauer (1995), for example, discussed the productivity paradox and came to the conclusion that much of computer technology is being used for purposes that, in and of themselves, are unlikely to show productivity gains. He argued that lack of attention to design for human users is at the heart of the productivity problems that the world is experiencing with respect to computer applications.

It is widely recognized that many people have difficulties with setting the clocks on their automobile dashboards, recording programs on their VCRs, using their telephone answering machines to receive messages from remotely located phones, and availing themselves of other conveniences that modern technology provides (Nussbaum & Neff, 1991). With the continuing introduction of new technological devices, such as personal digital assistants capable of receiving e-mail through wireless connections, these problems are likely to get worse. Again, here is a challenge to applied experimentalists to contribute to an understanding of how to make specific products of technology compatible with the needs, capabilities, and limitations of their everyday users.

Engineers are introducing automation into large-scale systems with confidence that the systems’ performance will be better as a result. In many cases this expectation has turned out to be wrong. Early attempts to introduce flight management computers into airplane cockpits led to many instances in which the workload associated with monitoring and controlling them was greater than the workload involved in conducting the same operations without them (Billings, 1996). The introduction of automation raises questions of trust: Which aspects of the design of automated systems result in users’trusting that they will accomplish their intended purposes (M. J. Adams, Tenney, & Pew, 1991; Parasuraman & Riley, 1997)? Such systems take the human operator out of the loop. Operators tend to lose situation awareness concerning the state of the system and the environment in which it is operating (Endsley, 1996; Endsley & Kiris, 1995). If not designed properly, automated systems can lead to complacency; if the computer is managing one’s system, one is no longer responsible for what goes wrong. Human-centered design that takes account of the user from the initial stages of system conceptualization is required if this kind of misuse of automation is to be prevented.

The introduction of computers and telephone call routers into our communication infrastructure is imposing a cold, impersonal, automated intermediary—and in some cases not just an intermediary, but an ultimate adjudicator in control of the information resources one is trying to tap. Machines are performing more and more of the communication functions that in the past have involved person-to-person connections. Applied psychologists need to challenge the ways in which these systems are designed. We need to create ways to achieve the same level of efficiency without resorting to such uncommunicative alternatives.

Work on these kinds of problems can take place within an academic, government, or industrial setting. Progress is not likely to be made by the social planner, the economist, the political scientist, or even by the engineer who is focused solely on technology. Progress will be made by individuals who understand human behavior and are motivated to improve the human use of technology by providing objective data showing how improvements could be made and by influencing the design process directly at the interface between the human user and the technology itself.

With the rapidly expanding use of the internet for business purposes, many jobs have come into existence that were unheard of a short time ago. Most of these jobs require the use of computers for one or another purpose, and many of them involve working with geographically distributed groups. The need for new tools to support the performance of the new tasks and to facilitate collaboration among dispersed members of a team, for techniques to coordinate distributed work, for approaches to management that work well with distributed groups, for effective methods of information finding and resource sharing—these and many other needs associated with jobs being created by information technology represent opportunities for applied experimental work (Attewell, Huey, Moray, & Sanderson, 1995; Gould, 1995).

The Internet and associated technologies are affecting us in many ways in addition to their effects on business and work. They have profound implications as well for education, entertainment, interperson communication, and many other aspects of our lives. An especially noteworthy development is the rapid increase in the amount of information that is available to the computer user through resources epitomized by the World Wide Web, which has been growing by approximately 1 million electronic pages a day (Members of the CleverProject,1999).TheWebcontainsinformationonevery conceivable subject, and what it contains covers the full range with respect to intelligibility and accuracy.

A major challenge relating to the future of technology, from a user’s point of view, is to provide tools and methods that will make it easy for one to get quickly to information one wants without having to attend to an excess of material in which one has no interest. A variety of search engines currently exist, but while they are unquestionably useful for many purposes, their operation is often frustratingly slow, and the ratio of false positives to hits in their returns is unacceptably high. As Bosak and Bray (1999) put it, the “Internet is a speed-of-light network that often moves at a crawl; and although nearly every kind of information is available online, it can be maddeningly difficult to find the one piece you need” (p. 89).

