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Experimental Psychology

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Observational Research


Source: Laboratories of Gary Lewandowski, Dave Strohmetz, and Natalie Ciarocco—Monmouth University

If you want to know how someone thinks or feels, you can ask that person questions.  Another approach is to observe how the person is acting or look for indicators of how they acted in the past. While observations may seem revealing, it isn’t always easy to know if they are truly accurate. For instance, you may see a person smiling and assume they are happy, when in reality they are annoyed and merely being polite.

The purpose of science is to move beyond an individual’s own views of the self because they are inherently skewed by that individual’s expectations, previous experience, personal biases, motivations, emotions, etc. While a person may have unique insight into one’s self, these insight may not accurately represent reality. Put more simply, what a person says, does not always match up well with what they actually do. For this reason, researchers should incorporate a variety of measures (e.g., asking participants to report how they feel, but also observing actual behavior) in order to more accurately capture how the person truly feels.

This video demonstrates a correlational design where researchers measure students’ homesickness in two distinct ways: (1) a homesickness scale, and (2) by observing how the student has decorated his or her dorm room. 

Psychological studies often use higher sample sizes than studies in other sciences. A large number of participants helps to ensure that the population under study is better represented, i.e., the margin of error accompanied by studying human behavior is sufficiently accounted for. In this video, we demonstrate this experiment using just one participant. However, as represented in the results, we used a total of 63 participants to reach the experiment’s conclusions.


1. Define key variables.

  1. Create an operational definition (i.e., a clear description of exactly what a researcher means by a concept) of homesickness.
    1. Homesickness is the distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and people and things you’re familiar with. (http://wellbeing.rice.edu/homesickness/)

2. Lead participant through informed consent, which is a brief description of the research and a sense of the procedure.

  1. Inform participant that they will be asked to complete several questionnaires and then will be asked to allow researchers to look at their dorm room.

3. Give participant a packet that includes the homesickness scale (Figure 1) and several other questionnaires.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Homesickness Scale. This questionnaire was adapted from Archer et al.1

  1. The extra questionnaires serve as distractors so the participant does not know the true purpose of the study.
  2. Have participants fill out the scales, with extra attention paid to the homesickness scale.

4. Have two observers visit participant in his or her dorm room to log observations of homesickness.

  1. These two observers are different from the researcher who administered the surveys so that no bias is present from the survey results.
  2. Observers ask the participant for permission to look around the room.
  3. Observers look for evidence of homesickness, which includes: pictures of parents, family, friends from home; clothing from their high school vs. college; high school yearbook; and a low presence of university logos/paraphernalia.  Observers log these observations on their clipboards.
    1. Ask participant to open drawers/closets and to clarify, for observers, who appears in pictures.

5. Debrief.

  1. Explain that the true nature of the study is to determine if homesickness is evident by looking at a student’s dorm room. Tell participants that the surveys, other than the homesickness scale, served as distractors in the research so that they would not know what the observers were looking for in their dorm rooms.
  2. Remediate risk by referring participant to the counseling center if they are experiencing any homesickness.

6. Analyze the data.

  1.  Score the homesickness scale survey completed by participants.
  2. Observers discuss/review their notes and then score participants on a 1-7 scale (ranging from ‘not at all homesick’ to ‘extremely homesick’).
    1. These same two observers are used to observe all participants’ dorm rooms to ensure that the scoring is consistent.

Observational research incorporates a variety of measurement methods to accurately capture authentic information.

For example, psychologists use questionnaires to inquire how someone thinks or feels, and individual observations to examine current or past behavior.

This video demonstrates how to design and perform an observational study, as well as how to analyze the data and interpret the results measuring students’ homesickness.

In this experiment, the notion of homesickness is investigated—defined here as the distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and people and things you’re familiar with.

To measure homesickness level, two distinct methods are used to correlate participants’ perceptions of how they feel with actual observations.

In the first method, participants are given a questionnaire called the Homesickness Scale and asked to rate how true statements are to them on a scale of 1 to 4.

