What we see is usually taken as evidence of something existing; for example, when children see Santa on television, they believe that Santa exists. Researchers use observational designs to support or dispute that a phenomenon exists empirically.
- We are going to explore observational designs in psychological research. We will start by covering the observational study definition.
- Then the types of observational study in psychology commonly used by researchers.
- Moving on, we will explore some observational research design examples of the three types of observational design commonly used.
- After, we will delve into the observational study design covering how data is recorded and analysed.
- Finally, we will delve into the observation evaluation points.
Observational Study Definition
The purpose of observational design is to allow researchers to understand how participants would ‘naturally’ react in certain situations. How they respond can help make accurate observations about the situation, a key concept in scientific research.
An observational study is a form of qualitative research in which the researcher observes participants’ behaviour. There are different types of observational studies, such as controlled, naturalistic, and participant studies.
Observational Study: Psychology
An observational study in psychology occurs when experimenters choose to observe participants in a study to understand behaviours that occur naturally, usually without experimenter manipulation or intervention. There are several types of observational studies in psychology that researchers can use. These include controlled observations, naturalistic observations, and participant observations.
Fig. 1 - Observational studies include controlled, naturalistic, and participant observations.
The type of observational design depends on the setting and whether they will participate in the observed activities.
In controlled observations, researchers observe behaviour in a controlled environment. They usually do this in a laboratory. This kind of observation is a type of structured observation.
Characteristics of controlled observations are:
Researchers determine the conditions of the study, such as the time and duration of the study, the setting/environment, the standardised protocol used (a fixed procedure that is the same for all participants to prevent differences in conditions from affecting the results, which increases internal reliability), and the assignment of participants to groups.
Behaviour is often coded using behavioural schedules (the researcher pre-specifies the behaviours they wish to study and uses a counting system to record how many times the behaviour was observed).
In this way, researchers can easily use the data in statistics.
Naturalistic observation means that researchers observe naturally occurring behaviour in a natural setting. Naturalistic observation is a form of unstructured observation.
Characteristics of naturalistic observations are:
- The researcher does not manipulate the conditions of the observation.
- The researcher records everything they see.
- This research design is typically used as a pilot study because it provides a large amount of information.
Like naturalistic observation, participant observations involve observing naturally occurring behaviours in a natural setting. The factor that distinguishes the two types of observational research is the researcher’s participation in the experiment.
Characteristics of naturalistic observation are:
The researcher participates in the experiment, which can be:
- Overt – the researcher engages in the experiment; the participants are aware of the researcher’s presence and know that they are being observed.
- Covert – the researcher, participates in the experiment, but his identity and research goal remain hidden.
There are also non-participant observations where the researcher observes the participants but does not participate in the experiment.
Observational Research Design Example
Let’s explore some real psychology studies and identify each study's type of observational design.
Type of Observational Design
Observational Design Example
Ainsworth’s (1970) infamous Strange Situation Study is an example of a controlled observational study. The study used controlled observation to assess the nature and quality of infants’ attachment to their mothers. The researchers manipulated the laboratory environment to look like a play area, and the researchers observed how infants responded to their mothers (abandonment and reunion) and strangers approaching them.
An example of a naturalistic observation design is Goodall’s research. She observed chimpanzees in their environment in East Africa. The research goal was to learn more about child-rearing and bonding, family structure, gender roles, social structure, mating, personalities, and eating habits of chimpanzees.
Goffman (1968) conducted a covert participant observational design in which the research team disguised themselves as the assistant director of an asylum. The purpose of the observation was to learn more about the experiences of patients with mental illness living in mental institutions. Participants were unaware that they were being observed.
Observational Study Design
When collecting data for observational research designs, it is essential to consider sampling methods and record and analyse data. Failure to consider these aspects can lead to problems with the reliability and validity of the research.
Observational Design: Sampling Methods
To gather data representative of the entirety of the participants’ behaviour, rather than just a specific point in time, researchers typically use the following sampling methods:
- Time sampling – collecting data at intervals at different times, e.g., every four hours during the participants’ workday over five days.
- Event sampling – collecting data in different environments/situations.
- Instantaneous sampling – collecting data at pre-selected times, ignoring everything before or after.
When these sampling methods are used, the research design is considered more reliable because the behaviour may be due to bad moods rather than how they usually respond, i.e., behavioural changes throughout the day. These factors are considered when using the sampling methods, suggesting that they are reliable.
Observational Design: Recording Data and Analysis
The way data are recorded usually depends on the type of observation design. Examples of methods of data collection, the kind of data they produce, data analysis methods, and the type of observational design for which they are typically used include:
- Behavioural categories –behaviours are predefined, and researchers use a tallying system to record the frequency of the observed behaviour (typical for controlled observations).
- Generates quantitative data that can be used for inference testing.
- Recordings –these are transcribed and analysed (typical of natural observations).
- Generates qualitative data and can be analysed using the content or thematic analysis.
- Observer narrative –the observer takes notes on everything they observe and uses these notes for analysis (typical of participant observation);
- Generates qualitative data and can be analysed using content analysis or thematic analysis.
Observational studies are widely used in psychological research. Although there are many advantages to using this research design, there are also disadvantages that need to be discussed.
Strengths of Observational Designs
The strengths of observational designs are:
- High ecological validity – observational designs can be conducted in the participant’s natural environment, or the participants do not know they are being observed. They are then more likely to behave naturally, which increases ecological validity.
- It can be inexpensive – not many materials are needed, and since many observations occur in natural environments, the cost of this method is minimal.
- Allows researchers to gain in-depth, insightful information because the researcher can be immersed in and participate in the observation.
Weaknesses of Observational Designs
The weaknesses of observational designs are:
- Hawthorne effect – participants change their behaviour because they know they are being observed.
- Participants may behave as they think they should (social desirability) or feel the researchers expect them to (demand characteristics). As a result, the validity of the research decreases.
- Ethical issues – participants are usually not informed of the true aims of the research and are thus deceived, which raises ethical issues.
- The difficulty of replication – because variables are not manipulated or controlled in these observational designs (except in controlled observations), it is difficult to replicate the research and, therefore, to determine if the research is reliable.
Observational Design - Key takeaways
- An observational study is a form of qualitative research in which the researcher observes the participants’ behaviour.
- There are different types of observational studies, such as controlled, naturalistic, and participant studies.
- Time and event sampling methods are used to collect data representing the totality of the participants’ behaviour.
- The typical methods used to record data in observational studies are behaviour schedules, recordings, and observer narratives.
- The advantages of observational studies are high ecological validity, cost-effectiveness, and the opportunity for the researcher to gain a deep, insightful understanding of a phenomenon. The disadvantages of observational studies are the Hawthorne effect, potential ethical problems, and difficulties replicating the study.
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