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How to Write an Empirical Research Paper in the Field of Psychology

An empirical paper is a research article that reports and documents the findings of a research study which collects data through “observation and experimentation”. They usually involve primary research work, as opposed to theories, beliefs, or conducting literature reviews and summarising previous studies. Empirical studies often include the following parts:

1. Title page.

2. Abstract.

3. Introduction.

4. Method.

5. Results.

6. Discussion.

7. References.

This essay will cover the above parts in detail and explore the content to be included in each.

Before embarking on the task of writing a psychological empirical paper, keep in mind that the purpose of an empirical paper is to “inform the reader about a new idea, theory, or experiment” (Olson & Meyersburg, 2008). The reader of such papers is not limited to academicians and others within the field of psychology. It must be kept in mind that the purpose of research is to create knowledge and this knowledge must be accessible to everyone. Hence, empirical papers should be written with clarity, direction, and simplicity. Complex ideas, methods, processes, and terms should be further explained and made easy to understand, and irrelevant information should be discluded. The first sign of a successful empirical paper in psychology is its ability to make “complex ideas understandable” (Olson & Meyersburg, 2008) to individuals outside the field of expertise. Consider yourself a teacher of a Psychology 101 course, teaching students who have had no exposure to the subject – your psychological empirical paper should be written with the same mindset; you must keep in mind that it will be read by individuals who have not been exposed to the field of psychology; hence, your article must be written in such a way that it is “comprehensible to the widest possible audience” (Bem, 2004, 3) Alongside this, make sure that your paper follows a structured format and is divided into different sections (as mentioned above). There should be a logical sequence and each part should smoothly transition from one to the other. Other basic guidelines include using double-spacing, using one-inch margins (as per APA guidelines), putting page numbers in the upper-right-hand corner (starting with the title page), and adding the title of the paper to the header on the left-hand side. All headings (such as ‘Abstract’ and ‘Introduction’) should be centred using capital and lowercase letters, and all tables must be included towards the end of the paper (as per APA guidelines). Once the basics of writing a psychological empirical paper are understood, proceed towards understanding the different areas covered under such papers.

Title Page

The first part of your empirical research paper will be the title page. The title page of your paper must include the title, which gives the reader a summary and a basic idea of what your paper is about. The title should be succinct, specific, and should ideally not be more than twelve words. For example, “The effects of Instagram usage on the levels of anxiety of adolescents in Pakistan”. The given example represents a good title as it is specific in terms of the variables it is looking at and measuring, and in terms of who the sample is; it is written in less than fifteen words and provides the reader with a clear idea of what the paper is about. Besides the title, your paper should include the name(s) of the researcher(s), the department(s) and institution(s) they are affiliated with, contact information (such as an email address) of the head researcher, the journal the paper is published under, and name(s) of the supervisor(s) if it is a student paper. All information on the title page should be centred from the margins and placed in the centre of the page.


The next part of your paper is the abstract, which should begin on a new page. The purpose of the abstract is to provide a “brief summary of the research conducted” (University of Notre Dame, 2024). It should ideally be no more than 250-300 words. The abstract must show the reader the study at a glance and should be written in the same order as the rest of your paper: Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion. You should take the important information from all of the sections and condense it into a succinct and coherent paragraph with each section making up at least one sentence of the abstract (University of Washington, 2010). Consider the below points when writing your abstract:

  1. Write your abstract after you have written your entire paper. Once you have a clear understanding of your research study, its results and its implications, only then will you be able to write a summary of it.

  2. Go over each section of your paper to determine the main points under each of them. If it helps you, underline or highlight the main keywords of each section so you know what to include for each section.

  3. Before writing your own abstract, go over other psychological empirical research papers to get an idea of how you should go about writing your own abstract.

  4. Begin with a draft and edit from there. Your draft should include:

a. The research question (1 line).

b. The purpose of the study/experiment (1 line).

c. A brief of the methods used and the sample involved (1-3 lines).

d. The results (1-3 lines)

e. The implications, meaning what results were drawn from the study and how they can be used for future interventions, research, etc. If the study has multiple implications, only include one which you deem the most important (1 line).

