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Cross Sectional Research

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Cross Sectional Research

Imagine a team of researchers who want to find out if an increase in flu cases eight years ago was due to age or a specific event and what effect those cases had on the current population. They cannot do an experiment where a variable is manipulated because the event has already happened. Instead, they want to observe the information that has already occurred, describe it, and make inferences about the data. They can essentially take a point in time and analyse the information collected then and make observations based on that data.

In our example, public health records would have observed increasing flu cases and affecting the age group. Researchers can infer what happened and conclude that age group. They can then also see if the result of that increase affected that group years later and if that result correlates with anything. This is cross-sectional research.

Cross-sectional research in psychology is a non-experimental, observational research design. It is usually used to describe, for example, the characteristics of a population or subgroup of people at a particular point in time. Or for descriptive purposes. Cross-sectional research is not usually a method used when the researcher wants to draw analytical or causal conclusions from the research.

Cross Sectional Research Researching the past StudySmarterResearching the past, Flaticon

Cross-sectional research design

Cross-sectional research is a type of research often used in psychology.

Cross-sectional research is a study that measures the relationship between variables by collecting data at a specific point in time in the target population. A typical cross-sectional study examines individuals who have or have not been exposed to a factor. The research seeks to determine the differences between those who have been exposed to a factor and those who have not.

There is a lot of cross-sectional research being done regarding disease and public health.

In psychology, cross-sectional research is usually conducted to:

  1. Measure current prevalence rates of mental illness in specific populations
  2. Describe characteristics of the target population.

The target population is the subgroup of people to whom the research findings are to be generalised.

Cross Sectional Research design Characteristics StudySmarterCharacteristics of a person, Flaticon

Cross-sectional research method

When conducting cross-sectional studies, the participants usually:

  1. Formulate a research question and hypothesis - at this stage, the researcher must identify the target population
  2. Design the research
    • Cross-sectional studies tend to use observation rather than experimental techniques to collect data. However, other non-experimental methods such as questionnaires may be used. Therefore, cross-sectional research methods can collect both qualitative and quantitative data.
  3. Conduct the research
  4. Analyse the data - how the data are analysed depends on what data collection methods the researcher used.

Types of cross-sectional studies in psychology

It is important to note that the cross-sectional study is a non-experimental research method. It relies on observations. Rather than manipulating variables, experimenters observe naturally occurring phenomena.There are three types of cross-sectional studies used in research.

Descriptive cross-sectional studies

Descriptive cross-sectional research is a type of research designed to measure characteristics or describe disease prevalence in the target population.

An example of a descriptive cross-sectional study is a study examining the prevalence of developmental disabilities in boys in the UK.

Analytical cross-sectional studies

In analytical cross-sectional research, researchers examine whether there is a relationship between two factors at a given time within the target population.

An example of an analytic cross-sectional study is an investigation of the side effects of interventions in men at various stages of cancer, and have been receiving cancer treatment for three months.

Serial cross-sectional research

Serial cross-sectional research is when multiple cross-sectional studies are conducted on different populations/participants at different time points. Each time data are collected, different participants are included in the study.

The fact that different participants are used each time is important. If the same participants are used, it is a longitudinal study and not a cross-sectional study.

An example of a serial cross-sectional study is measuring the prevalence rate of mental illness at different time points.

This research is useful because it reveals there may be an increase in risk factors in today’s society that increase the incidence of mental illness or that awareness of mental health has now increased. Researchers can determine this trend exists using cross-sectional studies, but they cannot conclude the cause.

What are the cross-sectional research advantages and disadvantages?

Let’s discuss the cross-sectional research advantages and disadvantages.

Cross-sectional research advantages

The cross-sectional research advantages are:

  • The nature of cross-sectional studies allows researchers to compare different populations or factors at a given point in time.

This is beneficial because it allows researchers to identify naturally occurring differences/similarities and relationships between variables and subgroups of people.

  • Cross-sectional studies can be conducted relatively quickly.

  • Cross-sectional research is a relatively inexpensive research method.

  • Cross-sectional studies are often used as a preliminary part of an investigation to determine what should be studied later. Follow-up studies may include longitudinal studies or other experimental designs. The purpose is to determine what direction future empirical research might take.

  • Cross-sectional research has many practical applications in psychology. For example, it can be used to estimate the prevalence of certain mental illnesses. This is important because it raises the awareness of public health services that changes, such as the support offered, need to be improved.

Huang et al. (2019) found that prevalence rates of mental illness in China increased in 2013 compared with 1982.

Cross-sectional research disadvantages

The disadvantages of cross-sectional research are:

  • Cross-sectional research is not conducted in a controlled setting with a standardised procedure (due to the nature of the experimental research method). Therefore, it is difficult for researchers to prevent confounding variables from influencing the factors studied. This reduces the validity of the study.

  • Because of the cross-sectional research design, researchers cannot draw causal conclusions. Researchers cannot infer cause and effect from this research design because it does not consider how changes over time affect the data (it focuses on the present).

  • According to Wang and Cheng (2020), cross-sectional research requires a large, heterogeneous sample. This increases the risk of sampling bias. If the sample does not meet these requirements, it is unlikely that the results will be generalisable. According to the researchers, sample bias can occur in clinical research when a larger number of individuals come from backgrounds that are more susceptible to developing the disease.

