How many types of observation do you think you’d need to get to the bottom of things like Sherlock Holmes?
Whether you’re a scientist, private researcher or just someone who wants to know more about the process of observation, the benefits are immense.
For example, you can use observation skills to be a better professional. You’ll be the one who gets the raise because you’re the one who notices the nuances that improve the bottom line.
Or you’ll be the scientist who wins all the grants and awards. Or the better student who provides stronger examples in your essays and exams.
All because you know how to practice the art of observation and deduction.
Ready to learn everything you need to know to make these outcomes a reality?
Let’s dive in!
First, the Basics:
4 Types of Observation for Research
According to the authors of The Power of Observation, no matter what type of observation you use, the real goal is objectivity.
This means developing an awareness of the assumptions you naturally make – and weeding them out. Successfully observing them comes from knowing a little about how your memory creates biases.
As we go into these major types of observation, keep in mind that we all bring subjective ideas and experiences. But to be truly objective, cultural artefacts stuck in your procedural memory, personal beliefs and your personal interests and feelings need to be set aside. Even your professional experience can create false interpretations.
Creating distance between yourself as a person and what the data you’re observing actually says is one of the hardest parts of science. But that’s why it’s a good thing that no scientist works in isolation. The principles of science itself helps ensure true objectivity will emerge over time.
Here are the techniques that make this possible.
One: Controlled Observation
If you’re a “control freak,” you’ll love what comes next.
That’s because controlled experiments involve a level of technical design, surveying and measurement that gets very granular.
The way controlled experiments work is that you have two separate groups. You treat them exactly the same except for one variable.
A simple example is one you’re probably already familiar with:
When testing drugs, one group will get the real chemical. Another group will get a placebo.
But there are other kinds of controlled experiments. For example, on a website like this, you can have half the people see a green subscribe button, and the other half see a blue subscribe button. These kinds of controlled experiments are run by Google, YouTube and even small sites like mine all the time.
Controlled Experiments In Memory
Speaking of my blog, we do controlled experiments in memory science as well. Here’s a recent example we discussed in depth with Drs. David Reser and Tyson Yunkaporta. In this case, one test group used Memory Palaces and mnemonic images to learn a set of complicated words and the other group did not.
Again, the point is to change only one variable between two groups.
But keep in mind that not all controlled experiments succeed. Some won’t reach statistical relevance, for example, or have issues with study participants not complying with the instructions. An excellent book on the topic that will help you learn more is called Failing in the Field: What We Can Learn When Field Research Goes Wrong.
Two: Participant Observation
Ever heard of “immersion journalism?”
For example, in Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer was hired as a journalist to report on the world of memory competitions.
He did that, but also wound up observing through participation. He even wound up becoming a USA Memory Champion.
A researcher named Joseph T. Howell basically set the model for this when he wrote Hard Living on Clay Street. Describing the conditions for his study, he identified the following steps:
- Establish rapport with a group or community
- Immerse yourself in the field or site of activity
- Record data and your observations
- Analyze, consolidate and share the information
This is basically what Joshua Foer did when reporting on the world of memory. Ben Cardall does something similar when it comes to methods of detection and deduction in his role as an investigator.
Three: Naturalistic Observation
Of all the types of observation, naturalistic observation is perhaps the toughest. For one thing, we’re all doing it all the time.
Here’s what I mean:
Everyone is observing the natural world around them. And it’s hard to be objectively about it.
But qualitative naturalist observation requires you to objectively record what you’re experiencing.
A simple example is one you might have seen about Dian Fossey in the movie, Gorillas in the Mist. She studied mountain gorillas for decades until she was murdered, primarily in Rwanda. Often, she had just herself and a notebook. Sometimes she had a camera.
These days, people have cellphones which lets them capture sound, video and take notes at the same time. You can also get multiple cameras together and create entertaining studies.
