The Significance Of Correlational Research And What It’s Used For

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 7, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Correlational research has been a crucial tool in understanding human behavior and health, among many other topics. By using this method to analyze the connections between variables, researchers can gain valuable insights into how our environments and interactions influence various aspects of our lives. In this article, we’ll explore what exactly a correlational study is, how it differs from other types of studies, and some of its practical implications.

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What is correlational research?

The outcome of a correlational research study is usually either positive, negative, or somewhere in between.

  • Positive correlations occur when two variables move in the same direction. When one variable increases, so does the other variable. 

  • Negative correlations occur when two variables move in opposite directions. When one variable increases, the other decreases. 

Most correlations are somewhere in between these two extremes. For example, imagine that you’re studying the relationship between how much television people watch and how much exercise they get. You might find a slight negative correlation between these two variables—that is, as television watching increases, exercise decreases (and vice versa), but only marginally.

A key element of correlational research is remembering that just because two variables are correlated does not necessarily mean that one causes the other—that correlation is not the same as causation. Going back to our example above, just because there’s a slight correlation between how much television people watch and how much exercise they get does not mean that watching television causes people to exercise less. There could be other variables—such as free time—that cause both television watching and a lack of exercise, or a wide variety of other factors.

Examples of correlational research

Correlational research is a powerful and versatile tool that’s used in numerous fields, from psychology to economics. For instance, a correlational study might be done to decipher the intricate link between factors such as income and happiness, or between study habits and academic performance. In other words, correlational research is typically most useful for shedding light on associations that are not readily apparent but that may be critical to understanding societal and behavioral dynamics.

This type of research can also be a valuable tool in uncovering the surprising connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, like air pollution and health. Through this type of study, researchers can gain insight into how certain factors interact in ways that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Potential advantages of correlational research

Through correlational studies, researchers can discover if changes in one variable cause changes in another. Correlational research is particularly useful when exploring concepts that cannot be manipulated within an experiment due to ethical reasons, practicality, or other factors. 

Correlational research is quick and cost-effective

Conducting a correlational research study is relatively quick and cost-effective compared to other methods, such as experimental studies. Correlational studies enable researchers to analyze existing patterns without designing and conducting a live experiment themselves. It is usually easier to recruit participants, since less is being asked of them than in an experimental study, and the entire process can typically happen more quickly and with less financial investment required. 

Applicability to real-world situations

Correlational research can provide valuable insights into how different factors may interact with each other in real-world situations and natural environments—something which cannot always be accomplished through experiments alone. It also allows researchers to examine complex phenomena involving multiple variables simultaneously to understand how they may be related and linked in various ways. The results of correlational studies can help inform things like public policy because the information was gathered directly from real-world situations.

May offer a broader perspective

Unlike experimental studies, which typically focus on one particular factor at a time, correlational research can offer a broader perspective on a given phenomenon. It typically examines all potential influences that could impact an outcome, giving researchers a more holistic picture. Furthermore, because no manipulation needs to occur during a correlational study, results may often be more reliable and valid than their experimental counterparts, where control over variables may be more difficult.


Potential drawbacks of correlational research

Every research method has advantages and disadvantages, and correlational research is no exception. Let’s take a look at a few of its potential drawbacks.

It’s subject to bias and judgment

Interpretating findings is usually a large part of correlational research. As such, human error and bias can sometimes lead to misinterpretations. For example, environmental researchers studying the effects of pollution on a certain specific aspect of health may go into the study expecting a clear negative relationship to exist between the two. Because of this preconceived notion, they may end up interpreting the results in a way that supports their expectation but that the findings don’t factually support.

It can produce unclear results

It isn't always easy to establish cause-and-effect relationships between two variables in a correlational research study. Unfortunately, this difficulty can lead to a higher risk of false causal claims, as any observed correlations may be coincidental. For instance, a researcher may not consider all the available variables when analyzing information, resulting in an incomplete understanding of the study's results. They could also overlook potential confounding variables influencing their findings, or not consider the direction of causation between different variables. 

Correlational vs. experimental research

Both of these types of research are practical and widely used. The type researchers choose typically depends on the specific scenario and what they’re hoping to learn. Again, correlational studies involve taking measurements or gathering information about something after it has occurred. Experimental studies, on the other hand, require researchers to manipulate at least one variable in order to test two or more different scenarios in real-time. In order to decide which form of research is best for trying to answer a given question, researchers have to outline exactly what they’re trying to find and examine various methods to make the right choice.

Correlational research and therapy

Correlational research has offered significant insights into the efficacy of various therapy treatments. For example, correlational research studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of online formats for therapy, which can be more convenient and cost-effective for many individuals. These studies typically involve measuring different outcomes in people who have engaged in this type of therapy over a significant period of time. Researchers may also make comparisons to the same types of results from people who have engaged in traditional in-person therapy. 

A 2021 study, for instance, found that, “Clinically, therapy is no less efficacious when delivered via videoconferencing than in-person.” For those who are interested in trying online therapy for themselves, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can be one option to consider. You can use BetterHelp to meet with a licensed provider via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address any mental health challenges you may be facing.

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Correlational studies can act as versatile tools for researchers to explore the world and reveal hidden relationships. While this type of study has limitations, it can provide valuable insights into why things happen the way they do. With a better understanding of how certain elements of life and behavior may correlate, we can develop more effective strategies in many areas of society.
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