Observation in psychology

Observation (psychology)

Observation is a descriptive psychological research method, which consists of purposeful and organized perception and recording of the behavior of the object under study. Observation – organized, purposeful, recorded perception of mental phenomena with the purpose of studying them under certain conditions.


General Information

Along with introspection, observation is considered the oldest psychological method. Scientific observation began to be widely used from the late 19th century in areas where recording characteristics of human behavior in different conditions has a special value – in clinical, social, educational psychology, developmental psychology, and from the beginning of the 20th century – in psychology of labor.

Observation is applied where intervention of the experimenter breaks the process of interaction of the person with the environment. This method is irreplaceable in cases where it is necessary to receive a complete picture of what is happening and to reflect the behavior of individuals in its entirety.

The main features of the observation method are: – direct connection of the observer and the observed object; – partiality (emotional coloring) of observation; – difficulty (sometimes – impossibility) of repeated observation. Under natural conditions, the observer, as a rule, does not influence the process (phenomenon) being studied. In psychology, there is a problem of interaction between the observer and the observed. If the probationer knows that he or she is being observed, the presence of the researcher influences his or her behavior. Limitations of the observation method have brought to life other, more “advanced” methods of empirical research: experiment and measurement [1].

Subject of observation

  • Verbal behaviour
    • Speech content
    • Speech duration
    • Speech intensity
    • etc.
    • Expression of face, eyes, body,
    • Expressive movements
    • etc.
    • Touch
    • Pushes
    • Strokes
    • etc.

    That is, the subject of observation is capable to act only as what is possible to objectively register. Thus, a researcher does not observe properties of the psyche; he or she registers only those manifestations of the object that are available for fixation. And only on the basis of the assumption that the psyche finds its manifestation in behavior, the psychologist can make hypotheses about mental properties, based on data obtained during observation.

    Means of observation

    Observation can be carried out directly by the researcher, or by means of instruments of observation and recording of its results. These include audio, photo, video equipment, and special observation cards.

    Classification of observation

    An observation is a purposeful, organized and definitely recorded perception of an object under study. The results of fixation of observation data are called a description of object’s behavior. Observation is used when it is either impossible or impermissible to interfere with the natural course of the process. It can be: 1. Direct and indirect, 2. External and internal. 3. included (which can be open and closed) and not included. 4. direct and indirect. 5. Continuous and selective (according to certain parameters), 6. field (in daily life) and laboratory.

    According to systematicity, they distinguish

    • Non-systematic observation in which it is necessary to create a generalized picture of the behavior of an individual or group of individuals under certain conditions and does not aim to record causal relationships and give strict descriptions of phenomena.
    • Systematic observation, which is carried out according to a certain plan and in which the researcher registers features of behavior and classifies environmental conditions.

    Non-systematic observation is carried out during field research (used in ethnopsychology, developmental psychology, social psychology). The result is creation of a generalized picture of the behavior of an individual or group under certain conditions. Systematic observation is carried out according to a certain plan. Result: registration of features of behavior (variables) and classification of environmental conditions.

    Observation is opposed to experimentation. This opposition is based on two statements:

    • Passivity of the observer – the observer does not change the surrounding reality.
    • Immediacy – the observer records what he/she sees in the protocol.

    According to the objects being recorded

    • Solid observation . The researcher tries to record all features of behavior.
    • Selective observation . The researcher records only certain types of behavioral acts or behavior parameters [2] .

    According to the form of observation

    • Conscious observation
    • Unconscious Inner observation
    • Unconscious external observation
    • Environmental observation
    Conscious observation

    In conscious observation, the person being observed is aware that they are being observed. This observation is conducted in contact between the researcher and the subject, with the observer usually being aware of the research objective and the social status of the observer. However, there are cases when, due to the specific nature of the research, the person being observed is informed of other than the true purpose of the observation. The necessity of such actions raises ethical problems, including those concerning the conclusions drawn.

    This form of observation is chosen on the basis of expediency, that is, when its use is justified by the objectives of the study, because it has significant disadvantages.

