What is the difference between basic and applied personality and social psychology research?

Scientists in all fields distinguish between basic and applied research. Basic research in personality and social psychology tends to focus on fundamental questions about people and their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Where does an individual’s personality come from? What causes us to fall in love, hate our neighbor, or join with others to clean our neighborhoods? How are the psychologies of being male and female similar, how are they different, and why? How does culture shape who we become and how we interact with one another? Questions such as these aim at the very heart of human nature.

Applied research in personality and social psychology focuses on more narrow arenas of human life, such as health, business, and law. By employing the lessons learned from basic research, and by searching for insights specific to particular domains, applied research often seeks to enhance the quality of our everyday lives. Personality and social psychologists contribute to areas as diverse as health, business, law, the environment, education, and politics. For example, personality and social psychologists have designed, implemented, and evaluated programs to help employers hire and train better workers; to make it easier for people with cancer to cope successfully with their challenge; to increase the likelihood that people will reduce pollution by relying on public transportation; to reduce prejudices and intergroup conflict in the classroom and in international negotiations; to make computers and other technologies more user-friendly; and to make many other societal contributions as well. 

Of course, the distinction between basic and applied research is often a fuzzy one. One can certainly perform basic research in applied domains, and the findings from each type of research enrich the other. Indeed, it would be fair to say that most personality and social psychologists have both basic and applied interests.


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