  • The period and population the researchers selected for the study may not be truly representative.

Cross-sectional research study examples in psychology

The following research scenarios show cross-sectional research study examples that can be conducted in psychology.

Clinical psychology, e.g., research examining the prevalence of diabetes in the South Asian community.Developmental psychology, e.g., research to investigate the prevalence of symptoms listed in the DSM-5 (the manual used by clinicians to diagnose people with mental illness) in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in the UK.Social psychology, e.g., investigating factors that may contribute to educational failure in school children.


Cross Sectional Research - Key takeaways

  • Cross-sectional research is a study that measures the relationship between variables by collecting data at a specific time in the target population.
  • Cross-sectional research in psychology is a non-experimental, observational research design. It is usually used to describe things like the characteristics of a population or a subgroup of people or for descriptive purposes. Cross-sectional research is not usually a method used when the researcher wants to draw analytical or causal conclusions from the research.
  • The typical method of cross-sectional research is:
    1. Formulating the research question and hypothesis
    2. Designing the research other non-experimental methods such as questionnaires may be used in the process
    3. Conducting the data collection
    4. Analysing the data
  • There are three types of cross-sectional research: descriptive cross-sectional research, analytical cross-sectional research, and serial cross-sectional research.
  • The advantages of cross-sectional research are that it is a relatively quick and inexpensive research method, it can be used to determine the direction of future empirical research, and it has many practical applications.
  • The weaknesses of cross-sectional research are that the factors measured in cross-sectional research can be easily influenced by confounding factors because researchers lack control over the experiment. Causal inferences cannot be drawn with this research method, and for the results to be generalisable, the sample must be large and heterogeneous. This can be difficult to achieve.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cross Sectional Research

The purpose of typically using cross-sectional research designs in psychology is to: measure the current prevalence rates of mental illnesses in specific populations describe characteristics of the target population.

Examples of cross-sectional research that may be used in different domains of psychology are:

  • Clinical psychology – research aiming to investigate the prevalence of diabetes in the South Asian community.
  • Developmental psychology – research attempting to investigate the prevalence of symptoms listed in the DSM-5 (the manual that is used by clinicians to diagnose people with mental illnesses) in children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the UK.
  • Social psychology – research investigating factors that may contribute to educational failure in school children.

Serial cross-sectional research collects cross-sectional data at several different time points. In this research method, each time data is collected from different participants. In longitudinal research, data is collected at different time points from the same participants.

Cross-sectional research is a study that measures the relationship between variables by collecting data at a given time in the target population.

Cross-sectional research in research methods is a non-experimental, observational research design. It is usually used to describe things such as the characteristics of a population or a sub-group of people or for descriptive purposes. Cross-sectional research is not typically a method used when the researcher aims to provide analytical or causal inferences from the research.

Final Cross Sectional Research Quiz

Question

According to Wang and Cheng (2020), what type of sample is needed for cross-sectional research to be generalisable? 

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Answer

Large

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Question

What is the purpose of cross-sectional research?

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Answer

The purpose of typically using cross-sectional research designs in psychology is to:

  • Measure current prevalence rates of mental illness in specific populations
  • Describe characteristics of the target population.

Show question

Question

What's the difference between cross-sectional and longitudinal research?


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Answer

Serial cross-sectional research collects cross-sectional data at several different time points. In this research method, each time data is collected from different participants. In longitudinal research, data is collected at different time points from the same participants.  

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Question

What is cross-sectional research? 


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Answer

Cross-sectional research is a study that measures the relationship between variables by collecting data at a given time in the target population. 

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Question

What type of research is cross-sectional research? 

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Answer

Non-experimental 

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Question

What type of data can be collected from cross-sectional research?

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Answer

Both

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Question

What type of cross-sectional research matches the following description? A kind of research used to measure characteristics or describe the prevalence of illnesses in the target population. 

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Answer

Descriptive cross-sectional research 

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Question

What type of cross-sectional research matches the following description? Research investigating if there is a relationship between two factors at a given time within the target population. 


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Answer

Analytical cross-sectional research 

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Question

A study aimed to measure the prevalence of mental illnesses in different years. What type of cross-sectional research is this? 

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Answer

Serial cross-sectional research

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Question

What is the definition of the target population in cross-sectional research?

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Answer

The target population in cross-sectional research is the sub-group of people that the research results will be generalised to make inferences about. 

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Question

What research design is used to collect data in cross-sectional research?

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Answer

Cross-sectional research uses observational designs to collect data. 

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Question

Can researchers make causal inferences from cross-sectional research? 

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Answer

Yes 

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Question

What is the typical cross-sectional research method used? 

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Answer

  1. The typical method of cross-sectional research is:
    1. Formulating the research question and hypothesis
    2. Designing the research – other non-experimental methods such as questionnaires may be used in the process
    3. Conducting the data collection
    4. Analysing the data.

Show question

Question

What are the advantages of cross-sectional research?

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Answer

The advantages of cross-sectional research are:

  • It is a relatively inexpensive research method.
  • It can be used to identify the direction of future empirical research.
  • It has many practical applications.

Show question

Question

Why may cross-sectional research be considered to lack validity?

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Answer

Cross-sectional research may lack validity because it is not carried out in a controlled setting using a standardised procedure (nature of the experimental research method). So, it is difficult for researchers to prevent confounding variables from influencing the factors investigated. 

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