These problems will become increasingly severe as the number of sites continues to grow at an exponential rate. Addressing them effectively will require advances on several fronts, including the design of languages for organizing information (Bosak & Bray, 1999) and the development of more efficient search techniques (Members of the Clever Project, 1999). The value of any technological advance in this area resides, however, in the extent to which it helps people interact effectively with extremely large databases; the design and evaluation of tools to facilitate that interaction deserve more attention from psychological researchers than they have received, and the importance of these topics as possible foci of research can only increase.

Although for convenience we have organized these comments under the topics “psychological,” “social,” and “technological,” the limitations of this partitioning are apparent when one considers the challenges that information (computer and communication) technology represents to psychological research in the future. Many visions of what the future holds in this regard have been published; one readily accessible example is Scientific American’s special report on MIT’s Oxygen Project (1999). The vision motivating this effort includes not only powerful information resources in the hands of nearly everyone and the potential of a manifold increase in human productivity but also, as conditions of realization, great increases in the ease of use of the devices that connect people with the networked resources (Dertouzos, 1999). Ease of use includes better utilization of speech for communication between person and computer (Zue, 1999) and the development of handheld devices capable of great versatility (Guttag, 1999). The forces driving the continuing information revolution are psychological and social as well as technological, and its effects are of all three types as well.

Communicating and Effecting the Practical Implications of Experimentation

It should perhaps go without saying that researchers who do experiments that are explicitly addressed to practical questions should make clear in the reporting of their results what the practical implications of their findings are. However, our experience suggests that many researchers whose work is motivated by practical concerns have difficulty in describing, in terms that intelligent lay readers will find easy to understand, precisely why an experiment they have done is important from a practical point of view and how the results might be applied.

Sometimes the problem is vagueness. Pointing out that a particular finding is relevant to a specified problem is much less helpful than giving examples of how the finding might be applied. The reader would like to know who, not counting other researchers, would benefit from being aware of the finding, and how they might make use of it. Because the abstract of a journal article is usually the first (and often the only) thing a reader sees, abstracts of applied experimental articles should state explicitly what the author believes are the most important practical implications of the reported results.

Another common problem is overstatement. In this case, claims are made regarding real-world relationships that go beyond what the experimental results will support. Sometimes results obtained with college students performing artificial tasks after minutes, or at best hours, of experience with them, and for the purpose of fulfilling a psychology course requirement, are generalized without qualification to the performance of motivated experienced professionals in operational contexts. We are not suggesting that the results of laboratory experiments with college students can have no relevance to real-world situations, but simply noting that it is easy to extrapolate from the one situation to the other in an insufficiently guarded way. Generally speaking, what the laboratory experiments produce is suggestive evidence of relationships that need to be verified in the applied contexts of interest. We think it very important that the implications of experimental results be stated with appropriate qualifications; overstatement contributes negatively to the credibility of the field.

We believe that experimentation motivated strictly by theoretical questions often yields results that have practical implications that are never made explicit. Researchers whose primary interests are theoretical are generally more likely to develop and communicate the theoretical implications of their findings than any practical applications they may have, and they may not be the best equipped to spell out the latter. Psychology and society could be well served by psychologists who are interested in and capable of explicating (in lay terms) ways in which the results of theoretically motivated experimentation could be applied to real-world problems to good effect.

Finally, we need to recognize that having practical implications—even practical implications that have been spelled out—does not necessarily mean having practical impact. In order to have impact, an actual application must be made. Many results of experiments have practical implications that have not been applied to full advantage in practical situations, despite having been recognized for what they are. One may question, for example, whether the results from experimentation on learning have had the impact they should have had on education, or whether the results of studies of negotiation and conflict resolution have been applied to maximum effect to actual conflict situations, or whether what has been discovered about human error has been applied as extensively and effectively as it could be to reduce the consequences of such error in industrial, medical, and other contexts that have implications for public safety.

