Research Methods in Psychology



Observational Research

Researchers cannot observe

All of a person’s behavior

All people’s behavior

Researchers can observe

Samples of individuals

Samples of behavior at particular times

Samples of different settings and conditions


Observational Research

Goal of sampling behavior

Represent larger population of



Settings and conditions


Observational Research


How many hours of television did you watch last week?

Is this number representative of how much you typically watch tv?

Is the average for the class representative of the number of hours of tv watched by

all students on campus?

all college students?

all people?


Observational Research

Use data from a sample to represent the population

“Generalize” the findings from sample to population

Sample must be similar to population

External validity

Extent to which a study’s findings may be used to describe people, settings, conditions beyond those used in the study.


Sampling Behavior

Extent to which observations may be generalized (external validity)

Depends on how behavior is sampled

Two methods

Time sampling

Situation sampling

Goal: obtain representative sample of behavior


Sampling Behavior, continued

Time Sampling

Choose time intervals for observations

Systematic (first day of each week; third hour of every day; 9:00, 11:00, 1:00 during school day)

Random (random day each week, random hour during the day, three random ½ hour periods during school day)

EAR (electronically activated recording; every 12.5 minutes, 30 seconds of recording)

Don’t use time sampling for observing rare events (might miss them)

Event sampling (animals eating; museum patrons interacting with exhibits; player shooting foul shots)


Sampling Behavior, continued

Situation Sampling

Choose different settings, circumstances, conditions for observations

If we want to examine how “considerate” a person is, we would do this.

What if there are too many behaviors to observe (food selections in dining hall)?

Use subject sampling to observe only some individuals within a situation (rules about probability sampling still apply—random subject sampling of some form would be best).



If you wanted to investigate the number and nature of disruptive behaviors in college classes and how they change over the semester at Albertus Magnus College, how would you do that?

What type of sampling would you use (and why)?

What if you wanted to investigate the same topic above in college classes in general?

Classification of Observational Methods

Observational Methods
Direct Observation Indirect (Unobtrusive) Observation
Observation without Intervention Observation with Intervention Physical Traces Archival Records
Participant Observation Structured Observation Field Experiment


Direct Observation without Intervention

Naturalistic Observation

Observation in natural (real-world) setting

No attempt to intervene or change situation

Expert teacher example


Describe behavior as it normally occurs (bullying)

Examine relationships among naturally occurring variables

Establish external validity of lab findings

Correlation between bullying and establishing relationships

Use when ethical considerations prevent experimental manipulation (bullying effects on developing peer relationships)


Direct Observation with Intervention

Characterizes most psychological research

Gain control over observations

Three methods in natural settings

Participant observation (note reactivity)

Undisguised—e.g., person gets permission to live with tribe to observe and record their activities

Disguised—e.g., participants sought admission to psychiatric hospital complaining of one symptom

Structured observation—between non-intervention and field experiment; inattentional blindness example

Field experiment—one or more IVs manipulated in natural setting (clown vs. skateboard)


Indirect (Unobtrusive) Observational Methods

Examine evidence of past behavior


Two types of methods

Physical traces

Use (natural or controlled) traces

Cigarettes in ashtray; recyclables in garbage; highlighting in textbook; food left on a plate


Tattoos; bumper stickers; portion size of meals

Archival records

Running records; episodic records

Indirect (Unobtrusive) Observational Methods (continued)

Archival records—public and private documents describing activities of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments

Running records—those that are continuously kept and updated

Status updates on Facebook; stock market; price of oil; records of sports teams

episodic records—describe specific events or episodes

Birth certificate; marriage license; subpoena; divorce filing

One can examine the impact of the above events on behavior (absenteeism, grades, detentions/suspensions)

Unobtrusive Measures

Possible problems in archival records

Selective deposit—not all information is recorded (politicians speaking to media; Facebook best foot forward)

Selective survival—not all information is kept over time (advice columnists don’t keep all letters; parents don’t keep all of kids’ grades/artwork)

Spurious relationships—2D:4D finger ratio; ice cream sales and shark attacks


Categorize behaviors, events, people

Hair color; height; walking (alone, pairs, listening to music, playing on phone)


Rank-order behaviors

Least favorite to favorite; fastest to slowest; class rank

Measurement Scales


Measurement Scales (continued)


Has values that are meaningful and equally spaced

Temperature; Time on a clock; Likert scale (?)


