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Observational Research Paper Example

In some cases, research requires traveling. Is this the case in your project? On the one hand, you might want to observe people in a natural setting: at their own home, in shops, in classrooms, or in offices. On the other hand, people might not be healthy enough to travel to your lab. Observational research can be carried out on-site, however, there are some factors you need to take into consideration, such as lighting conditions, camera position, and voice recording. Most importantly, is everybody on-site in agreement about the video recordings or the direct observations? Here you can read two examples of on-site observational studies involving elderly people as participants. No matter what kind of research question you wish to answer, performing on-site research has both limitations and advantages compared to lab studies. Read on to learn more!

  1. Measuring engagement in people with advanced dementia

  2. Measuring eating behavior in elderly people

Engagement in people with advanced dementia

In order to study behavior in residential care homes, researchers had to bring their lab to the premises. In addition to it being convenient for the participants, an on-site study enables researchers to take environmental factors into account.

Cruz et al. from the University of Aveiro and the research unit UniFAI (Portugal) designed a pilot study to measure engagement in meaningful activities, because engaging in activities improves the quality of life of those suffering from dementia. Engagement is explained as: “the act of being occupied or involved with an external stimulus” (Cohen-Mansfield et al. 2009). It is fundamentally different from just attending the activity. To measure activity instead of attendance Cruz et al. included behavioral observations in their study.  

This pilot study was conducted in Portugal, in a care home for elderly people. The researchers made use of video recordings allowing them to review the activities as often as necessary. They selected video recording over direct observation to ensure the capture of all important information. Cruz et al. described their on-site preparations:

In each session, researchers fastened the video camera to a top of a tripod and turned it on just before the session started. The camera was placed in a specific location in the room where it would not interfere with participants’ movements and enabled video recording of all participants, including their faces.

In order to observe behavior in a structured way, the authors described behavioral categories and designed an ethogram. For example, they coded verbal communication, interaction with objects, and engagement in the task. The Observer XT coding and analysis software enabled the researchers to calculate and compare frequencies and durations of specific behaviors. Only 4 out of the 13 residents, for various reasons, participated in the study. Although this is a small number, it gave the researchers the opportunity to test their on-site study design and the activity program. The full article, results of this pilot study, and recommendations for further research made by the authors can be found in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias.

Food intake in nursing homes

Several pilot studies were conducted in the Inside Consumer Experience research project. This consortium aimed to develop novel instruments and mobile services for the objective measurement of food selection and consumption in real-life contexts such as nursing homes or dance festivals. The pilot study presented here was carried out in two nursing homes in The Netherlands. One of the nursing homes was designated as the experimental location and the other as the control location. At both locations, the researchers installed thirteen cameras for recording behavior during dinnertime in order to assess food intake. A number of changes were implemented for the experimental group, such as a change in meal preparation with at least 60% organic products, more social interaction between participants and staff members, and the overall ambiance was improved (furnishing of the dining rooms, the way the meals were presented, etc.). The results from this pilot study showed that food intake increased in the experimental group. In this pilot study, the researchers could have invited people to a restaurant lab or to a University facility, however, inviting people to another facility simply would not have worked. Since the researchers wanted to measure the effect of changing situations on food intake in a real-life context, on-site research was the perfect answer to answering their research questions. To read more about pilot design and the results, please visit www.ice-project.org.

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Also interested in lab studies? The research area of clinical communication has over the last thirty years grown both in the number of publications and in importance in health research. More and more elderly people are asked to participate. On-site research has both limitations and advantages compared to lab studies. Read on to learn more! Download the free case study and learn:

  • How to acquire rich and meaningful data in a lab
  • How to set up research in clinical communication
  • How to work with video, data acquisition equipment and analysis software


  • Cruz, J.; Marques, A.; Barbosa, A.; Figueiredo, D.; Sousa, L.X. (2013). Making sense(s) in dementia : a multisensory and motor-based group activity program. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, doi:10.1177/1533317512473194.
  • Cohen-Mansfield, J.; Dakheel-Ali, M.; Marx, M.S. (2009). Engagement in persons with dementia: the concept and its measurement. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,17 (4), 299-307.
  • http://www.ice-project.org

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How to build a usability lab 

To get off to a good start, it is best to describe the research or tests in great detail. With this description it becomes clear what kind of equipment will be needed, and which physical environment would best suit this test or research.

