Types of observation
Collecting data in observational research
Ethics of observational research
A great deal of psychological research takes the form of observational studies of one kind or another. In observational research, we try to work out what is going on by looking at what happens, and recording it in such a way that we will be able to analyse the relevant factors involved in the situation.
Experiments, as we saw in the last chapter, can establish causality by manipulating circumstances and producing effects. But other forms of research, including observation, can really only show that two things occur together. If you observe that, say, children in small playgrounds play more aggressively than children in large playgrounds, you haven't necessarily shown that there is a causal link between them. All you may really have shown is that the two things correlate – that they both happen together. The real cause might lie in something quite different (like, say, the effects of poverty or social deprivation). Observations, like most of the other research methods available to psychologists, can only detect correlation, not causality.
Observation may seem easy before you have tried it, but conducting a fully rigorous scientific observation is not as easy as it might seem. One of the first challenges is being very clear about exactly what it is that you are observing. Try going to your local shopping centre or bus station, sitting on a bench, and writing down what you can see.