Lesson Idea: Understanding observational studies

Travis DixonQualitative Research Methods

This lesson is designed to help students understand different types of observation methods. It also gives real life examples of observations to discuss.

Understanding how psychologists conduct observational studies is a key part to learning about research methodology. Observations are especially common in qualitative research. The following lesson is designed to get students to understand the different types of observation methods. 


Here are some very brief summaries of real studies that have been carried out using observational methods.

  1. Work with a partner to identify the different observational methods used in each of these studies.

IB Psychology HL students need to be able to describe the different types of observational studies with at least two characteristics: naturalistic, overt and covert, participant and non-participant.

Read more:

Bandura’s Bobo Doll

Children watched an adult playing or fighting with an inflatable doll. They were then left in a room with the same doll and a bunch of toys. They were being watched from behind a double-sided mirror by the researchers who collected data on their behaviour.

Video here.

Bandura’s Bobo Doll Study is one of the most famous studies in social psychology.

Saint Helena

On the small island of Saint Helena in the middle of the Atlantic ocean there was no TV until the mid-1990s. One way the researchers gathered observational data was to set up video cameras in the playground and to film the children playing. They compared the level of aggressive behaviour before the introduction of TV and after.

This tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean was home to a natural experiment on the effects of TV on violence in kids.

Festinger’s Cult – When Prophecy Fails

Leon Festinger and some colleagues secretly joined a cult that believed the world was going to end. They wanted to see how the cult members would react after the world didn’t end.

Read more here.

Gang Leader for A Day

Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist, joined a gang to study their behaviour. He was kidnapped when he first tried to gather data from gang members by using a questionnaire. They told him that he couldn’t understand them like that and he’d actually have to be involved with the gang to really understand what it was like. He studied them over a long period of time but published a book called Gang Leader for a Day because he was a pseudo leader for just one day only.

Video here.


Rosenhan in Psychiatric Hospitals

Rosenhan wanted to see how accurate the diagnosis of psychological disorders were in the 1960s. He and a bunch of his volunteers went to different psychiatric hospitals in the USA and told them they were hearing a voice saying “thud”, “hollow” and “empty.” Once they were admitted into the psychiatric hospital, they were told to be have normally and they took notes on what they observed. The hospital staff were never aware that they were researchers although some of the fellow patients thought something was strange about the way they were taking notes.

Video here.

The “Ararat Lunatic Asylym.” Rosenhan’s study shed light on the conditions inside psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s.

Impersonal Sex in Public Places (The Tearoom Trade)

This highly controversial study involved the researcher observing what happens in public toilets between men. It was designed to understand the practice of anonymous gay sex in the 1960s, which then was illegal.

Wikipedia Page here.

The Tearoom Trade is an excellent example to use when discussing ethics in psychology.

Fast Finisher Extension

  1. Could you explain how and why an alternative research method might be used to study the above topics? (Experiments, correlational studies, interviews or case studies).