How Psychologists Observe Behavior? Whom DO Psychologists Observe? The psychologist’s business is to make systematic observations of behavior. But no psychologist can study everyone’s behavior. Instead, the researcher chooses a sample of people to study. Just as a geologist may attempt to determine the com- position of a mountain by analyzing a small sample of rocks, so the psychologist attempts to discover the principles of human behavior by studying a small sample of humans. In some cases, the nature of the psychologist’s sample is dictated by the topic being studied. Thus, a psychologist interested in language development will study children who are learning to talk, and one interested in mental illness will study people suffering from psychological disorders.
The psychologist’s choice of a sample of subjects is also likely to be dictated by convenience. Roughly 80 percent of psychological research with humans makes use of college students as participants (Korn & Bram, 1988). Since most psycho- logical researchers work at colleges and universities, student especially those taking psychology courses—provide a readily available supply of people to study.
The heavy reliance on college students presents certain problems, however (Sears, 1986). College students are not representative in all respects of the population at large. For example, students tend to score higher on measures of self-esteem and intellectual ability than do their noncollege peers. When psychologists are not able to obtain representative samples, they must be very cautious about possiblc limits to the generalizability of their findings. Such caution is required, for example, when psychologists study only one sex but Want to generalize to both males and females, or when they study only one social group (such as middle-class whites) but want to understand people in general.
How Psychologists Observe Behavior?
In most cases, the psychologist includes a fairly large number of subjects in any given study. By observing the behavior of 30 or 50 or 100 people, the researcher can look for common patterns, as well as individual differences, in the subjects’ behavior. Sometimes, when researchers are studying the behavior or attitudes of a large group of people, they conduct a survey, in which they question hundreds or even thousands of respondents (people who respond to researchers’ questionnaires or surveys). At the other extreme, the psychologist can sometimes learn a great deal by closely observing a single person.
For example, an intensive case study of an individual with a particular psychological disorder may provide valuable in- sights about the nature of the disorder. Psychologists must always give careful attention to ethical issues in their re- search. In research with humans, the researcher must ask questions such as these; Does the study invade the subjects’ privacy? Whar effect might the research have on participants’ well-being, not only while the study is going on but also after it is over? When Zick Rubin, Anne peplau, and their colleagues studied the development of dating couples’ relationships over a two-year period, they had to confront the possibility that their questionnaires and interviews might actually influence the relationships that were being studied (Rubin & Mitchell, 1976). In most cases, the effects seemed to be positive ones, giving people more insight into their relationships.
A large proportion of psychological research is conducted in laboratories of vari- ous kinds. An animal learning laboratory may have rooms full ofcages in which the animals live and special chambers in which the animals are tested. A clinical psychology laboratory may have comfortable rooms in which married couples can discuss their family problems and equipment tar obsercing and videotaping the discussions. Laboratories help psychologists to study behavior under precise, well- regulated conditions. Because rhe laboratory is a rather artificial environment, however, it is sometimes difficult to generalize from the ways subjects behave in the laboratory to the ways they would behave in other situations. For example, studies of aggression in the laboratory can never give us a complete understanding of the causes of violence in the streets.
Because most psychologists are ultimately concerned with human behavior and mental processes, it may seem surprising that much of their research is conducted with non-humans. The most commonly used animal subjects are rats and pigeons. But psychologists have also conducted research with many other species, ranging from worms to elephants. Psychologists use nonhuman subjects for a variety of reasons. For one thing, animals can be kept captive in laboratories for long periods of time, so it is often much easier to observe their behavior. Animals are also less likely than humans to try to second-guess the experimenter or to be suspicious of the researcher’s stared intentions. In addition, certain techniques, such as brain surgery, cannot ethically be used with humans but sometimes Can be used with animals.
Some critics argue that animal research is not likely to be applicable to human behavior. Certainly some human problems have no known parallels among other animals. For example, ‘ ‘No amount of experimentation with animals would tell us whether the possession of handguns by private citizens enhances crime and violence, or what to do about industrial conflict or how to deal with poverty.