For the second method, participants’ apartments are observed by two individuals who are trained to look for evidence of homesickness, such as pictures of parents, family, friends from home; logos from their high school; and a low presence of university paraphernalia.

The hypothesis then is that participants who score highly on the homesickness questionnaire will have living spaces that also reflect how they feel.

To begin the experiment, guide each participant through the informed consent process, which consists of a brief description of the research and a sense of the procedure.

After handing the participant a packet that includes the Homesickness Scale and several other questionnaires, allow them time to complete all of the forms. Note that additional questionnaires are included to mask the true purpose of the study.

Once the participant has completed the questionnaires, instruct them to leave with two observers to visit their apartment. The same two observers visit all participants’ living spaces to ensure that scoring is unbiased and consistent.

When arriving at the apartment, confirm that you have permission to look around and then ask the participant to open drawers and closets. If any pictures are present, clarify who appears in them. Remember that both observers take notes of what they see during the visit.

At the end of the inspection, debrief the participant as to the true nature of the study and explain why deception was necessary. In the event that participants are experiencing any homesickness, refer them to the counseling center.

Immediately after the inspection, discuss and review observation notes and then score the participant’s level of homesickness on a scale of 1 to 7, with higher numbers corresponding to more evidence of homesickness.

To analyze the data, plot each participant’s score on the homesickness scale against the observer’s score of their apartment. Perform a correlational analysis to determine if a relationship exists between the two measures.

Notice that participants who scored higher on the homesickness scale had more indicators of homesickness in their room. Thus, the two measures are positively correlated.

Now that you are familiar with how experimental psychologists integrate observational measurements, let’s look at other ways observation can be applied.

Recently, researchers have found that observers looking at online profiles could accurately infer the personality characteristics of the person who made the profile.

In another study, researchers used a combination of clinical surveys and handwriting samples to investigate the link between fine motor control disorders and psychosis during adolescence.

In this case, individuals rated as high risk for psychosis had pen movements that were less smooth than controls, suggesting that handwriting could be used as a diagnostic tool.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s introduction to observational research. Now you should have a good understanding of how to setup and perform an experiment, as well as analyze and assess the results.

Thanks for watching! 

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After collecting data from 63 people, a correlation was performed between the participants’ score on the homesickness scale and the observer’s score of their room to determine if a visual inspection of a student’s room can indicate their degree of homesickness (Figure 2). The results indicate that participants who scored higher on the homesickness scale had more indicators of homesickness in their dorm room.

The results of this study are similar to another study by Gosling and colleagues, which showed that individuals’ offices and living spaces were good indicators of their personality.2 

Figure 2
Figure 2. Correlation between Homesickness Scale and dorm room observation scores.

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Applications and Summary

This correlational study shows that a person’s behavior, even something as simple as how they decorate their room, can indicate how they feel (i.e., how homesick they are).

Using observations of another person to infer that person’s feelings or thoughts can be difficult. However, research has found evidence that we can be accurate in our observational inferences. A study in Psychological Science found that observers could accurately infer personality characteristics from a person’s Facebook profile.3

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  1. Archer, J., Ireland, J., Amos, S., Broad, H., & Currid, L. Derivation of homesickness scale. British Journal of Psychology. 89 (2), 205-221. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8295.1998.tb02681.x (1998).
  2. Gosling, S. D., Ko, S., Mannarelli, T., & Morris, M. E. A room with a cue: Personality judgments based on offices and bedrooms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 82 (3), 379-398. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.3.379 (2002).
  3. Back, M. D., Stopfer, J. M., Vazire, S., Gaddis, S., Schmukle, S. C., Egloff, B., & Gosling, S. D. Facebook profiles reflect actual personality, not self-idealization. Psychological Science. 21 (3), 372-374. doi:10.1177/0956797609360756 (2010).



Observational Research Measurement Methods Questionnaires Individual Observations Observational Study Data Analysis Results Interpretation Homesickness Distress Functional Impairment Separation From Home Familiarity Homesickness Level Measurement Homesickness Scale Questionnaire Participants' Perceptions Actual Observations Apartments Observation Evidence Of Homesickness Hypothesis

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