Has values that are equally spaced and scale has an absolute 0; ratios of scale values.

Age; ruler measurements; income; response time

Measurement Scales (continued)

Brand of phone you use

Scale to measure weight

Number on a baseball jersey

Miles per hour

Golf score (in relation to par)

Top 25 poll in college football

Eye color

Letter grade in class

Military rank

IQ tests

Number of times getting out of seat

Social security number

Measurement Scales (continued)

Brand of phone you use Nominal

Scale to measure weight Ratio

Number on a baseball jersey Nominal

Miles per hour Ratio

Golf score (in relation to par) Interval

Top 25 poll in college football Ordinal

Eye color Nominal

Letter grade in class Ordinal

Military rank Ordinal

IQ tests Interval

Number of times getting out of seat Ratio

Social security number Nominal

Analysis of Observational Data

Method for analysis depends on

Goal of the study

How data are recorded

Measurement scale

Two types of analysis




Analysis of Observational Data, continued

Qualitative Analysis

Data reduction to summarize comprehensive records

Coding: identify units of behavior (including categories or themes) using specific criteria

Emphasis on verbal summary


Analysis of Observational Data, continued

Quantitative Analysis

Statistical summary of observations

Descriptive statistics depend on measurement scale

Nominal: relative frequency

Ordinal: (e.g., ranking priorities for government action such as education, economy, etc.) rank percentages

Interval and ratio: mean, standard deviation


Analysis of Observational Data, continued

Interobserver reliability

Measure of agreement between observers

Nominal: percent agreement

Ordinal: Spearman rank-order correlation

Interval and Ratio: Pearson correlation


Analysis of Observational Data, continued

Factors that affect interobserver reliability

Characteristics of the observers

Bored, tired, amount of experience

Train observers and provide feedback

Clearly define events and behaviors to be observed

Clear operational definitions

Provide examples


Thinking Critically About Observational Research

Problems in observational research

Influence of the observer on behavior

Observer bias


Thinking Critically About Observational Research, continued

Influence of the Observer

Reactivity: people change their usual behavior when they know they’re being observed.

Researchers want to observe people’s usual behavior.

Demand characteristics: people pay attention to cues and information in the situation to guide their behavior.


Thinking Critically About Observational Research, continued

Controlling reactivity

Conceal observer (videotape, one-way mirror)

Disguised participant observation (cell phone study)

Use indirect (unobtrusive) observation (use traces, products, archival data)

Adapt participants to observer (lesson study)


Reactivity is a potential problem in most psychological research.


Thinking Critically About Observational Research, continued

Observer bias

Observers often have expectations about behavior.

Example: expectations based on research hypotheses

Expectations can lead observers to look at only particular behaviors

Example from tipping behavior study


20. (8` points) Two observers observe a child in the classroom every 30 minutes to record whether he is behaving aggressively. They use two categories for their observations: yes (aggressive) or no (not aggressive). Using the data presented below, answer the following question.  

Calculate and report the observers’ interobserver reliability.

Do you think the observers demonstrated acceptable interobserver reliability? Why or why not?

21. (5 points) A researcher was interested in determining whether more frequent breaks (i.e., “coffee breaks”) in a business setting would help employees to be more productive. With the cooperation of the management, employees on one floor of the corporate offices were allowed to take a 10-minute break each hour (at any time) between 8:00 and 11:00 A.M. (for a total of 30 minutes). The comparison group comprised employees on different floors who followed the usual corporate policy of taking a 30-minute break sometime during the morning (at any time). Measures of productivity were gathered for each employee according to his or her job (e.g., number of reports written, number of sales made, etc.). A time series analysis was applied to compare the productivity of both groups of employees for six months before and after the intervention (started in July). Quite surprisingly, the productivity of both groups increased following the onset of the intervention, suggesting to the researcher that the timing of breaks makes no difference.

What type of research design was used in this study?

Describe two ways in which contamination may have influenced the results of this study.

Describe one threat to internal validity that might be present in this study because the independent variable manipulation was implemented on different floors of the building.

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