Although somewhat questionable, the mentalist Derren Brown has incorporated many elements of naturalistic observation in his television specials. But his program, The Secret of Luck draws directly from the scientifically valid research of Richard Wiseman. Based on a ten-year study, Wiseman’s findings are available in his excellent book, The Luck Factor.
Four: Indirect Observation
Everything we’ve just discussed involves direct observation. They’re based on experiments that are set up and observed in real time. Or, they use some kind of form of control in a laboratory.
But what about determining the laws of physics by watching leaves blow around or apples fall from trees? For centuries, scientists have correctly arrived at core truths by thinking indirectly.
To this day, scientists and entrepreneurs use indirect thinking to arrive at “first principles” that help them approach problems in new ways. Being able to arrive at solutions indirectly is just one reason why critical thinking and philosophy remain so important to our species.
4 Proven Ways to Improve Your Observation Skills
Now that you know the major types of observation and observational research, let’s talk about improving your chops in all of these areas.
We’ve just talked about improving your critical thinking skills over all, so let’s start by expanding on this point.
Let’s face it. Developing scientific literary is hard. There are so many counterintuitive aspects to it and you really do have to remove your personality and emotions from the game in order to get anywhere with it.
But that’s part of what makes the journey exciting. Realizing that the world operates independent of your thoughts and opinions will liberate you in a way only scientific thinking can.
Make sure to also read critical thinking books, philosophy books and take on the challenges of critical thinking exercises and puzzling philosophical questions. These will sharpen your mind for being a better observer.
Network with Scientists and Scholars
As I shared above, I’ve interviewed scientists like David Reser and Tyson Yunkaporta. There are many more I’ve recorded conversations with on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast.
Long before that, I made sure to get involved in study groups and talked at length with as many of my professors as I could.
Not only will this help you observe better, but you’ll be observing people who have dedicated their lives to observation itself.
It almost goes without saying that in order to understand the process of observation as fully as possible, you have to do some.
You don’t have to wait for a professor to give you an assignment. Take some inspiration from Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered spaced repetition. He knew the rules that govern a good scientific study during his time and took the initiative to apply them to his interest in memory.
You can do the same. And when you follow my advice to network with scholars and scientists, you’ll have a sounding board that can help you set up your experiments correctly and analyze them well.
Expand Your Memory
One thing I’ve seen holding so many people back from learning observation skills at the highest possible level is pretty easy to solve.
When you expand your working memory, you’re literally able to process more information in your mind. More information will also enter your long-term memory for objective comparison over time.
Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, the memory skills the stories describe are real. It’s just a matter of learning and practicing them so that you can start to experience the benefits.
If you need help in this area, please grab my FREE Memory Improvement Course (it’s got one of those green buttons I told you I once tested objectively):
Being able to remember more of the information you observe is a pretty obvious win, so please enjoy.
And consider this final point.
Observation Methods for Memory…Do They Really Work?
I believe that simply observing more will itself improve your memory to a certain extent.
I’m not alone in this belief, and I don’t even have to believe it.
See, Dr. Gary Small shared with us the four details exercise, one of many brain exercises which that have been experimentally proven to boost memory. And that’s what makes science great: the data decides, not you or me.
To perform this simple exercise and use it experimentally, here’s what you do. Next time you’re out:
- Pick a person you see to observe
- Choose four details about them (red hair, blue shirt, black pants, brown shoes, etc)
- Write the details down in a notebook
- Set a timer and ask your memory to provide those details
- On a separate piece of paper, write down the details
- Check your memory against the record
Over time, you should find that your memory improves. Even better, the habit of observing others improves. But as always, it’s the data that will tell.
Listen, I’m sharing this exercise because being able to observe is a good unto itself. And the more you practice a variety of observation types, the more your metacognitive learning observation of your own mind will improve.
So it only makes sense to get in as much practice as you can.
With all that in mind, what do you say? Are you ready to go forth and observe the world in a much better way?