Descriptive Research

Case Study: Sometimes the data in a descriptive research project are based on only a small set of individuals, often only one person or a single small group. These research designs are known as case studies which are descriptive records of one or a small group of individuals’ experiences and behavior. Sometimes case studies involve ordinary individuals.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed his own children. More frequently, case studies are conducted on individuals who have unusual or abnormal experiences. The assumption is that by carefully studying these individuals, we can learn something about human nature. Case studies have a distinct disadvantage in that, although it allows us to get an idea of what is currently happening, it is usually limited to static pictures. Although descriptions of particular experiences may be interesting, they are not always transferable to other individuals in similar situations. They are also time consuming and expensive as many professionals are involved in gathering the information.

Observations: Another type of descriptive research is known as observation. When using naturalistic observation, psychologists observe and record behavior that occurs in everyday settings. For instance, a developmental psychologist might watch children on a playground and describe what they say to each other. However, naturalistic observations do not allow the researcher to have any control over the environment.

Laboratory observation, unlike the naturalistic observation, is conducted in a setting created by the researcher. This permits the researcher to control more aspects of the situation. One example of laboratory observation involves a systematic procedure known as the strange situation test, which you will learn about in chapter three. Concerns regarding laboratory observations are that the participants are aware that they are being watched, and there is no guarantee that the behavior demonstrated in the laboratory will generalize to the real world.

Survey: In other cases the data from descriptive research projects come in the form of a survey, which is a measure administered through either a verbal or written questionnaire to get a picture of the beliefs or behaviors of a sample of people of interest. The people chosen to participate in the research, known as the sample, are selected to be representative of all the people that the researcher wishes to know about called the population. A representative sample would include the same percentages of males, females, age groups, ethnic groups, and socio-economic groups as the larger population.

Surveys gather information from many individuals in a short period of time, which is the greatest benefit for surveys. Additionally, surveys are inexpensive to administer. However, surveys typically yield surface information on a wide variety of factors, but may not allow for in-depth understanding of human behavior. Another problem is that respondents may lie because they want to present themselves in the most favorable light, known as social desirability. They also may be embarrassed to answer truthfully or are worried that their results will not be kept confidential. Additionally, questions can be perceived differently than intended.

Interviews: Rather than surveying participants, they can be interviewed which means they are directly questioned by a researcher. Interviewing participants on their behaviors or beliefs can solve the problem of misinterpreting the questions posed on surveys. The examiner can explain the questions and further probe responses for greater clarity and understanding. Although this can yield more accurate results, interviews take longer and are more expensive to administer than surveys. Participants can also demonstrate social desirability, which will affect the accuracy of the responses.

Psychophysiological Assessment: Researchers may also record psychophysiological data, such as measures of heart rate, hormone levels, or brain activity to help explain development. These measures may be recorded by themselves or in combination with behavioral data to better understand the bidirectional relations between biology and behavior. Special equipment has been developed to allow researchers to record the brain activity of very young and very small research subjects. One manner of understanding associations between brain development and behavioral advances is through the recording of event-related potentials (ERPs). ERPs are recorded by fitting a research participant with a stretchy cap that contains many small sensors or electrodes. These electrodes record tiny electrical currents on the scalp of the participant in response to the presentation of stimuli, such as a picture or a sound. The use of ERPs has provided important insight as to how infants and children understand the world around them. Webb, Dawson, Bernier, and Panagiotides (2006) examined face and object processing in children with autism spectrum disorders, those with developmental delays, and those who were typically developing. The children wore electrode caps and had their brain activity recorded as they watched still photographs of faces of their mother or of a stranger, and objects, including those that were familiar or unfamiliar to them. The researchers examined differences in face and object processing by group by observing a component of the brainwaves. Findings suggest that children with autism are in some way processing faces differently than typically developing children and those with more general developmental delays.

Secondary/Content Analysis involves analyzing information that has already been collected or examining documents or media to uncover attitudes, practices or preferences. There are a number of data sets available to those who wish to conduct this type of research. For example, the U. S. Census Data is available and widely used to look at trends and changes taking place in the United States. The researcher conducting secondary analysis does not have to recruit subjects, but does need to know the quality of the information collected in the original study.