Descriptive Research Methods

Descriptive research methods such as naturalistic observation and case studies are often used in situations where performing an experiment is not realistic or is downright impossible. After the data has been collected, psychologists utilize statistical analysis to look at the relationships between the variables.

Observational Studies

Careful, accurate observation is essential to experiments and most psychological research, but sometimes it is conducted for its own sake — perhaps simply to detail what people and other animals normally do. Naturalistic observation means observing behavior in everyday settings, which could be a school playground, a shopping mall, a freeway, a remote village, a jungle, etc. For example, a researcher might gain insight into what factors are involved in people helping and cooperating with each other simply by observing situations in which they do and comparing these to situations in which they don't. The researcher also would then be in a better position to design experiments to determine what produces helping and cooperating or interferes with it.

Laboratory observation is also a useful tool. Laboratory settings can be either simulations of natural settings or completely artificial. The advantages of observation in a laboratory setting are that a researcher has much more control over what behaviors occur and, as applicable, can use sophisticated instrumentation. A classic example of laboratory observation using instrumentation is the 1960s research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson on the sexual arousal cycles of men and women, in which the researchers took physiological measurements while their participants were having sexual intercourse. Their basic findings about differences between men and women in this respect are still relevant today.

A question remains about whether the participants in the Masters and Johnson studies were representative of all adult human beings. They probably were, because basic physiology differs little from one woman or one man to the next. But ask yourself: Would you be willing to have sex while being hooked up to electrodes and watched? Might the participants have been “different” in some important way?

Case Histories and Interviews

A case history is an in-depth study of an individual or small group. Freud based his psychoanalytic theory in part on the case histories of his patients, and they are still used as a prelude to clinical diagnosis and treatment. Case histories consist of interviews with the person, perhaps also with the person's family, and sometimes a combing-through of the person's academic records, legal records, and work history — with the person's permission, of course. Case histories are also at times the method of choice in studying the origins of relatively rare mental and behavioral disorders.

Either way, the goal is to construct a thorough and rich picture of the person's life history and past and present functioning, and a case history's thoroughness is its advantage. The advantage of a case history is that it allows researchers to gain valuable information that would otherwise be impossible to obtain through traditional experiments. For example, psychologists have done case histories with feral children who have been raised in extremely deprived, neglectful environments. Obviously, actually conducting this type of experiment would be completely unethical, so case histories give researchers a unique opportunity to learn how severe deprivation impacts mental and physical development. The main disadvantage of a case history is that — like all psychological research methods except experiments — it cannot determine cause and effect.

Researchers have found that people with “multiple” personality disorder (currently called dissociative identity disorder) were often abused as children, which makes it tempting to conclude that abuse is the cause. But there is no way to be sure. This demonstrates one of the most principles of psychology research — correlation does not equal causation. Just because two variables are correlated does not mean that the one variable is causing the other to occur. In reality, an unknown third variable could have had influence as well.

Interviews can be part of a case history or they can serve more immediate purposes in clinical practice. A mental status exam is one; its purpose is to determine a client's current functioning, and it includes relatively informal questions that assess things like bodily functions (Do you sleep well? How's your appetite? Any problems with your sex life?), emotional state (Have you been feeling depressed or anxious lately?), cognitive functioning (Count backward from 100 by 7s. What did you have for breakfast this morning?), and general orientation (What day is it? Where are you and why are you here?). Your general practitioner probably uses some of these questions during your checkup as a screen both for physical complaints and mental problems.

Self-Report Questionnaires and Surveys

Interviews are a form of self-report, but the term more often refers to “paper-and-pencil” questionnaires that researchers have people fill out. They take various forms, such as a simple Yes, No, or a more sophisticated Strongly Agree, Agree, No Opinion, Disagree, Strongly Disagree in response to statements designed to tap your beliefs, attitudes, preferences, habits, mood, and more. Psychological researchers often use questionnaires to screen experiment participants and also to assess the results of experiments.

Questionnaires have the advantage that the answers can easily be turned into numbers for computer analysis — for individuals, or in the case of surveys, for large numbers of people. They also allow researchers to gather data from a large number of people relatively quickly and cheaply. Questionnaires do of course have their disadvantages as a research tool. Where sensitive topics such as a person's use of drugs, sexual behavior, or attitudes toward his employer are concerned, participants may not risk answering truthfully for fear that the responses won't really be kept confidential. A more general problem is that people may not be able to remember their behavior accurately even if they want to respond truthfully. Assuming that it's a number larger than zero or one or so, can you remember exactly how many times you've had sex in the past year? Some people would have difficulty remembering even the past month.

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