    Disadvantages: the influence of the observer on the behavior of the observed, because of which the results can be considered only in relation to the situation in which they were obtained. It is necessary to make several observations.

    Features .

    The observer directly influences the actions and behavior of the person being observed, which, if set up incorrectly, can greatly affect the results of observation. The observed subjects, for psychological reasons, may try to pass off false behavior as their usual one or simply become confused and let their emotions run wild. The situation when the subject is under observation may be close to stressful for him, and the results of such observation cannot be extended to, say, his everyday life. Also, the degree of familiarity with each other may affect the actions of both the observer and the person being observed.

    The specificity of situations in which direct (conscious) observation occurs makes it very difficult to generalize correctly the conclusions from such observations to other situations, not only to the specific situation in which the observation procedure took place.

    Unconscious Inner observation

    In unconscious internal observation, the observed subjects are unaware that they are being observed, and the researcher-observer is inside the surveillance system, becoming part of it (for example, when a psychologist infiltrates a hooligan group and does not communicate the purpose of his infiltration in order to obtain the most objective information about its activities).

    This form of observation was especially widely used in the second half of the 20th century by psychologists in the United States. Its use gave rise to (and still gives rise to) discussions regarding the admissibility of such research. One of the most well-known cases of its application can be considered the research of Leon Festinger (Festinger et al., 1956), who developed the theory of cognitive dissonance.

    To test his theory, at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, he and a group of observers joined a religious group for a few weeks in which a specific date for the end of the world (which was to come in a few weeks) was predicted. The end of the world did not follow, and the researchers received confirmation of the cognitive dissonance theory as most members of the group began to convince themselves that their activities had prevented the disaster (J. Goodwin, 2004) [3] [4] .

    The observer is in contact with the observed subjects, but they are unaware of their role as an observer.

    This form of observation is particularly convenient for studying the social behavior of small groups, in which the presence of the observer is considered natural, and the fact that his role is to observe, being unknown to the observed subjects, does not affect their actions. This form of observation also raises some ethical questions about the limits of its admissibility, as the psychologist sometimes has to infiltrate the group by means of deception or concealment of the truth.

    The disadvantage – difficulty in fixing results and the observer can be involved in a conflict of values.

    Features .

    The fact that the observation is taking place does not affect the subjects being observed, due to the fact that they are not aware of it. Also, the observer gets a wide range of information because of the possibility of direct contact with the observed subjects.

    However, it may be difficult for the observer to directly record the results, also because direct recording may de-emphasize the observer. Also, the observer may lose neutrality and adopt the value system of the group being studied when in close contact with the monitored subjects. It is also possible that the value system of this group conflicts with the value system to which the observer adheres (so-called “norm conflict”).

    Unconscious external observation

    In unconscious external observation, the subjects being observed are unaware that they are being observed, while the observer carries out his or her observations without coming into direct contact with the object being observed (for instance, the observer may be concealed from the observer by a one-way transparent wall).

    This form of observation is convenient in that the researcher does not constrain the behavior of those being observed and does not provoke acts of their behavior that would fit the purpose of his study, that is, it makes it possible to collect sufficiently objective data on people’s behavior.

    Features .

    In this form of observation, the presence of the researcher in the role of observer is not recorded by the observers, thus reducing the impact on the naturalness of their actions. It is also possible to use technical and other means to facilitate data recording and research progress. Another incomparable advantage is that a tired observer can be discreetly replaced by another observer.

    At the same time, however, the observer is constrained by the location of observation, can only access a portion of the context in which behavioral acts are performed, and cannot influence unforeseen events without disrupting the study.

    Environmental observation

    In this form of observation, the researcher examines the environmental conditions of the observed that influence his behavior . He tries to draw conclusions about how external factors condition the actions of an individual or group of individuals [5] .