At the end of your abstract, mention the keywords of your paper. These are the words which are either used frequently in your paper or encompass the main theme and purpose of your study. Their purpose is to help individuals searching databases to find your paper. If we take the above title example (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), the keywords of this paper would be Instagram, anxiety, adolescents, and Pakistan. As per APA guidelines, keywords should be written after the abstract with the term ‘keywords’ in italics, followed by a colon, followed by the keywords separated by commas. No punctuation follows the last keyword (Iowa State University, 2023). An example is given below:


Keywords: Instagram, anxiety, adolescents, Pakistan

Introduction Section

The next part of your paper is the introduction. The purpose of the introduction is for you to “explain your research question” (Wolfe, n.d.). Overall, your introduction should include an opening paragraph, a literature review, and your research questions and hypotheses:

1. Opening Paragraph – You should use this paragraph to capture the reader’s attention and pave the way towards the topic your paper is based on; it should give the reader a “sense of the concepts the paper will cover” (Wolfe, n.d.). Write an opening statement and explain your main concept or variable. If we take the example from above (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), the opening statement could be: ‘Previous research has shown that excessive social media use can negatively impact anxiety levels of the user. This study looks at the impact of Instagram use on anxiety levels of adolescents residing in Pakistan’. After writing this opening statement, you would go on to define and explain your main concept or variable. For this example, the concept would be how social media use affects anxiety levels. When explaining this concept, you should define it and explain how it works. In this case, you should define the terms ‘social media’ and ‘anxiety’. When defining them, make sure to use a proper citation and explain the concept formally. Once defined, you should explain the relationship between social media and anxiety levels; explain how the relationship works, and refer to and cite any relevant theories that would provide evidence for your explanation of the concept. While you can go in as much detail as you like, keep the opening paragraph shorter in length so that the reader remains engaged and does not get overwhelmed with information.

2. Literature Review –  Once you are done with your opening paragraph, you should transition into a literature review going over any previous research and studies that have either focused on the same concept as you, have used similar methods, or have achieved results similar to your hypothesis. Use the literature review to explain, define, and provide evidence for all the other concepts and variables included in your research. When writing your literature review, it is also important to identify one key study that would be especially important to your research. This key study would be the one with the least amount of gaps and the one you would explain in the most detail. You may even choose to replicate this study and use it to form your hypotheses. Feel free to divide this section of the Introduction into different paragraphs to create organisation and clarity. When reviewing past literature, take time to contemplate the gaps in past research. This can include but is not limited to:

a. A contradiction.

b. A conclusion you may think to be incorrect.

c. A variable that was not included but should have been.

d. A shortcoming where the study could have been extended further but did not.

3. Research Questions and Hypotheses – Begin this section by naming and defining (operationalising) the specific variables you intend to study and provide a brief explanation of the methods used. Continuing from our example above (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), the specific variables would be Instagram usage (defined by the number of hours spent on Instagram per day, based on the individual’s screen time on their phones), levels of anxiety (defined by scores on an anxiety questionnaire), and adolescence (defined by those individuals who fall in between the age range of 10 to 19 years, as mentioned by the World Health Organisation). Once the variables are explained, give a brief of the method your study will use. For the given example, the method could be written as: “This study plans to correlate and analyse the relationship between Instagram use and anxiety levels of adolescents in Pakistan. We plan to collect data on the total number of hours spent on the app and have participants fill out a survey regarding anxiety so that the two variables may be correlated”. Once you cover your variables and methods, mention your study’s hypotheses. Your hypotheses are statements of what your study predicts it will find. For the given example, your hypothesis could be: “The study hypothesises that those adolescents with more Instagram usage will experience increased levels of anxiety compared to those who have less Instagram usage”.

Once you cover the above three parts, your introduction will be complete.

