There are two types of naturalistic observations, overt and covert. Observations are a favourable method used in Behaviourism. In this post, I hope to conclude which type of observation is the best method to use in Psychology.
Overt observations refer to the researcher being open about their intentions in the field and ensuring all members of the social group are aware of what is happening. An advantage of this type of observation is that it allows the researcher to be honest with the participants, thus avoiding problematic ethical issues such as deception or lack of informed consent. Furthermore, it also prevents the researcher from becoming over-familiar with the participants and ‘going native’. Therefore, aiming to keep the observation objective and free from bias. However, a disadvantage would be that the participants understand the aims of the observer and so there is likely to be possible observer effects (the participants changing there behaviour acting in a way that they believe is expected by the experimenter). An example of an overt observation would be Williams, 1986 study on the media effects on anti-social behaviour in children. In this study 6-11 year old children from an isolated society were assessed on their levels of aggression after the introduction of TV. The children knew they were being studied and so they may have shown demand characteristics or social desirability effects.
Covert observations involve the researcher not informing members of the group the reason for their presence; keeping their true intentions secret. This automatically raises ethical concerns. In this case, the researcher may not be protected, or may not protect others, from the risk of harm- especially if they social group they are studying are a deviant group that may partake in violent acts. Also, they will be deceiving the participants and will lack informed consent. Also, in this type of observation there are chances that the researcher could become bias in their view and may ‘go native’. An advantage of covert observation is that it allows us access to social groups that normally would not provide consent to being involved in studies. Therefore, allowing us to research and expand knowledge on lesser-known social groups, which in turn will widen our Psychological understanding of the world. Also, this type of observation avoids problems surrounding observer-effects and so may be considered to be higher in validity than overt observations. An example of a covert observation would be the famous Bandura’s 1961 Bobo doll study. In this study, after watching a model act violently the children were unknowingly observed as they played with toys, so the researcher could measure the childrens level of aggression after watching a model acting aggressively. The children were unaware that they were being observed and the reasons why they were involved in this study and therefore they would more likely to show natural displays of behaviour.
In my opinion, covert observations are the better option because they provide a more valid view of the group being studied and avoid issues of demand characteristics. Although, it could be argued that the ethical issues involved render this method less effective I believe that they can be overcome if the researcher ensures that they fully debrief the participants afterwards. Also, if the potential findings of the study are significant to Psychology then it may justify ethical issues such as lack of informed consent. However, in the case of potential risk of harm I feel that it is harder to decide whether or not to conduct a covert observation, because although the findings may be revolutionary for the psychological world it is still putting others in danger.
Bandura, A. (1961), The journal of abnormal and social psychology, 63 (3), 575-582, 10.1037/h0045925