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Chapter 3 : Observation

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[NOTE: Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the fifth edition of Research Methods in Psychology by Shaughnessy, Zechmeister, and Zechmeister (2000), where these concepts and ideas are more fully defined.]

checklist An instrument used to record the presence or absence of something in the situation under observation. (102)

coding The initial step in data reduction, especially with narrative records, in which units of behavior or particular events are identified and classified according to specific criteria. (112)

confederate Someone in the service of a researcher who is instructed to behave in a certain way in order to help produce an experimental treatment. (96)

data reduction The process in the analysis of behavioral data whereby results are meaningfully organized and statements summarizing important findings are prepared. (112)

demand characteristics The cues and other information used by participants to guide their behavior in a psychological study, often leading participants to do what they believe the observer (experimenter) expects them to do. (117)

ecological psychology Has as its goal the comprehensive description of individuals in everyday contexts. (100)

ethnography Branch of anthropology that focuses on the systematic description (e.g., using naturalistic observation and participant observation) of the context and meanings of social interactions in a particular culture. May share similar goals with ecological psychology. (100)

ethogram A complete catalog of all the behavior patterns of an organism, including information as to frequency, duration, and context of occurrence. (88)

ethology The study of the behavior of organisms in relation to their natural environment; generally considered a branch of biology. (88)

event sampling A procedure whereby the observer records each event that meets a predetermined definition; more efficient method than time sampling when event of interest occurs infrequently. (110)

field experiment A procedure in which one or more independent variables is manipulated by an observer in a natural setting to determine the effect on behavior. (96)

field notes Verbal records of a trained observer that provide running descriptions of participants, events, settings, and behaviors. (100)

interobserver reliability The degree to which two independent observers are in agreement. (114)

measurement scale One of four levels of physical and psychological measurement: nominal (categorizing); ordinal (ranking); interval (specifying distance between stimuli); ratio (having an absolute zero point). (102)

narrative records Intended to provide a more or less faithful reproduction of behavior as it originally occurred. (98)

naturalistic observation An observation of behavior in a more or less natural setting without any attempt by the observer to intervene. (87)

observer bias Systematic errors in observation resulting from the observer's expectancies regarding the outcome of a study (i.e., expectancy effects). (121)

participant observation An observation of behavior by someone who also has an active and significant role in the situation or context in which behavior is recorded. (90)

reactivity The influence that an observer has on the behavior under observation; behavior influenced by an observer may not be representative of behavior when an observer is not present. (116)

situation sampling The random or systematic selection of situations in which observations are to be made with the goal of representativeness across circumstances, locations, and conditions. (111)

structured observation A variety of observational methods using intervention in which the degree of control is often less than in field experiments; frequently used by clinical and developmental psychologists when making behavioral assessments. (93)

time sampling The selection of observation intervals either systematically or randomly with the goal of obtaining a representative sample of behavior. (109)

unobtrusive (nonreactive) measures Measures of behavior that eliminate the problem of reactivity, because observations are made in such a way that the presence of the observer is not detected by those being observed. (118)


Classification of Observational Methods (86)

