Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Finding a Good Research Question, in Theory

Nicolai Bodemer & Azzurra Ruggeri

Newton needed an apple, Franklin a flash, Galileo a telescope, and Archimedes a crown. What do these people have in common? They observed a phenomenon that they could not explain, devoted their lives to investigating it, and in doing so achieved groundbreaking discoveries. From observations to hypotheses, from experiments to potential explanations, they conducted every part of the research required to answer the question they had chosen.

Nowadays, rarely—if ever—can a single scientist start at the beginning of the research process and follow it through all the way to its conclusion. Rather than a marathon, research today resembles a relay race: We focus on a small part of a larger question and then pass the baton to the next scientist. In a system where most advances are incremental, many scientists struggle to pursue original research questions. We identifi ed and evaluated several methods that scientists use to select the subject of their research.

Some scientists approach the task by picking a theory and reading all the papers within its theoretical framework in search of a question not yet asked. However, the mere fact that some aspect has not been explored yet does not necessarily make it interesting. Others create a problem they think they can solve by applying one of the solutions their theories or methodologies have already provided to them. This may be an engaging intellectual exercise, but it usually leads to sterile research questions, unlinked to the real world. These question generation strategies lead to smart and creative solutions to problems that do not exist—a phenomenon called Type III error: fi nding the right answer to the wrong question. It seems to us that too much research is based on these approaches, especially in behavioral economics and behavioral sciences.

There is another way to generate a research question: Go back to the basics. Observe the world, and when you encounter a phenomenon that intrigues you, investigate it. Theories should not be the only source of research questions or the benchmark against which we defi ne what is right and wrong. Shall we abandon a research question when there is no theory from which we could derive our hypotheses? Should we feel compelled to conform our own results only to the mainstream theoretical framework to be accepted in the fi eld? Should we be more concerned about the theory than about the actual problem under investigation? Research runs the risk of growing too dependent on theories, neglecting real-world problems as a result and constraining perspectives and methodologies. If Newton had been preoccupied with established theories, he might have been too busy in his offi ce to realize how surprisingly interesting an apple falling from a tree could be.