Are pilot studies useful when conducting reliable and valuable research?

Pilot studies have been shown to be used in many areas within research. However, are pilot studies really that effective or are they a waste of time and resources? One Psychologists named Elizabeth Loftus who’s main area of research involved the use of memory/memory recall was heavily criticised for a pilot study which she carried out entitled “lost in the mall technique” She was criticised for the use of linking false allegations of child sexual abuse to a child’s memory. False results where being published therefore ethical guidelines were being abused. (

This shows one disadvantage when using pilot studies. Some researchers may want to use their pilot studies to publish results which have not yet been tested properly or correctly, or with a generalisable sample size. Pilot studies are meant to be used as a starting point of research ( which then leads to an actual research study being carried out. However, the research study can only be carried out if the pilot study was a success and follows every ethical guideline set by the BPS (British psychological Society). It cannot be used to write up an actual research report.

It is also important to mention that if a pilot study is going to be used it needs to be for the right reasons as many complex pilot studies can be extremely expensive. ( Very often most pilot studies used by researchers will only use a small sample size in order to gather data which they feel will help give a slight indication of what they hope to find. This may lead to misleading and false interpretation of results which may follow from the pilot study (which relates to the case of Elizabeth Loftus) and as mentioned earlier, will not be generalisable towards the true population.

However, despite focusing on a number of problems with conducting pilot studies there are in fact many benefits to using a pilot study before conducting an actual study. If carried out correctly, a pilot study will allow for advantages such as checking that the investigators are skilled in the field of Psychology which they will be testing in, check that the intervention chosen for the actual experiment to follow will be appropriate and one of the most important advantages that it checks for is validity and reliability of the study in question. ( In reality how would you be able to check that a study is appropriate without doing a pilot on it first?

Overall, I feel that a pilot study should be included when preparing to carry out research studies. Not only are they beneficial for the validity and reliability of the research and beneficial on behalf of the researcher, a pilot study can also help eliminate interventions which could cause physical or mental harm towards the participants (helping to follow the ethical guidelines produced by BPS). They also help to eliminate some confounding variables and help determine the best way to carry out the study. In conclusion if they tick all the appropriate boxes such as the ethical guidelines, validity and reliability then no harm can be done when writing up the results and reporting the different findings. A polished report is one which can be published and become advantageous with reference to future research in the field of Psychology


7 thoughts on “Are pilot studies useful when conducting reliable and valuable research?

  1. Really enjoyed reading your blog and you’ve addressed both sides of the argument really well. After reading the pilot study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus, I was convinced that using pilot studies was a bad thing, she used the pilot study to test out her theory on a smaller population and then made false links without carrying out a full investigation using a better sample size with more accurate research carried out, which, as you pointed out, raises ethical issues.
    In A level Psychology, I was told that pilot studies were carried out as a smaller scale experiment to see if it could realistically be tested on a larger scale, allowing small tweaks to be made after the pilot study was finished, also that they were used to reduce the risk of spending large amounts of money on experiments that would not work.
    I agree with your point that pilot studies are useful and do raise the reliability and validity of the experiment by showing that it is reproductable and that the results can be matched when the experiment is repeated. Ripon, C.A. (2006) wrote that pilot studies are useful for treatment evaluations.
    Overall, after carrying out some research, it seems that pilot studies are successful in what they are set out to do, reducing money spent and raising reliability and validity. Very rarely are they used in the way Elizabeth Loftus used hers.

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  3. An interesting topic and I think you explained and evaluated both sides of the argument well. An additional point you could make is that ‘pilot studies’ could additionally be seen as unfair as in some cases they may deprive people of things; for example if a study on a medication to cure depression was carried out then the pilot study group of participants would not be given medication that could potentially rid them of their disorder, surely this is very unethical and unfair to only treat some of the people if the medication is beneficial to all of them.

    Pilot studies are useful to refine and improve your current research and experiments as well as to give an indication of what you are likely to find however your point about expenses is very important; some studies just do not have the money to carry them out regardless of whether it is beneficial or not it simply depends on the funding.

    Another point is that in some cases pilot studies may then limit the amount of participants available for the actual experiment; if you are looking at an extremely small group of people, for example monozygotic twins who were separated at birth and raised in different homes, and your research does not allow you to repeat participants then carrying out a pilot study would limit your available participants for your actual study creating a much smaller sample which would affect the generalisability of your later results.

  4. i believe that pilot studies are very important when conducting research to make sure that your study will actualy be valid. however in saying that if the group or population that your are studying is already very small i think that if your pilot study resuts are valid then you should be able to take them into account when doin the main study.

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  7. Pilot studies are incredibly useful when you are about to conduct research.out in the field. They are used to highlight any flaws in the way your experiment is going to be conducted which can be sorted before the actual experiment is carried out. This could increase the validity of your research. Also if you do not have a clear indication of the possible outcome of the results or you haven’t decided what area you will be focusing on, you could use the pilot study to test out a hypothesis or an idea. If after conducting your actual experiment you find completely different results from the pilot study I think you should be able to print the results of the pilot study after investigating why the results differed.

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