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Psychology - Other

The Role of Observation in Psychological Research

Observation is the most basic and commonly used method for gathering information. It enables scientists to explore the mutual relation of interaction between different objects and phenomena. In psychological research, the role of observation is to help psychologists estimate different behaviors. There are many types of observations, but it is suggested that direct observation accounts for more objective estimates about behaviors. Unlike many other available methods, direct observation takes into account deficiencies of human vigilance and memory.

Naturalistic Observation

The role of naturalistic observation is to view and examine behaviors in environments where these behaviors typically occur. Naturalistic observation is thought to be the most accurate methodological approach for studying behavior in psychological research. This approach allows the scientist to make the most precise measurements about behavior across space, time, and people. Naturalistic observation does not give the flexibility to manipulate independent variables. It still, however, allows researchers to have some control over the experimental conditions. There are many natural environments where scientists can observe specific behaviors or interpersonal interactions, such as classrooms, playgrounds, offices, etc. Conducting naturalistic observations, however, is not always feasible, and the varying characteristics of natural environments may interfere with behavioral assessments.

Controlled Observation

The role of controlled observation is to give researchers an opportunity to study behavior in situations which are relatively consistent across subjects. Controlled observations are an essential part of psychological research because they allow scientists to manipulate certain aspects of the environment. Despite the fact that the environmental conditions are kept under control, they still maintain an acceptable degree of real-life resemblance. Controlled observation also allows scientists to replicate conditions almost exactly and make standardized comparisons between observed groups of participants from different studies.    

In their experiment, Bandura et al. (1963) used controlled observation to examine whether exposure to violent behavior provokes imitative responses in children. Researchers observed children’s responses after exposure to aggressive behavior simulated by a live model or shown as a video recording. Scientists divided children into four groups. Children in group 4 were not exposed to violent content and were used as a control group.  Children in the remaining three groups were exposed to violent content either through observing aggressive acts displayed by a live model, viewing a video featuring a live model, or viewing a cartoon character which engaged in violent acts towards a “Bobo doll.” To collect data, researchers in this study used a one-way mirror to make real-time personal observations and video recording for a detailed analysis. Video recording was coded and used to calculate the number of aggressive acts towards Bobo dolls. The controlled observation method used in this study allowed the authors to confirm their hypothesis that exposure to live or displayed aggression positively influences the number of violent acts exhibited by children.

Observing people’s ability to focus their attention and listen to one person in a loud room inspired Colin Cherry to examine this phenomenon. He named it a “cocktail party problem” and conducted some experiments where he observed people’s ability to distinguish two simultaneously spoken messages or messages delivered in the form of a mixed speech. Cherry’s observations helped psychologists develop different research approaches for studying attention.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a research approach which derived from ethnographic research in anthropology. It was first used to carefully record the life and customs in different cultures. Nowadays, the role of the ethnographical approach is to study naturalistic actions and reactions of people who live in different rural and urban areas. Ethnography allows scientists to observe behaviors in certain groups over longer periods of time. It gives researchers an opportunity to gain a close insight into the functioning of a group and create a very insightful picture of its members. In his study from 1985, William Corsaro used an ethnographic approach to research children’s perception of friendship. He was interested in investigating the meaning of friendship in particular places at appropriate times. The ethnographic approach allowed Williamson to become an integral part of the observed group and get involved in their activities. There are several advantages of using ethnography in psychological observations. Observing a group from within allows psychologists to note subtle and complicated influences which might be missed when other research methods are employed. While some other research methods may require a child to do a challenging task of verbalizing thoughts, ethnography enables scientists to gather rich and complex information through the first-hand observation of children’s behavior and experiences. There are also, however, some limitations to this method. Becoming a member of a particular group and blending-in may not always be easy. Drawing from his personal experience, Corsaro recommended that researchers should first observe behavior from a distance and wait for children to approach and invite them to join their group.


Interviews are another way of observing participants and their behaviors in psychological research. Interviews allow participants to reflect on their thoughts, hopes, and goals about various topics or people in general. In structured interviews, the researcher has a list of questions which are posed to every participant. Interviews also give researchers the flexibility to change questions according to different participants and collect interesting comments which might be relevant for enhancing the design of a study (semi-structured interview). When using interviews to study children, it is it is important to consider potential limitations such as language skill. Young children might not have the capacity to verbalize their answers in the best possible way., It is therefore suggested that interviews might be more suited to research involving older children and adolescents. One advantage to interviews is that they allow participants to have a certain degree of freedom of expression. On the other hand, interviews can be very time consuming, and this is a disadvantage.

In general, personal interviews allow researchers to achieve very high response rates. By interacting with participants, interviewers can clarify questions and answer any questions about the procedure. Another advantage of personal interviews is that these can help researchers to observe and record the behavior of people who do not have adequate reading skills, such as small children. The personal interview also has its disadvantages. Due to discomfort, participants may not always be willing to disclose some personal information during live interaction with researchers. In his study on friendship, William Damon used personal interviews to study children’s perception of friendship. Interviews enabled Damon to observe children and their thoughts on an individual level without generalizing, which was not the case in other research which used different methodologies.



Brace, N. & Byford, J. eds., 2012. Investigating Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritter, FE 2013, Running Behavioral Studies with Human Participants: A Practical Guide, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

SaldanĖƒa, J 2011, Fundamentals of Qualitative Research, New York: Oxford University Press.

Salkind, NJ 2010, Encyclopedia of Research Design, Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wysocki, T n.d., 'Introduction to the Special Issue: Direct Observation in Pediatric Psychology Research'. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 40, 1, pp. 1-7.


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