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Observational Research

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

Once we have decided how to measure our variables, we can begin the process of research itself. As you can see in Table 1.4, there are three major approaches to conducting research that are used by social psychologists—the observational approach, the correlational approach, and the experimental approach. Each approach has some advantages and disadvantages.

Table 1.4 Three Major Research Designs Used by Social Psychologists
Research Design Goal Advantages Disadvantages
Observational To create a snapshot of the current state of affairs Provides a relatively complete picture of what is occurring at a given time. Allows the development of questions for further study. Does not assess relationships between variables.
Correlational To assess the relationships between two or more variables Allows the testing of expected relationships between variables and the making of predictions. Can assess these relationships in everyday life events. Cannot be used to draw inferences about the causal relationships between the variables.
Experimental To assess the causal impact of one or more experimental manipulations on a dependent variable Allows the drawing of conclusions about the causal relationships among variables. Cannot experimentally manipulate many important variables. May be expensive and take much time to conduct.

The most basic research design, observational research, is research that involves making observations of behavior and recording those observations in an objective manner. Although it is possible in some cases to use observational data to draw conclusions about the relationships between variables (e.g., by comparing the behaviors of older versus younger children on a playground), in many cases the observational approach is used only to get a picture of what is happening to a given set of people at a given time and how they are responding to the social situation. In these cases, the observational approach involves creating a type of “snapshot” of the current state of affairs.

One advantage of observational research is that in many cases it is the only possible approach to collecting data about the topic of interest. A researcher who is interested in studying the impact of an earthquake on the residents of Tokyo, the reactions of Israelis to a terrorist attack, or the activities of the members of a religious cult cannot create such situations in a laboratory but must be ready to make observations in a systematic way when such events occur on their own. Thus observational research allows the study of unique situations that could not be created by the researcher. Another advantage of observational research is that the people whose behavior is being measured are doing the things they do every day, and in some cases they may not even know that their behavior is being recorded.

One early observational study that made an important contribution to understanding human behavior was reported in a book by Leon Festinger and his colleagues (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956). The book, calledWhen Prophecy Fails, reported an observational study of the members of a doomsday cult. The cult members believed that they had received information, supposedly sent through automatic writing from a planet calledClarion, that the world was going to end. More specifically, the group members were convinced that Earth would be destroyed as the result of a gigantic flood sometime before dawn on December 21, 1954.

When Festinger learned about the cult, he thought that it would be an interesting way to study how individuals in groups communicate with each other to reinforce their extreme beliefs. He and his colleagues observed the members of the cult over a period of several months, beginning in July of the year in which the flood was expected. The researchers collected a variety of behavioral and self-report measures by observing the cult, recording the conversations among the group members, and conducting detailed interviews with them. Festinger and his colleagues also recorded the reactions of the cult members, beginning on December 21, when the world did not end as they had predicted. This observational research provided a wealth of information about the indoctrination patterns of cult members and their reactions to disconfirmed predictions. This research also helped Festinger develop his important theory of cognitive dissonance.

Despite their advantages, observational research designs also have some limitations. Most importantly, because the data that are collected in observational studies are only a description of the events that are occurring, they do not tell us anything about the relationship between different variables. However, it is exactly this question that correlational research and experimental research are designed to answer.