“Research is no longer conducted from the top down”


Applied psychology in Zurich this year looks back on a history spanning 100 years. Christoph Steinebach, Dean of the School of Applied Psychology, explains the developments in the area of psychological research as well as the possibilities and limits in this field.

Christoph Steinebach, how has the field of psychological research changed in recent years?

Christoph Steinebach: The largest change has come about due to the possibilities offered by the emergence of new tools. Cutting-edge neuroscientific research, for example, can now be combined with psychological questions. Thanks to digitisation, data is increasingly being collected on a continuous and direct basis. One such example is an app that presents a short questionnaire on your smartphone screen three times a day. We are also increasingly working in and with virtual spaces. For example, we have a bike simulator at the ZHAW.

Are these possibilities generating more results?

Thanks to big data, we are processing larger volumes of data and using the world of Google as a platform. This raises the question of how all of this is to be brought together. As a result, we have more meta-analyses, which essentially conduct research on research projects and their results. Such meta-analyses aim, for example, to summarise these results statistically, allowing the current state of research in a certain area to be evaluated.

Christoph Steinebach is a Professor for Applied Development Psychology and has been working at the ZHAW since 2007. As Dean, he heads the School of Applied Psychology and is also active in various committees. He will retire in summer 2024 and plans to subsequently invest more time in research again.

Is this leading to greater confidence in psychological research?

Generally speaking, yes. Many people find our research results exciting. They read the results, but sometimes also say that they are “hard to believe.” Research can occasionally be surprising with unexpected results and this can trigger resistance. The fact that many results gained during psychological studies cannot be replicated has not done the field any favours when it comes to gaining confidence. However, there are also good reasons for this.

What are they?

People and their attitudes changes over generations. Much of what was researched back in the 1950s is no longer applicable today. Or there might be differences between respondents belonging to different groups. Rules are needed, however, in order to prevent distortions and the influencing of results.

“When conducting research on sensitive issues, I try to involve people from the target group in the project. This is also an ethical approach.”

Christoph Steinebach, Dean of the School of Applied Psychology

What rules are these?

Traditionally speaking, research is an objective process, which means that it is not unintentionally influenced by those involved; it is dependable, which means that it will provide reliable results when carried out repeatedly; and it is valid, provided you measure what should be measured. It now also has to be clear who is responsible for the research process, how and which data has been collected and where it can be found, so that third parties can also access and re-examine it or continue working with it. There also has to be evidence of which decisions were made during which phases. There is greater transparency, a fact that certainly increases the workload. Concerns about data protection, which are certainly justified, don't make things any easier either. Some participants are sceptical and don't answer certain questions, which can lead to results being distorted.

What else needs to be taken into account when conducting research with people?

Transparency and consensus – participants need to know what is being done and why. When I question people, I offer to let them know the results. When conducting research on sensitive issues, I try to involve people from the target group in the project. We clarify together what represents a good question and what approaches are appropriate for the topic at hand. This is also an ethical approach. Research is no longer conducted from a distance nor from the top down.

Psychological research is often commissioned research – does this limit it?

Commissioned research has the advantage that it allows you to tap into target groups that you might otherwise never have come into contact with. You get to work with people who are interested in a project’s implementation. The data can also be used to perform analyses that go into greater detail than the questions asked by the project initiator. Ideally, you can incorporate your own interests and convince the clients to allow additional questions to be explored. If that doesn't work out, you have to lower your sights somewhat.

“I hope that there are no researchers in Switzerland who shy away from tackling certain topics because they are afraid of what the reaction might be.”

Christoph Steinebach, Professor for Applied Development Psychology

What are the limits of applied research?

Thanks to funding, there are many opportunities to work on exciting projects at both a national and an international level. I do, however, see a problem that is specific to universities of applied sciences: many people who work at the ZHAW as lecturers or research associates are heavily involved in the teaching side of things, leaving little time for research activities. Often, this can only be done on the side, meaning there is room for improvement in this regard.

Does psychological research have blind spots?

In the area of research funding, there are lines that are tailored to certain topics or social issues – such as the funding of mental health. While many topics fit here, there are also others for which it is difficult to obtain funding. Important and exciting issues are often not given any attention. Traffic psychology and sports psychology, for example, are two areas that receive relatively little funding.

Are there issues that you would rather leave alone as they are too sensitive?

I hope that there are no researchers in Switzerland who shy away from tackling certain topics because they are afraid of what the reaction might be. With us, researchers are well protected in this respect. In other societies, you have to be careful when it comes to certain research topics, such as diversity, gender or LGBTQ.

Are there any instance in which you have reached your limits as a researcher?

One limit is time. As the Dean of a School with a wide range of concerns and tasks, it is difficult to be continuously involved in a single research topic. I would have liked to have conducted more research into promoting resilience across our lifespan. The ZHAW provides a good environment for this relevant and attractive topic. One important question, for example, would be how we can promote resilience across the board in the everyday life of a university.


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