Methods Section

The next part of your paper is the method section. Before beginning this section, keep in mind that this section is titled ‘Method’, not ‘Methods’. This section is essentially divided into three parts that you should cover:

1. Participants – This part of your Method section refers to the people who took part in your study. You must cover all of the information regarding them, including the sample size, age range (alongside mean age and the standard deviation for age), gender division, race, ethnicity, education level (if that is relevant), occupation (if that is relevant), where they were recruited from, how they were recruited, if they were given any incentive to participate, etc. Were people with certain characteristics discluded? Why? Make sure to include demographic statistics that are relevant to your study and what it aims to find.

2. Materials – The ‘Materials’ portion of your Method section should cover how or what was used to measure the variables in your study. As you did in the ‘Research Question and Hypothesis’ section of your Introduction, you must mention your variables, their operational definition, how they were manipulated (if relevant), and how they were measured. Continuing from the example above (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), one of the variables measured is anxiety. Anxiety will be measured using an anxiety self-report in which participants will answer questions related to anxiety. As you write this research paper, you need to mention whether this self-report replicates an already established standardised measure of anxiety or if you have formulated it solely for the sake of your study. If the self-report is a replication of a previous one, provide evidence for its reliability and validity. If you are formulating the self-report, how will you ensure its reliability and validity? Within the concept of anxiety, what does the questionnaire specifically measure? Give examples of the questions and mention how responses are taken: Are the questions open or close-ended? If they are close-ended, are they measured on a Likert scale, through True/False or Yes/No answer options, etc.? How will the questionnaire be scored and analysed? If the questions are open-ended, how will you analyse the qualitative data collected? If the questions are close-ended, how will the questionnaire be scored and how will that score be interpreted? However, not all empirical studies in psychology use self-reports as a form of measurement. Some may use equipments. For example, consider a research study in which one of the variables will be measured through an MRI. In this case, you would write about what an MRI machine is, what it does, how it works, what it measures, and how its results (which would be the scans) are interpreted. You would follow this more or less regardless of the equipment you are using. You should always make sure to include any (additional) information that is relevant to your study and research topic. Each variable or measurement should be written in different paragraphs.

3. Procedure – This part of your Method section includes what exactly was done in your study. First, go over the procedure with the participants. Once the participants consented to participate, were there any formal arrangements to get their informed consent (unless deception was used in your study such as signing a consent form)? If your study had different conditions (experimental and control), how were the participants allocated to them? Before beginning the study, what were the participants told about it?  Once you cover this, explain how the experiment was run and everything the participants did from start to finish in chronological order. If you have different conditions (experimental and control), you should explain how each one of them was conducted and the differences between them. Provide details on how many times the experiment was run and if there were any differences within these trials. After the experiment, were the participants debriefed (if deception was used)? Provide details on how they were debriefed.


Results Section

The next part of your paper is the results section. This is where you provide the reader with information about the data you collected, how it was analysed, and what you found through that analysis. First, you must provide evidence that your study “successfully set up the conditions for testing your hypotheses or answering your questions” (Bem, 2004, 7). If, for example, you have conducted a study that requires one group of participants to be in a happy mood and one in a depressed mood, you must provide evidence that the moods of the two groups were different. This could be through mood ratings or scales, or MRIs if your study has a biological perspective. Consider any confounding variables that could have interfered with the results of the study, and provide evidence that these variables did not affect the results of the study. Taking the above example (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), was there any screening conducted to make sure that the participants who had a mental illness were not included in the sample (which could have impacted their anxiety levels); what evidence can you provide for that? Keep in mind that this initial information could also be written within the Method section; it is up to your judgement.

Once the initial information is covered, review the data collected through your manipulations. If we take the above example (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), this would include the data you collected on the amount of screen time spent on Instagram and the results of the anxiety questionnaire (each attempt should have its own results table/section). Was the data you collected converted into analysable data (this is especially important if your study used observations to collect data)? How was the data converted? How did you conduct the data analysis? Did you conduct a correlation, cross-tabulation, etc.? To conduct this analysis, did you use any software? If you did, why did you choose that particular one?

