By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Many of the most common questions in psychology are studied with descriptive methods, meaning methods that observe and record some type of thought, belief, emotion, or behavior. Descriptive research methods tend to be pretty easy to use and don’t require expensive equipment or space. By using the descriptive method, one can examine people in the real world so that their real behavior can be measured.
The most commonly used type of descriptive method in psychology is the survey in which one just asks people to report on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
A survey study examined how rates of empathy in American college students had changed over a 30-year period, from 1979 to 2009. In the survey, the students were asked to rate their agreement with various statements, such as, “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective.” The results were not encouraging.
Students showed a 48% decrease in empathetic concerns and a 34% decrease in their ability to take someone else’s perspective.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Another type of descriptive method, very common in earlier decades of psychology research, is the case study, which relies on studying one or more people in great depth to understand what causes their behavior. For example, much of our early knowledge about the organization of the brain was developed based on case studies of people who had experienced trauma to a particular part of the head.
Similarly, insight into how language develops early in life came from a case study of a girl named Genie, who had been locked in a small room for years before finally being freed and exposed to normal language.
Sigmund Freud’s controversial theories of personality development are a vivid example of the potential unreliability of case studies. Freud developed his ideas largely on the basis of a relatively small number of patient case studies, after months, or even years, of therapy sessions, and those theories are no longer widely accepted.
However, focusing on only a few examples inherently has weaknesses. First, the sample size is small, so it’s hard to justify broad conclusions. Second, experimenter bias can always influence the findings.
Still, case studies continue to provide information about relatively rare events and unique populations. For example, starting in 2002, case studies of professional athletes who experienced concussions while playing their sport and later died by suicide provided early evidence about the lasting effects of head trauma and led to further research confirming the need to prevent such injuries.
Another type of descriptive method is naturalistic observation, in which researchers observe and rate real-world interactions. Naturalistic observation could be used to compare gender differences in aggression by watching kids on a playground, or evaluate whether people spend more time washing their hands before leaving a restroom if they believe someone is watching them.
To examine whether countries differ in their overall ‘pace of life’, a pioneering study used naturalistic observation to measure the average walking speed of randomly selected people in the largest city in 31 different countries in the first half of the 1990s.
Researchers found pretty substantial differences. It took people in Dublin, Zurich, and Amsterdam less than 12 seconds to walk 60 feet, but took people in Bucharest and Rio de Janeiro nearly 17 seconds.
Such research can tell us about broader cultural norms than just cultural differences in walking speed; it can tell how much of a rush people are in, based on where they live.
Limitations of Descriptive Methods
However, all descriptive methods also have some limits about what they can tell us. First, we tend to generalize on the basis of a single experience. But our attention may be drawn to unique examples that lead us to imagine a larger pattern or trend that doesn’t really hold.
So, maybe one knows someone who smoked for years and never developed cancer. That one example certainly does not disprove the considerable scientific data showing a strong link between smoking and cancer.
Another problem with some types of naturalistic methods is that the presence of the person observing can sometimes influence the precise behavior one is trying to measure. Once a faculty adviser to a fraternity described how he had been worried about the potential hazards of the fraternity lifestyle—excessive drinking, sexual activity, etc.—so had taken it upon himself to spend a week living there.
He was very pleased to report to all parents, by the end, that what he had observed was a group of young men prioritizing their academics and providing valuable support to one another. Clearly, the behavior observed by the faculty adviser was perhaps not fully representative of behavior during weeks in which he was not residing in the fraternity.
A third pretty common concern about descriptive methods is that people may sometimes, unintentionally, give wrong or inconsistent answers. Both marathon runners and women giving birth rate their experience of pain immediately after the marathon or childbirth as more painful than they do when asked about their memory of the event after time has passed.
Descriptive methods are also highly vulnerable to how people deliberately tend to under-report some things, like using drugs or watching porn, while over-reporting other things, like reading books or flossing.
Owing to these drawbacks, the researchers felt the need to look at other ways of observing. Advances in technology helped in doing just that. It allowed researchers to gain insight into people’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior through the indirect observation of behavior. It resolved the issue of people’s tendency to misrepresent themselves, either deliberately or unintentionally.
Common Questions about Understanding Psychology: The Descriptive Method
The most commonly used type of descriptive method in psychology is survey. In surveys, one just asks people to report on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
A case study relies on studying one or more people in great depth to understand what causes their behavior. For example, much of our early knowledge about the organization of the brain was developed based on case studies of people who had experienced trauma to a particular part of the head.
Naturalistic observation is a type of descriptive method of reserach. In this method, researchers observe and rate real-world interactions. For example, naturalistic observation can be used to evaluate whether people spend more time washing their hands before leaving a restroom if they believe someone is watching them.