Observational Study Fall 2017

Last week our senior Research Methods class conducted on observational study on the Sierra Nevada College campus outside Patterson Hall.

An observational study is a method of research in which the researcher simply observes behaviors that occur naturally in the environment.  This differs from experimental research because there is no manipulation of variables or controls.  The strength of this type of research is that one can observe things as they happen naturally in the environment.  Other benefits include gaining access to situations and people where interviews are impossible or unable to be used.  Some weaknesses of observational studies are that they can be very time consuming, the researcher could influence the outcome of results, and observations could be made subjectively.  This creates a higher role conflict as observers may inadvertently influence results.  Confounding variables may also influence results, as researchers do not use control or manipulation as they would in experimental research to limit them.

There are two types of observational studies: Systematic and Natural

Natural observation occurs when there are no parameters set up for the researcher to record.  Observers simply go to a specified location with an idea in mind to study.  An example of this would be to go to an airport and simply record every single behavior that relates to what you are looking into: say love.  This is the example which Professor Christina M. Frederick used in class.  Previous colleagues of hers went to the airport and observed behaviors which related to love (kissing, hugging, crying, etc.).

Systematic observation occurs when observers go to a set location with certain parameters.  Instead of recording any and all behaviors which may or may not relate and analyzing all of them, researchers have certain parameters and measures which they already plan on recording beforehand.  This sort of observation allows more structure to control the complete randomness that can occur during natural observation.

Last Wednesday our Research Methods class conducted a Systematic Observational Study in order to gauge responses to an overt act of littering.  We decided to concentrate on littering behavior due to the fact that one of our four core themes focuses on sustainability.  This is no surprise for a campus located in the beautiful Lake Tahoe Basin, much of which is within protected national forests and open preserve state park land.  Water clarity in Tahoe has been suffering in recent years to do increased tourism around the lake, which has crystal blue waters that resemble The Mediterranean.

The reason this study was a systematic observation is because we went into the situation with planned conditions and parameters to measure.  The two conditions the class used was whether or not the litter was dropped less than 5 feet away from a trash basket or whether it was dropped more than ten feet away from the trash basket.  Observers recorded whether or not the participants were indifferent, concerned, hostile, or constructive.

We defined these parameters as such:

Indifferent – No words spoken and no action taken

Concerned – Words or action taken with neutral tone of language

Hostile – Words or action taken with hostility or anger

Constructive – Words or actions taken with positive or helpful tone

Radius – Feet from trash can

Our class situated ourselves outside Patterson Hall.  Observers were scattered at lunch tables and in study groups in the lawn.  Two students were located on either end of Patterson Hall as interceptors and debriefers.  These two students stopped participants who appeared angry or upset and explained to them that nobody was actually throwing trash on the ground, but that we were actually conducting an observational study.

One last student, lucky me, got to act as the Confederate.  A confederate in a psychological study is somebody who is essentially “in on it.”  In this case the confederate was the litterer.  I chose to do this role hoping it would allow me some more insight for writing this article.

Results of the study were quite surprising.  We discovered that only 16% of students actually did anything about the litter.  Of this 16% the majority of participants picked up the trash and said nothing to me.  There was only two guys that said anything, and it was a quiet “you dropped something bud” without picking up the trash.  Many students who passed by were quick to glance a dirty look at me, but apparently none of them cared enough to stop and pick up the trash.  These results were very surprising to me, especially at a school located in such an environmentally friendly and gorgeous location with one of its’ main core themes being Sustainability!

Our class decided to believe the best in our fellow man, and explained our results to the Bystander Effect.  This concept comes from social psychology.  The bystander effect is the tendency for individuals to ignore emergency situations or to not intervene in a situation which they know is wrong, simply due to the presence of others.  I believe that the bystander effect is one of the major factors that can explain the presence of litter around the Lake Tahoe Basin.  Many people believe that park rangers and others will take responsibility or take care of something if they are there.  This is called diffusion of responsibility.  Our brains tend to diffuse responsibility onto others in order to reduce stress.  This ego reaction prevents us from feeling the guilt of not intervening into a situation even when we know we should.

This got me thinking.  Since moving to Lake Tahoe a little more over three years ago, my appreciation of the environment and beauty of this earth has increased ten-fold.  As a member of the community, I am part of the Incline Village and Lake Tahoe pages on Facebook.  Often times there are locals who complain about littering.  These same individuals, who make profits from the tourism that the lake brings, spend more time complaining online about tourists littering than actually doing anything to make it better.  How many students walked by me and shot me a dirty look, but didn’t have it within them to stop and pick up the trash?  Perhaps if more individuals around the community took action and helped clean up litter, the tourists who have less appreciation of the environment would model our behavior, and also clean up.

Due to the weaknesses of our study, I decided to not be too upset with the 16% pick-up rate on campus.  There were several things we could have done better.  First, a group of observers in a study group on the lawn were probably too close to the location of the litter drop.  This likely exacerbated the bystander effect.  Another weakness of this study was that we could have had an additional confederate.  This would have reduced sampling error by increasing the sample size in our study and getting us closer to the actual rate of students who would have picked up the litter.  Having less observers, or observers who were more hidden in the environment, would have helped decrease diffusion of responsibility among participants.

The senior research methods class is blessed to be able to actually conduct studies in the field.  We are currently devising and polishing our own individual experimental research which we will each conduct next semester.  Activities like this and our in class observational study allow us to not only learn about psychology from a book, but get out in the field and conduct research in topics which we are each individually interested in.  This is just one of the many reasons why I have a great amount of respect for our Psychology Program.


Author: Ryan Knuppenburg (Senior Intern)

Leave a Reply