Simply Psychology Logo

Observation Methods

by published

Observation (watching what people do) would seem to be an obvious method of carrying out research in psychology. However, there are different types of observational methods and distinctions need to be made between:

  1. Controlled Observations

  2. Natural Observations

  3. Participant Observations

In addition to the above categories observations can also be either overt/disclosed (the participants know they are being studied) or covert/undisclosed (the research keeps their real identity a secret from the research subjects, acting as a genuine member of the group).

In general observations, are relatively cheap to carry out and few resources are needed by the researcher. However, they can often be very time consuming and longitudinal.

Controlled Observation

Controlled observations (usually a structured observation) are likely to be carried out in a psychology laboratory. The researcher decides where the observation will take place, at what time, with which participants, in what circumstances and uses a standardised procedure. Participants are randomly allocated to each independent variable group.

Rather than writing a detailed description of all behaviour observed, it is often easier to code behaviour according to a previously agreed scale using a behavior schedule (i.e. conducting a structured observation).

The researcher systematically classifies the behaviour they observe into distinct categories. Coding might involve numbers or letters to describe a characteristics, or use of a scale to measure behavior intensity. The categories on the schedule are coded so that the data collected can be easily counted and turned into statistics.

For example, Mary Ainsworth used a behavior schedule to study how infants responded to brief periods of separation from their mothers. During the Strange Situation procedure infant's interaction behaviors directed toward the mother were measured, e.g.

  1. Proximity and contacting seeking
  2. Contact maintaining
  3. Avoidance of proximity and contact
  4. Resistance to contact and comforting

The observer noted down the behavior displayed during 15 second intervals and scored the behavior for intensity on a scale of 1 to 7.

strange situation scoring

Sometimes the behaviour of participants is observed through a two-way mirror or they are secretly filmed. This method was used by Albert Bandura to study aggression in children (the Bobo doll studies).

A lot of research has been carried out in sleep laboratories as well. Here electrodes are attached to the scalp of participants and what is observed are the changes in electrical activity in the brain during sleep (the machine is called an electroencephalogram – an EEG).

Controlled observations are usually overt as the researcher explains the research aim to the group, so the participants know they are being observed. Controlled observations are also usually non-participant as the researcher avoids any direct contact with the group, keeping a distance (e.g. observing behind a two-way mirror).


    1. Controlled observations can be easily replicated by other researchers by using the same observation schedule. This means it is easy to test for reliability.

    2. The data obtained from structured observations is easier and quicker to analyze as it is quantitative (i.e. numerical) - making this a less time consuming method compared to naturalistic observations.

    3. Controlled observations are fairly quick to conduct which means that many observations can take place within a short amount of time. This means a large sample can be obtained resulting in the findings being representative and having the ability to be generalized to a large population..


    1. Controlled observations can lack validity due to the Hawthorne effect/demand characteristics. When participants know they are being watched they may act differently.

Naturalistic Observation

Naturalistic observation (i.e. unstructured observation) involves studying the spontaneous behaviour of participants in natural surroundings. The researcher simply records what they see in whatever way they can.

Compared with controlled/structured methods it is like the difference between studying wild animals in a zoo and studying them in their natural habitat.

With regard to human subjects Margaret Mead used this method to research the way of life of different tribes living on islands in the South Pacific. Kathy Sylva used it to study children at play by observing their behaviour in a playgroup in Oxfordshire.


    1 By being able to observe the flow of behaviour in its own setting studies have greater ecological validity.

    2. Like case studies naturalistic observation is often used to generate new ideas. Because it gives the researcher the opportunity to study the total situation it often suggests avenues of enquiry not thought of before.


    1. These observations are often conducted on a micro (small) scale and may lack a representative sample (biased in relation to age, gender, social class or ethnicity). This may result in the findings lacking the ability to be generalized to wider society.

    2. Natural observations are less reliable as other variables cannot be controlled. This makes it difficult for another researcher to repeat the study in exactly the same way.

    3. A further disadvantage is that the researcher needs to be trained to be able to recognise aspects of a situation that are psychologically significant and worth further attention.

    4. With observations we do not have manipulations of variables (or control over extraneous variables) which means cause and effect relationships cannot be established.

Participant Observation

Participant observation is a variant of the above (natural observations) but here the researcher joins in and becomes part of the group they are studying to get a deeper insight into their lives. If it were research on animals we would now not only be studying them in their natural habitat but be living alongside them as well!

This approach was used by Leon Festinger in a famous study into a religious cult who believed that the end of the world was about to occur. He joined the cult and studied how they reacted when the prophecy did not come true.

Participant observations can be either cover or overt. Covert is where the study is carried out 'under cover'. The researcher's real identity and purpose are kept concealed from the group being studied.

The researcher takes a false identity and role, usually posing as a genuine member of the group. On the other hand, overt is where the researcher reveals his or her true identity and purpose to the group and asks permission to observe.


    1. It can be difficult to get time / privacy for recording. For example, with covert observations researchers can’t take notes openly as this would blow their cover. This means they have to wait until they are alone and reply on their memory. This is a problem as they may forget details and are unlikely to remember direct quotations.

    2. If the researcher becomes too involved they may lose objectivity and become bias. There is always the danger that we will “see” what we expect (or want) to see. This is a problem as they could selectively report information instead of noting everything they observe. Thus reducing the validity of their data.

Recording of Data

With all observation studies an important decision the researcher has to make is how to classify and record the data. Usually this will involve a method of sampling. The three main sampling methods are:

  1. Event sampling. The observer decides in advance what types of behaviour (events) she is interested in and records all occurrences. All other types of behaviour are ignored.

  2. Time sampling. The observer decides in advance that observation will take place only during specified time periods (e.g. 10 minutes every hour, 1 hour per day) and records the occurrence of the specified behaviour during that period only.

  3. Instantaneous (target time) sampling. The observer decides in advance the pre-selected moments when observation will take place and records what is happening at that instant. Everything happening before or after is ignored.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2015). Observation Methods. Retrieved from

Home | About | A-Z Index | Privacy Policy

Follow us

Back to top

Print Friendly and PDF

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.