The core study by Rosenhan, which attempted to investigate whether psychiatrists can reliably diagnose abnormality, collected most of its data through participant observation. The participant observation meant that the pseudo patients could experience the ward from the patients’ perspective but at the same time it can be argued that the pseudo-patients may have lost some objectivity as they were too involved in their roles as patients rather than researchers.
A rule of thumb is that an observation has inter-rater reliability if two observers’ agreements are higher than 80%.
Observation for Psychological Investigations
All types of research involve some element of observation. It is not just observational studies that use observation. For example, when we use self report measures we observe the responses of the participants, when we carry out experiments we observe the behaviour of our participants and so on.
Observational studies are investigations where the researcher observes a situation and records what happens but does not manipulate an independent variable.
Observational studies therefore tend to be high in ecological validity as there is no intervention and if the observer remains undetected the method avoids problems with demand characteristics.
A main strength of observational studies is that they get to see how participants actually behave rather than what they say they do.
A further strength of observational studies is that they offer ways of studying behaviour when there are ethical problems with manipulating variables. For example there will be less ethical issues with carry out a naturalistic observation of school children compared to carrying out experiments on school children.
Observational studies are also useful as a starting point in research. For example the researchers may be investigating a new area of research in order to produce hypotheses for future investigations such as experiments.
On the other hand observational studies are difficult to replicate.
Observations do not provide information about what participants are thinking or feeling.
There is little or no control of extraneous variables in observational studies therefore we can not make cause and effect statements.
There is also the problem of observer bias with observational studies. This occurs if the observers ‘see’ what they expect to see.
A number of ethical issues can arise with observational studies including problems with a lack of informed consent and invasion of privacy.
Observations can also be very time consuming, require careful preparation and possibly training for the observers.
There are a number of different types of observational studies including non-participant and participant observations, undisclosed observations andstructured and unstructured observations. A non-participant observation is a type of observational study whereby the researcher does not join in with the activity being observed. A participant observation is a type of observational study where the observer is also a participant in the activity being studied. This type of observation can be useful because it provides more insights about behaviour but does have a problem that the observer may lose some objectivity. An undisclosed observation (or covert) is a type of observational study whereby the participants are not fully aware that they are being studied. The researchers may use one-way mirrors. This ensures that the participants are not aware they are being studied. A structured observation is where the researchers design a type of coding scheme to record the participants' behaviour.
Structured observations generally provide quantitative data. Coding schemes are ways of categorising behaviour so that you can code what you observe in terms of how often a type of behaviour appears.
Below is an example of a coding scheme...