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Observational Design

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Observational Design

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.

What are the different types of observational studies?

There are several types of observational studies that researchers can use. These include controlled observations, naturalistic observations, and participant observations. The type of observational design depends on the setting and whether they will participate in the activities being observed.

Controlled observations

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.

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.

Observational Design Tally system for behaviour schedules StudySmarter

The tallying system used for behaviour schedules, Pixabay

Naturalistic observation

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.

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.

Participant observation

Like naturalistic observation, this research design involves 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.

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 Design Participant observation StudySmarter

Participant observation, Pixabay

How is data collected in an observational research 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.

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. When using the sampling methods, these factors are considered, suggesting that they are reliable sampling methods.

Recording data methods 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.

Evaluation of observational designs

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.

Strengths 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.

Frequently Asked Questions about Observational Design

An observational study design is a qualitative research where the researcher observes participants behaviour.

The purpose of an observational design is to allow researchers to understand how participants would ‘naturally’ react in certain situations.

No, observational designs are not typically considered an experimental research method. This design does not typically involve manipulating variables. Instead, the researcher’s role is to observe and record behaviours related to the phenomenon being investigated. 

The steps for carrying out an observational research design in psychology are:


  1. Form a hypothesis and operationalise the variables of interest.
  2. Identify the most appropriate observational study design.
  3. Design the procedure (participant selection, materials, conditions, protocol, e.g., standardised instructions, behaviour coding systems, type of sampling used, time or event)
  4. Conduct research.
  5. Analysis. 

Ainsworth’s (1970) infamous Strange Situation Study is an example of a controlled observational study. This study used a controlled observation to assess infants’ type and quality of attachments with their mothers. Researchers manipulated the laboratory setting to look like a play area, and the researchers observed how the infants reacted to their mothers (leaving them and reunion) and strangers approaching them.

Final Observational Design Quiz

Question

Which of the following are examples of the Hawthorne effect?

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Answer

Social desirability.

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Question

What is an observational study design?

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Answer

An observational study design is a type of qualitative research where the researcher observes participants’ behaviour.

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Question

What are the different types of observational design?

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Answer

  • Controlled.
  • Naturalistic.
  • Participant.

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Question

Which of the following observations are usually carried out in a laboratory?

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Answer

Naturalistic.

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Question

Which of the following observation design is the most similar to a naturalistic observation?

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Answer

Controlled.

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Question

What is the purpose of an observational design?

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Answer

The purpose of an observational design is to allow researchers to understand how participants would ‘naturally’ react in certain situations.

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Question

What determines the type of observational design used?

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Answer

The type of observational design used depends on the setting and whether they will partake in the activities being observed.

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Question

What type of observational design did the Strange Situation procedure use?

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Answer

Participant observation.

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Question

What type of observational research design did Goodall use in her research on chimpanzees?

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Answer

Naturalistic observation.

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Question

What type of observational research design did Goffman use?

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Answer

Controlled observation.

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What are the sampling methods used in observational research designs?

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Answer

  • Time sampling.
  • Event sampling.

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Question

Why do researchers need to consider sampling methods when using observational research designs?

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Answer

As researchers cannot collect data for too long, they need to try and gather data that is representative of the entirety of participants behaviour rather than of a specific time.

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Question

What are the different data recording methods in observational research designs?

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Answer

  • Behavioural categories.
  • Recordings.
  • Observer narrative.

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Question

Which of the following data recording methods produce quantitative data?

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Answer

Behavioural categories.

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Question

Which of the following data recording methods produce qualitative data? 

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Answer

Behavioural categories.

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Question

What are the advantages of observational research designs?

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Answer

  • High ecological validity.
  • Typically cost-effective.
  • The researcher can get a deep, insightful understanding of a phenomenon.

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Question

What are the disadvantages of observational research designs?

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Answer

  • The Hawthorne effect.
  • Potential ethical issues.
  • Difficulties replicating research.

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Question

What is overt research?

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Answer

The researchers participate in the experiment. Participants are aware of the researchers' presence and of being observed.

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What is covert research?

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Answer

The researcher participates in the experiment, but their identity and research aim remain hidden.

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Question

Which observational designs involve no manipulation?

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Answer

Controlled observations.

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