Ensuring impact requires different skills than does spelling out implications. Consideration of how this can be done is beyond the scope of this research paper, but we do want to support a point made by Geissler (1917b), who argued that applications are best made by experts in the fields in which the findings are believed to apply. This means that psychologists who would like to have a role in seeing that the results of research are actually applied to real-world problems need either to work with experts in the relevant fields or to become experts themselves. However well intentioned, efforts to apply the findings of experimentation to real-world problems by researchers who have only a superficial knowledge of areas of application can result in harm both to psychology and to the areas of interest.

Sources of Additional Information

Many journals publish applied experimental work. Examples are given in Table 3. There are several professional organizations with which researchers doing applied experimental work in psychology tend to affiliate. Notable among them in the United States are the APA’s Divisions 21 (Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology), 3 (Experimental Psychology), 14 (Industrial and Organizational), and 19 (Military), among others; the American Psychological Society; the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society; and the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. Each of these organizations publishes one or more refereed journals, and most publish a magazine or newsletter containing timely information of interest to its membership as well. Parsons (1999) published a historical account of the APA’s division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology. A collection of biographies of distinguished members of this division was edited by Taylor (1994).

Experimental Psychology Research Paper

Textbooks and reviews that emphasize applied experimental work in psychology include, in order of publication, Wickens (1984/2000), Barber (1988), Lave (1988), Izawa (1993), and Harper and Branthwaite (2000). Examples of books thatdiscuss applications of experimental work in specific areas include Baddeley (1982) on memory and mnemonics; McGilly (1994) one ducation; Ceci and Bruck (1995) on childhood memory and testimony; Baron (1998) on public decision making; Foddy, Smithson, Schneider, and Hogg (1999) on resolving social dilemmas; Gärling, Kristensen, Ekehammar, and Wessells (2000) on international negotiations; and Durso et al. (1999) on a variety of applied topics.

Concluding Comments

Experimental research may be motivated by theoretical or practical interests, or both. Independently of its motivation, it may have theoretical or practical implications, or both. And the implications it has may or may not have been made explicit. In this research paper we have focused on experimental research that has been motivated by practical interests or that has produced results with obvious practical implications.

Are there major success stories in applied experimental psychology? Are there examples of individual experiments that have had great practical impact? We cannot point to examples of such experiments, but we think that these may not be the right questions to ask. It is not easy to find many examples in any experimental science of isolated experiments that have had major practical effect. More appropriate, we think, is the question of whether there are practical matters for which the cumulative effects of experimentation have made a difference. What is reasonable to hope for as a consequence of applied experimentation is not major practical impact from single studies, but a gradual increase in understanding of phenomena and relationships that can be applied to practical ends. As to whether this goal has been realized to a significant degree, the answer is undoubtedly yes.

About 30 years ago, Deutsch, Platt, and Senghaas (1971) identified what they considered to be 62 major advances in the social sciences (anthropology, economics, mathematical statistics, philosophy, politics, psychology, and sociology) that had occurred during the first six-and-a-half decades of the twentieth century. Of special interest in the present context is the conclusion to which Deutsch, Platt, and Senghaas’s analysis led them: “that practical demands or conflicts stimulated about three-fourths of all contributions between 1900 and 1965. In fact, as the years went on, their share rose from two-thirds before 1930 to more than four-fifths thereafter” (pp. 458). Further, they noted that “major social science advances were applied to social practice in almost exactly the same proportion as they were stimulated by it, and they showed considerable practical importance” (pp. 458).

Although we cannot report comparably specific figures for experimental psychology, the history of the domain contains many examples of findings that are applicable to realworld practical problems. Some of these findings have been applied to good effect; more have the potential to be so applied. Perhaps more important, opportunities for psychological experimentation addressed to practical concerns abound in the psychological, social, and technological challenges of modern life.


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