Equipment We should briefly mention several methodological issues in systematic observation. The first concerns equipment. You can directly observe behavior and code it at the same time; for example, you could directly observe and record the behavior of children in a classroom or couples interacting on campus using paper-and-pencil measures. However, it is becoming more common to use video and audio recording equipment to make such observations because they provide a permanent record of the behavior observed that can be coded later.
An interesting method for audio recording is called the Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR) that was used to compare sociability behaviors of Americans and Mexicans (Ramirez-Esparza, Mehl, Alvarez-Bermúdez, & Pennebaker, 2009). The EAR is a small audio recorder that a subject wears throughout the day. It is set to turn on periodically to record sounds in the subject’s environment. The study examined frequency of sociable behaviors. Previous research had found the Americans score higher than Mexicans on self-report measures of sociability, contradicting stereotypes that Mexicans are generally more sociable. Coders applied the Social Environment of Sound Inventory to code the sounds as alone, talking with others in a public environment, or on the phone. When sociability was measured this way, the Mexican subjects were in fact more sociable than the Americans.
Reactivity A second issue is reactivity—the possibility that the presence of the observer will affect people’s behaviors (see Chapter 5). Reactivity can be reduced by concealed observation. Using small cameras and microphones can make the observation unobtrusive, even in situations in which the participant has been informed of the recording. Also, reactivity can be reduced by allowing time for people to become used to the observer and equipment.
Reliability Recall from Chapter 5 that reliability refers to the degree to which a measurement reflects a true score rather than measurement error. Reliable measures are stable, consistent, and precise. When conducting systematic observation, two or more raters are usually used to code behavior. Reliability is indicated by a high agreement among the raters. Very high levels of agreement are reported in virtually all published research using systematic observation (generally 80% agreement or higher). For some large-scale research programs in which many observers will be employed over a period of years, observers are first trained using videotapes, and their observations Page 125during training are checked for agreement with results from previous observers.
Sampling For many research questions, samples of behavior taken over an extended period provide more accurate and useful data than single, short observations. Consider a study on the behaviors of nursing home residents and staff during meals (Stabell, Eide, Solheim, Solberg, and Rustoen, 2004). The researchers were interested in the frequency of different resident behaviors such as independent eating, socially engaged eating, and dependent eating in which help is needed. The staff behaviors included supporting the behaviors of the residents (e.g., assisting, socializing). The researchers could have made observations during a single meal or two meals during a single day. However, such data might be distorted by short-term trends—the particular meal being served, an illness, a recent event such as a death among the residents. The researchers instead sampled behaviors during breakfast and lunch over a period of 6 weeks. Each person was randomly chosen to be observed for a 3-minute period during both meals on 10 of the days of the study. A major finding was that the staff members were most frequently engaged in supporting dependent behavior with little time spent supporting independent behaviors such as socializing. Interestingly, part-time nursing student staff were more likely to support independence.