A while ago I wrote a column in The Psychologist on why psychologists don’t do participant observation research – a type of data gathering where you immerse yourself in the activities of those you want to study.
In response, psychologist James Hartley wrote in and mentioned a remarkable study from 1938 where researchers hid under the beds of students to record their conversations.
The study was published in the Journal of Social Psychology and was titled “Egocentricity in Adult Conversation” and aimed to record natural conversations untainted by researcher-induced self-consciousness.
In order not to introduce artifacts into the conversations, the investigators took special precautions to keep the subjects ignorant of the fact that their remarks were being recorded. To this end they concealed themselves under beds in students’ rooms where tea parties were being held, eavesdropped in dormitory smoking-rooms and dormitory wash-rooms, and listened to telephone conversations.
Remarks were collected in waiting-rooms and hotel lobbies, street-cars, theatres and restaurants. Unwitting subjects were pursued in the streets, in department stores, and in the home. In each case a verbatim record of the remarks was made on the spot. Since the study is concerned with conversations, other sorts of talk, such as games and sales talk, were excluded.
The point of the study was to critique earlier research that had suggested that children tend to engage in lots of ‘ego-related’ self-referencing or self-centred talk which they later grow out of.
The researchers in this study found that college students seem to do so at about an equal level, suggesting that this style of communication may not change as we get older.
The researchers mention they did most of their data collection in a women’s college.
This was presumably in the day where “relax ladies, I’m a scientist” was sufficient to keep you out of jail.
Link to locked 1938 study.