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Observational Research

Observational research consists of systematic observation. The word systematic implies a sensible and replicable procedure for collecting data.

Data might be collected with a video recording device, by questionnaire, or in any other way that can be adequately described for other scientists who wish to repeat the observations.

No experiment is conducted, in observational research. The researcher does not attempt to alter the world during the data collection phase. The data are analyzed, and researchers look for interesting or important patterns.

What is observational research?

In studies of children, observational techniques are highly developed. Experiments that might alter children's lives would raise ethical problems, but observational techniques do not directly influence the children.

The following examples of different observational techniques are all illustrated with examples from child psychology.

Naturalistic observation is observational research that takes place in a natural or everyday setting such as a school. Usually there is an effort to minimize the observer's impact by carrying out observations secretly or from a hidden vantage point.

What is naturalistic observation? Must it take place "out in nature"?

With preschoolers, a stationary video camera with a wide-angle lens can be put near the ceiling in one corner of the room, without influencing behavior. Sherman (1975) used this technique to study the phenomenon of group glee in preschoolers.

Group glee was defined as "joyful screaming, laughing and intense physical acts" which quickly spread in the group. Sherman made video recordings of 596 preschool classes taught by student teachers.

Sherman was able to identify what factors set off the group glee. For example, it tended to happen when a teacher asked for volunteers for an activity. He also studied reactions of teachers.

Notice that a naturalistic study need not take place "out in nature." It simply documents naturally-occur­ring events.

Controlled observation occurs when observational research is carried out under carefully arranged conditions. Each subject is exposed to the same situation, to see differences between individual reactions.

For example, a group of babies may be exposed, one at a time, to a laboratory situation called stranger approaches. A stony-faced stranger approaches the mother and takes the baby out of her arms.

Around the age of 7-8 months, some babies seem to find this very alarming. Some cry even at the sight of an approaching stranger. However, not all babies go through this "stranger anxiety" phase.

Researchers can test hypotheses about what factors make stranger anxiety more or less likely by testing a variety of mother/baby pairs. The controlled setting and carefully arranged conditions allow researchers to compare reactions of different children.

What is controlled or standardized observation? Standardized testing?

Standardized testing is a form of controlled observation using testing procedures previously shown to be reliable and valid. Most students are familiar with paper-and-pencil standardized tests such as the SAT.

A standardized test for infants is the Bayley Mental and Motor Scale, commonly called the Bayley Box. It is performed using a box of objects and toys. The examiner uses these objects to determine the child's skills.

For example, a two year old might be asked to bounce a ball, draw a circle, or stop a behavior when the tester says "No!" Results are recorded and compared to age norms (statistics showing normal performance at various ages) to determine whether the child is ahead or behind the normal progression of development.

Clinical observation consists of observations made by a skilled clinician interacting with a patient or client. The clinician takes notes on the interaction, usually immediately after the interview or meeting with the client.

The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (pronounced pea-a-ZHAY) used a clinical method. He interviewed children to determine how they viewed the world. Piaget interacted spontaneously with the children and often improvised questions.

Some American developmental psychologists criticized this as an uncontrolled type of research, difficult to repeat. Others felt Piaget made valuable contributions because he allowed himself to base each question on what the child said previously. We discuss Piaget in Chapter 10 (Development).

What is clinical observation? How did Piaget use it?

Surveys and polling are forms of observational research in which data are collected from large numbers of subjects. A survey can be about anything. A poll usually asks for opinions or value judgments.

The goal of both is to determine the characteristics of a larger population from a relatively small sample. For example, you might survey a random sample of students from your campus to determine attitudes of the student body toward various parenting practices.

What is the goal of both surveys and polls?

Interviews are structured conversations (that is, they follow some pre-arranged plan or pattern). Interviews can be combined with survey methods.

For example, a researcher might interview a random sample of preschoolers from a town where a newsworthy event took place. Each child might be asked carefully worded questions to determine his or her perception of the events.

Microanalysis is detailed analysis of very brief events. Sometimes researchers notice interesting things simply by slowing down a quick movement. This can be done with video cameras set to capture many images per second.

What is "microanalysis"?

Developmental psychologist Daniel Stern used microanalysis to study the "mother/baby dance." He found a tendency of mothers and babies who had good relationships to synchronize their muscle movements.


Sherman, L. W. (1975) An ecological study of glee in small groups of preschool children. Child Development, 46, 53-61.

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