By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Using data from Google or Twitter are examples of archival research. Contrary to what the name suggests, this method is not confined to either musty paper archives or the surveillance practices of online platforms. Rather, archival research in psychology refers to any study using already-collected data to test associations between different variables.
Advances in technology have allowed researchers to gain insight into people’s thoughts and feelings through the indirect observation of behavior. Researchers in one study measured Google searches to examine rates of sexual orientation in different parts of the United States.
Overall, more men openly describe themselves as gay in certain parts of the country, say, New York City, than in others, say, Mississippi. But it’s not clear whether there really are more gay men per capita in New York than in Mississippi, or if gay men are just less willing to self-identify as gay in surveys and on social media.
However, researchers examining Google searches found two things: First, rates of searches for ‘gay porn’ are equally common across the country. But second, another type of search is much more common in states in the deep South than in other parts of the country: ‘Is my husband gay?’
So, these findings suggest that there are gay men in all parts of the country, but that gay men in certain states are less likely to be open about their sexual orientation, leading their wives to wonder if their husbands are in fact gay.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Using Technology for Indirect Observation
Here’s another great example of using technology for indirect observation. In a 2019 study, researchers coded people’s tweets before, during, and after they visited an urban park, using geolocation of the tweets. People who visited a park used happier words and expressed less negativity on Twitter than they did before their visit.
Moreover, this boost in mood lasts for several hours afterwards. So, these findings tell us that spending time in nature is actually a great way to feel happier.
Neuroscience and a Social Network Analysis
With cutting-edge techniques in neuroscience, researchers are increasingly making use of brain imaging to examine psychological phenomena, including how babies learn to communicate, how meditation changes the brain, and how teenagers’ brains react when they see Instagram photos with lots of likes.
In a ground-breaking study published in 2018, researchers at UCLA and Dartmouth College examined patterns of brain waves to see if close friends were similar in how they saw the world at a neurological level.
They first conducted an in-depth analysis of the social connections between all students in a particular graduate student program. This research approach, called a social network analysis, is basically a mapping of all relationships between all students: who is friends with who, who shares friends with who, and so on.
They then put students in an fMRI machine to see how different people’s brains reacted to short video clips on random topics: the dangers of college football, how water behaves in outer space, actors performing improvisational comedy, and so on.
The researchers then compared how particular parts of the brain responded to each of the clips; and they found that we really are similar to our friends. Based on brain patterns alone, the researchers could predict which people were friends. How?
The closer people were in the social network, the more similarly their brains reacted to the video clips, showing that basically we pay attention and react to things in the same way as our friends.
Correlation between Two Variables
However, even this kind of neurological data is subject to limitations. They only tell us whether there is a correlation between two variables; they don’t tell us why that correlation exists.
If you share brain wave patterns with your best friend, does that mean people with similar takes on the world naturally gravitate towards each other and develop a friendship? Or does it mean that after we become friends with someone, we grow to see the world in a similar way?
That’s the kind of important question we cannot answer using a simple descriptive study.
Common Questions about Archival Research in Psychology
Technological advancements have enabled researchers to gain a better understanding into people’s behavior, emotions, and judgments through indirect observation. For example, researchers in one study measured Google searches to examine rates of sexual orientation in different parts of the United States.
Researchers are increasingly making use of brain imaging to examine psychological phenomena, such as how babies learn to communicate, how meditation changes the brain, and how teenagers’ brains react when they see Instagram photos with lots of likes.
The social network analysis is a research approach. It is a mapping of all relationships between people: who is friends with who, who shares friends with who, and so on.