Download this free ‘how to’ guide to learn more about building a usability lab.

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One Week in the Life of a 38 Year-Old, Antisocial Man


For the period of one week, I observed a 38 year-old man going about his daily routine. This subject, identified as “X” herein, is an African American of limited education. He did attend college but, in shifting courses prompted by loss of interest, attained no degree. X is married, although there is no appreciable degree of intimacy or familiarity with his wife. He is a veteran of the armed services, but he was discharged for medical reasons after a few years and, despite a lack of medical evidence, insists that he still suffers from injuries sustained at this time. While X seeks to assert a middle class level of comfort, his income is negligible and poverty is more accurately his economic state. Lastly, and as will be further explored through reference to other aspects of his life, much of X's behavior, as well as the few activities in which he engages, reflects an absence of any ambition whatsoever and an extreme disinclination to become involved, even casually, with others. In virtually every arena by which general human conduct is assessed, X leads a distinctly antisocial existence, and one moreover evidently disagreeable to those in contact with him.

The intent here is to compare X with a relatively normal man of a similar age, and something of a disclaimer is consequently called for. Defining what exactly constitutes “normal” behavior is ordinarily a treacherous territory, for too often the phrase is viewed, not as a measure, but as a kind of judgment; as soon as the word “abnormal” comes into play, it is usually felt that a derogatory association is attached. However, in attempting to compare X with a hypothetical, average, “normal” man of his age, the latter is merely in place to serve as a very basic parameter. That is to say, the comparison is to be based upon nothing more than the acceptance of “normal' as those behaviors that conform to accepted, societal standards.

No value judgments are attached to these determinations, as only a societal standard is being employed.

Comparative Analysis

In juxtaposing X with the average man, a variety of striking contrasts are evident. As human behaviors are inextricably connected elements of an individual's being, the traits demonstrated by X that set him apart from the average man are inevitably connected. For example, X indulges in several forms of substance abuse. It is not unusual for a man of his age to be a social drinker, or to partake of certain other recreational substances. The differences with X, however, lie in the fact that he had indulged in cocaine use when young, and that the marijuana and alcohol he claims to use recreationally today must play a role in fueling what is his predominant characteristic, that of being adamantly antisocial. In other words, such substance abuse with another man would not be especially noteworthy, as the average man does not exhibit such behaviors, and the fact remains that a vast amount of research links substance abuse, and particularly that of alcohol, with antisocial behavior. Studies reflect that such substance use may be influential in fostering the antisocial behavior, be a consequence of it, or both. The operative factor is the link, as antisocial feelings are clearly exacerbated by control substances. Here, then, X is distanced from the average man, who typically turns to alcohol or marijuana to actually better enjoy social contact.

Regarding this antisocial bent with X, it should be noted that Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASP), unlike Conduct Disorder, which is usually identified in children and teens, is characterized by intent. Technically, ASP is determined by patterns of behavior that are aggressively antisocial and defiant, and “antisocial” has indeed lapsed into the vernacular to refer to merely disagreeable, distanced individuals. Technical definitions notwithstanding, however, X may be classified in this way because he exhibits that primary component: patterned behavior. If he is not aggressively antisocial in terms of being violent, he is nonetheless consistently hostile in his feelings regarding others, and this is at variance with the average man.

The subject's age is especially interesting, in assessing how his antisocial, and often paranoid, feelings have been generated. This may be linked to his racial background. For example, I observed that X typically reverts to African American slang when speaking with those familiar to him, such as his spouse or mother, as he attempts to articulate more along mainstream standards when addressing strangers. This would seem to indicate a sense of racial separateness, as his overt hostility of feeling towards others points to an innate dissatisfaction, or at least lack of resolution, regarding his own race. Some measure of self-hatred has been documented as occurring commonly in the African American population, and particularly of those persons middle-aged and older. In simple terms, the dislike evinced for them by the dominant, white culture is translated within the African American culture itself, and X is of an age when more overt racism was permitted, or at least evident, in society. Even so, it may be safely asserted that the average, 38 year-old black man is not so seemingly troubled by racial issues, or suffers from so noticeable lack of self-esteem as generated by them.