    The APA Code of Ethics and Observation

    The American Psychological Association’s (APA) Code of Ethics permits observation as long as certain rules are followed and certain precautions are taken. Here are some of them:

    • If the research is conducted in a public place, it is not considered necessary to obtain the informed consent of the participants. Otherwise, their consent must be obtained.
    • Psychologists should do everything possible to avoid harm to research participants and, if it cannot be avoided, to reduce the anticipated harm.
    • Psychologists should keep invasion of privacy to a minimum.
    • Psychologists do not disclose confidential information about their research participants.

    Stages of observational research

    1. Defining the subject of observation, the object, the situation.
    2. Choosing how to observe and record data.
    3. Creating a plan of observation.
    4. Choice of a method of processing of results.
    5. Observation proper.
    6. Processing and interpretation of data.

    Pros and cons

    Advantages of the observation method

    • Surveillance allows direct coverage and recording of acts of behaviour.
    • Observation allows the simultaneous coverage of the behavior of a number of persons in relation to each other or to certain tasks, objects, etc.
    • Observation makes it possible to carry out a study independently of the willingness of the subjects being observed.
    • Observation makes it possible to achieve multidimensional coverage, i.e. fixation on several parameters at once – for example, verbal and non-verbal behaviour
    • Promptness of obtaining information
    • Relative cheapness of the method

    Disadvantages of the observation method

    • Deviation from the purpose of observation (obtaining facts that are inconsistent with the purpose of the research)
    • Past research experience influences subsequent observation facts [6].

    See also


    1. ↑ See: Druzhinin V. N. Experimental Psychology. – St. Petersburg: Peter, 2002.
    2. ↑ Ibid. С. 40-43.
    3. ↑ Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
    4. ↑ Research in psychology: methods and planning / J. Goodwin. – SPb: Peter, 2004. С. 422-423.
    5. ↑ Zarochentsev K. D., Khudyakov A.I. Experimental psychology: textbook. – M.: Prospect Publisher, 2005. С. 45-48.
    6. ↑ Ibid. С. 40-41.


    • Methods of Psychology
    • Experimental Psychology.

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    Observation as a method of psychology

    The method of observation is universal and is used in any science, it is also used in social psychology.

    The method of observation in social psychology is the collection of information about social and psychological phenomena by direct perception and registration.

    The facts of human behavior and activity are studied purposefully and systematically. Observation can be used as a leading method, for example, in a study of conflict. It can be used as an auxiliary method, for example, to collect or control data. A classic example of observation is N. Anderson’s study of vagrant life, W. White’s work on emigrant life research, and W.B. Olshansky’s study of the value orientations of young workers.

    Classification of observation methods

    Figure 1 . Classification of observation methods

    Depending on what position the observer takes, there are included and non-included observation.

    The method of included observation is applied when the observer is an active participant in the event being studied. Non-involved observation is the observation of the situation from the outside.

    Research results, their importance and weight depend on how properly and clearly the observation is organized. In participant observation, the researcher is in contact with the group as a full member. He or she has a greater opportunity to enter into and understand the processes taking place, to see the context of the situation being observed. In other words, it is a more in-depth observation. But, on the other hand, with the inclusion of observation, reflexivity is reduced. The researcher has no possibility to rise above the situation, to look at it from the point of view of analytics. Included observation can be of different types, it depends on how informed the group members are about the presence of the observer, as well as whether they are aware of the goals and objectives of the observation.

    The observer can observe openly or incognito. If the open method of observation is used, it should be borne in mind that the natural course of the observed event will be disturbed. E. Mayo described experiments he conducted in the 1920s at the Western Electric Company in the United States. He noted that the presence of observers led to an increase in the productivity of workers, while the task of psychologists was to investigate the causes of lower productivity. The author noted changes in the behavior of workers who knew they were being observed.

    Observation can be organized in the natural environment (field observation) and in laboratory conditions with the use of various kinds of equipment (experimental observation).

    Covert included observation

    Covert observation is the most interesting, there are active discussions among scientists about it. In the laboratory, covert surveillance is carried out using Gesell mirrors with a one-way conduction of light. There is a debate about the ethics of covert field observation. There is an invasion of the privacy of those being observed. In foreign manuals it is recommended to limit such observation to public situations: street, cafe, cinema.