  • Observational methods can be classified as "observation with intervention" or "observation without intervention."
  • Methods for recording behavior can be classified in terms of how much of behavior is recorded.
Observation without Intervention (86)
  • The goals of naturalistic observation are to describe behavior as it normally occurs and to examine relationships among variables.
  • Naturalistic observation helps to establish the external validity of research findings.
  • When ethical and moral considerations prevent experimental control, naturalistic observation is an important research strategy.
  • Ethologists use naturalistic observation to describe innate patterns of behavior in animals and humans.
Observation with Intervention (89)
  • Most psychological research uses observation with intervention.
  • The three methods of observation with intervention are participant observation, structured observation, and the field experiment.
Participant Observation (89)
  • Undisguised participant observation is often used to understand the culture and behavior of groups of individuals.
  • Disguised participant observation is often used when researchers believe individuals would change their behavior if they knew it was being recorded.
  • Participant observation allows researchers to observe behaviors and situations that are not usually open to scientific observation.
  • Participant observers may sometimes lose their objectivity or may unduly influence the individuals whose behavior they are recording.
Structured Observation (92)
  • Structured observations are set up to record behavior that may be difficult to observe using naturalistic observation.
  • Structured observations are often used by clinical and developmental psychologists.
  • Problems in interpreting structured observations can occur when the same observation procedures are not followed across observations or observers, or when important variables are not controlled.
Field Experiments (96)
  • In a field experiment, researchers manipulate one of more independent variables in a natural setting to determine the effect on behavior.
  • A confederate is a research assistant who behaves in specified ways to create an experimental condition.
Recording Behavior (97)
  • Researchers choose whether to obtain a comprehensive behavioral record or to record selected behaviors depending on the goals of the observational research.
  • How the results of a study are ultimately summarized, analyzed, and reported depends on how behavioral observations are initially recorded.
Obtaining Qualitiative Records of Behavior (98)
  • Narrative records in the form of written descriptions of behavior, audiotapes, and videotapes are comprehensive records of observed behavior.
  • Researchers classify and organize data from narrative records to test their hypotheses about behavior.
  • Narrative records sometimes include observers' inferences about individuals' motives or feelings, as in ethnography or ecological psychology.
  • Field notes are records made by trained observers that describe particular events and behaviors of interest rather than comprehensive accounts of behavior.
  • Narrative records should be made during or soon after behavior is observed, and observers must be carefully trained to record behavior according to established criteria.
Obtaining Quantitative Measures of Behavior (101)
  • When researchers seek to describe specific behaviors or events, they often obtain quantitative measures of behavior such as frequency of occurrence or duration of a behavior.
  • Quantitative measures of behavior use one of the four levels of measurement scales: nominal, ordinal, interval, ratio.
  • Rating scales, often used to measure psychological dimensions, are frequently treated as if they are interval scales even though they represent ordinal measurement.
  • Electronic recording devices may be used in natural settings to record behavior and pagers sometimes are used to signal participants to report their behavior (e.g., on a questionnaire).
Sampling Techniques (108)
  • When a complete record of behavior cannot be obtained, researchers seek to obtain a representative sample of behavior.
  • The extent to which observations may be generalized, or external validity, depends on how behavior is sampled.
Time and Event Sampling (109)
  • Time sampling, systematic or random, refers to researchers' choice of time intervals for making observations.
  • When researchers are interested in events that happen infrequently, they rely on event sampling to sample behavior.
Situation Sampling (111)
  • Situation sampling involves studying behavior in different circumstances, locations, and conditions and often with different participants.
  • Situation sampling enhances the external validity of findings.
Data Reduction (111)
  • Observational data are summarized through the process of data reduction.
  • Researchers quantify the data in narrative records by coding behavior according to specified criteria, for example, by categorizing behaviors.
  • Data are summarized using descriptive measures such as frequency counts, means, and standard deviations.
Observer Reliability (113)
  • Interobserver reliability refers to the extent to which independent observers agreed in their observations.
  • Interobserver reliability is increased by training observers and providing feedback about discrepancies, and by providing clear definitions about behaviors and events to be recorded.
  • High interobserver reliability increases researchers' confidence that observations about behavior are accurate (valid).
  • Interobserver reliability is assessed by calculating percentage agreement or correlations, depending on how the behaviors were measured and recorded.
Influence of the Observer (115)
  • When individuals change their behavior when they know they are being observed ("reactivity"), their behavior may no longer be representative of their normal behavior.
  • Research participants may use demand characteristics in the research situation to guide their behavior.
  • Methods to control reactivity include unobtrusive (nonreactive) measurement, adaptation (habituation, desensitization), and indirect observations of behavior.
  • Researchers must consider ethical issues when attempting to control reactivity.
Observer Bias (121)
  • Observer bias occurs when observers' expectations about behavior lead to systematic errors in identifying and recording behavior, and when researchers' biases determine which behaviors they choose to observe.
  • Expectancy effects can occur when observers are aware of hypotheses for the outcome of the study or the outcome of previous studies.
  • The first step in controlling observer bias is to recognize that it may be present.
  • Observer bias may be reduced by keeping observers unaware ("blind") of the goals and hypotheses of the study.


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