Now that you have offered the data, begin to offer your central findings and then go into specifics. If we take the above example (“The Effects of Instagram Usage on the Levels of Anxiety of Adolescents in Pakistan”), the central finding could be that increased time spent on Instagram has been found to increase anxiety levels in adolescents in Pakistan. Then go into the specifics: Was this relationship (between Instagram use and anxiety levels) influenced by sex? Is there a specific amount of screentime that is associated with increased anxiety levels, as in what is the minimum amount of screentime that leads anxiety levels to begin increasing? For both central and specific findings, state the basic finding first, then provide evidence (quantitative data) and elaborate as necessary.

In the case of quantitative data, you can provide figures and tables towards the end of the paper and reference them in your results section. If you have conducted any statistical analysis on such data, you must provide the statistical significance. However, while you can provide numerical data, always make sure that your Results section is more descriptive so that it can be understood by everyone.

Discussion Section

The next and final part of your paper is the discussion section. Start the discussion section by stating what was the main outcome of the study, what can be learned and what are the implications. Confirm whether the hypotheses were met. If the hypotheses were not met, what are the factors that could have led to this? If the study had been conducted differently, would the hypotheses have been met? Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your study. When it comes to the weaknesses, what can future researchers do to overcome them?

Consider questions that your study did not answer or any questions or concerns that were raised during the study. Provide suggestions on how these questions can be answered and if there is a type of research that could help answer them. Essentially, the Discussion section is an opportunity for you to reflect on your study and evaluate it. Look at your study’s strengths and weaknesses and address them. Consider what you have found through your study and how that can be applied to the target population. Consider how your study is significant and what it adds to the sphere of research already available.

References Section

Now that you are done with the writing part, you must add references for all and any sources used. References are important because, as a researcher, it is important to give credit to previous papers and the work of other professionals in the field that you may have used as inspiration or to develop your own idea. Failure to do so is considered plagiarism. Your reference list should include citations for any literature you have used, any work you have read or looked up and taken influence from, and any questionnaires you have either used or taken influence from. Follow the APA guide for references. The title of your References section should be ‘References’, not ‘Works Cited’ or ‘Bibliography’, and should be in bold. Each reference should have a hanging indent, which can be created by pressing the Control/Command and letter ‘T’ keys together, and the entire list must be written in double spacing. Organise your references list alphabetically by the author’s last name. If a paper has no author, you will include that citation in the list based on the first letter of the first significant word in the title. While writing your paper, you must make sure to do proper in-text citations when you directly quote or paraphrase information or content from another source. Some things to keep in mind when doing in-text citations:

1. When referring to the title of the source within your paper, it must be italicised and all significant words must be capitalised.

2. When citing a journal article, book, or book section, you must include the last name of the author, the year or publication, and the page number. When it comes to page numbers ‘p.’ signifies a single page, while ‘pp.’ signifies a range of pages. Consider the following examples: 

a. (Khan, 2000, p. 20)

b. (Khan, 2000, pp. 20-25)

c. According to Khan (2000), “adolescents in Pakistan have increasing Instagram use” (p. 20).

3. If the article has two authors, you must use an ‘&’ to separate their names. Eg: (Khan & Naqvi, 2000, p. 20)

4. If the article has three or more authors, you must use the term ‘et al.’ in your citation. Eg: (Khan, et al., 2000, p. 20)

5. If you use a source like a website, video, or audio where page numbers are unavailable, you do not need to reference a page number.

6. If you are directly quoting a significant portion of a source (40 words or more), instead of including it within the text of your paper, write it in a new paragraph that is indented ½ an inch from the existing margins.



This article covers the basics of writing an empirical research paper in psychology. It covers the main things you should consider and keep in mind when writing such a paper, and equips the reader with the knowledge and skills to write a research paper in psychology.



This article was written by Batool Madhwala, who is a part of the Global Research Internship Program (GRIP).

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