    As an example, let us cite the work of L. Festinger. Psychologists made an introduction to a religious community, which predicted natural disasters and the destruction of most of North America on a certain day. The task of the psychologists was to observe the members of the organization after the prediction did not come true. The observers noted that after the prediction did not come true, community members continued to be active and converted others, called for repentance, and claimed that it was their repentance actions that prevented the disaster. That is, the prediction that did not come true only strengthened the views of the members of the congregation. L Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance.

    Covert inclusion observation is described in many works by psychologists. In Russia, this technique was described in detail by V.B. Olshansky. In the 1960s, he studied the value orientations of young workers using the method of covert observation. For several months, he worked as a metalworker at one of Moscow’s factories.

    Included observation-incognito is well disclosed in the work of E. Goffman, who conducted research in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s. The impression that is made on others needs to be controlled, a tactic Goffman called impression management. Schizophrenic patients are quite good at this tactic, according to the scientist.

    There is another type of observation, provoked observation, which lies between field and laboratory observation and takes place in a natural setting. Provoked observation is close to the method of natural experiment offered by A.F. Lazursky. In the 1980s, L.Peterson in the USA conducted observation of children, studying the manifestations of altruism.

    Observation Technique

    Observations can be standardized and non-standardized.

    The first type assumes the presence of a formalized technique: a developed list of objects and attributes of observation, definitions of conditions and situations of observation, instructions and guidelines for the observer, codifiers for recording data. The data are processed and analyzed using mathematical statistical methods. There are methods of SIMLOG, R. Bales, L. Carter, P. Ekman.

    If observation of non-standardized type is carried out, the specially developed scheme is not applied. Only general directions of the observer are defined, where the result of observation is reflected in a free form, directly at perception or through time from memory.

    Observations can be classified according to orderliness, random, systematic, continuous, sampling. According to the nature of fixation, observations can be of ascertaining and evaluating nature, as well as mixed. Longitudinal, periodic and single observation can be distinguished according to temporal organization. Longitudinal is observation, which is conducted over a long period of time, usually several years. For fixing the results of longitudinal observation, observer’s diaries are the most suitable. Periodical observation is the most widespread and is carried out during the set periods of time. Single observation is a description of a single case, unique or typical.

    The methodology of a particular observation may contain several types, such as field observation, systematic observation, and exploratory observation.

    The object and subject of observation

    People, small groups, large social communities and processes occurring in them are the object of observation.

    The subject of observation is behavioral manifestations of verbal and nonverbal character of an individual or group in a certain situation.

    Categories are used to record observations, which correspond to the goals and objectives of the study.

    Categories are concepts that define the observed phenomena, they are defined operationally, have no overlap with other categories and have the same degree of generality.

    The classical system of categories is R. Bales’ scheme.

    Figure 2 . R. Bales’ system of categories

    The unit of observation can be categorized not only after the end of the observation, but also in the process of observation. This is exactly what happens when working with the Bayles method. The reliability of the method depends on how complex or simple the observation scheme is. The fewer the units of observation, the more reliable the scheme. It is good when the attribute in the scheme is concrete, it is easier to fix. The reliability of the schema depends on the complexity of the observer’s inferences when classifying the identified attributes.

    A – area of emotional expressions of a positive nature;

    B,C – areas of problem statement and solution;

    D – area of emotional expressions of negative character;

    a – orientation problems;

    b – problems of evaluating opinions;

    c – problematics of control;

    d – problematics of finding a solution;

    e – the problematics of overcoming tension;

    f – the problematics of integration.

    The disadvantages of the method include:

    • A high percentage of subjectivity in data collection;
    • the qualitative nature of the observation findings;
    • low degree of generalization of the results.

    For the results of observation to be more reliable, it is necessary to use effective schemes of observation, technical means of fixation of data. Also a big role is played by trained observer and minimization of the effect of his presence.

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