Related to X's antisocial tendencies, if not a direct result of them, are his familial relations, which are markedly removed from those of the average man. It is reasonable to surmise that even the most well-adjusted, “average” man undergoes certain amounts of conflict in his intimate relationships; the comparison here is, after all, with “average”, not “idealized”. Nonetheless, X demonstrates an unmistakable aversion to those few near to him. If he has extended family, he is uninterested in knowing of them, and the three family members in his life are somewhat estranged. His mother, sister, and wife, it appears, are uniformly barely tolerated by him. He fails to support his wife either emotionally or financially, and this is radically removed from any norm concerning average men. By means of both societal expectations deeply ingrained and more personal ambitions to please the spouse, and consequently derive an improved relationship, both men and women typically make efforts to secure closer connections, efforts conspicuously absent in the case of X. This is not to aver, again, that average men are not without failures in this arena, or lapses in commitment strength; the point is that they consistently attempt to work at these close relationships, no matter the degrees of success.

In these relationships, as in other arenas of his limited existence, the overriding impression appears to be that X does only what is absolutely necessary to maintain his life. Even his daily visits to a fitness center are exercises in perpetuating his status quo, for he goes only to counteract the effects of the alcohol, marijuana, and excessively fatty and poor diet in which he indulges. At the relatively youthful age of 38, X lives much as a disgruntled senior citizen might, and this is in vivid contrast to the typical man of his years, who usually seeks to pursue fitness in a more sensible fashion. The average man of this age range is unlikely to simultaneously indulge in conflicting behaviors so consistently, and to such a pronounced extent.

Separating X from the average man even more dramatically is X's seemingly pathological avoidance behavior, which is an extension of the greater antisocial component. Within this pathology is as well an arrogance, or innate sense of superiority, which permits X to dismiss any human contact as demeaning to himself and ultimately pointless. He evinces no regard whatsoever for the opinions of others, either the few near to him or in wider circles of his admittedly limited acquaintance. Empathy is a completely alien concept to him. This uniform disdain on X's part is, in fact, his most overtly aggressive trait, in that he vocally condemns the opinions and actions of anyone other than himself. Further tied to this are his paranoiac tendencies; in his contempt for others, he also perceives dangerous intentions towards himself from them. The progression, or connection, is logical in a pathological way, for both manners of thinking must depend upon ignorance. That is, knowing nothing of what others think, he is free to manufacture the sort of damaging ideas within others most amenable to his paranoia. If X is not, technically, paranoid in a clinical sense, these traits of his are certainly extreme enough to set him a great distance from the average man of his age.

Lastly, while X is generally in good health, he is excessively prone to self-pity. When anything occurs that remotely poses a threat to his comfort zone, he reacts with resentment, fear, and a pronounced sense of victimization. As noted, it is virtually impossible to isolate which of X's behavioral components is most influential, as each potently abets the others. What is evident, nonetheless, is that this combination exist to such a harmful degree that, in the past eight years, he has attempted suicide three times. That these attempts were blatant cries for attention is beside the point, for they clearly indicate a mentality and emotional immaturity of a startling and minimal level. In seeking to accommodate his immediate needs for attention and commiseration, X, like a child, employed whatever drastic measures might most effectively produce the desired results. Furthermore, and in a further contrast to the average man, X is in no way mindful of his own, extremely limited, machinations as such.


Based upon my observations, X is very much something of a unique gentleman. Regrettably, this distinction arises from nothing commendable, or even remotely average. While the intent here has not been to attach moral judgments to the man's behaviors, the greater reality is that a simple comparison between X and an average man cannot help but illustrate severe and chronic deficiencies in the character of the former. A human's behavior essentially reveals the intrinsic worth of that human, as it reflects his ideas about life and humanity in general. In the case of X, and diametrically opposed to the average man, the character is consistently self-destructive, unpleasant, and virulently antisocial.

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