The advantages of Covert Participant Observation

Covert participant observation (CPO) is when a researcher infiltrates a group in order  to be a part of the sample or group studied.  CPO is a method with very high validity, as you get to experience group behaviour with no factors affecting the parameters, and the behaviour given is sincere I.e. there is no practice or Hawthorne effect.

The ethical issue occurs as the “participants” are unaware of “the experiment”. James Patrick, 1973, published a research report called A Glasgow gang observed. He infiltrated a gang in Glasgow to study their social cognitive behaviour as part of a gang, but didn’t note his observations until he’d left the gang, for his own safety. Another person to employ this technique is Jay Dobyns. He penetrated     Hells Angels to attain inside information to provide to the police. However, in difference to Patrick’s experiment, this experience changed Dobyns own personality. And when he couldn’t even recognise his own voice in the records given to the police – He left the gang. His personality had begun to change, and he started to feel like a part of the gang, making it very hard to actually leave “the boys” behind.

Using CPO there is no consent given; no debriefing and no animosity can be guaranteed. When trying to convey personal information, results data may be altered or skewed, leaving the researcher with a scale measuring personal information vs. valid data.

Advantages of CPO are that you have high validity, no risk of the Hawthorne effect and its more than just observing data and numbers on a screen (take that, SPSS).

Disadvantages of CPO are the ethical issues. If the researcher witnesses or commits a crime, what do they do? (Jay Dobyn). The researcher may be exposed to danger. The participants may feel betrayed and used if/when they find out that everything was for the experiment.

( James Patrick and Jay Dobyns are Pseudonyms to protect the authors)


Arthur J. Vidich and Gilbert S. 1955, A Comparison of Participant Observation and Survey Data. P. 28. URL:

Patrick, J. 1973. Glasgow gang observed. United Kingdom, Methuen and Co.

Dobyns, J.2009 No Angel: My Undercover Journey to the Heart of the Hells Angels.


Human see, human do. Learned violent behaviour


The debate as to whether violent video games and films make children more violent/aggressive has been ongoing for decades. Games that have been accused of causing violent behavior are games such as , Call of Duty, Counter Strike and Grand Theft Auto (2/3 are FPS, First Person Shooter). However, Dr Simon Goodson at Huddersfield University found that FPS games are less likely to cause violent behavior compared to games related to real life sports, such as FIFA. Dr Goodson and Sarah Pearson measured the brain activity and heart rate of 40 male and female participants, playing either a FPS game (Gears of war 2) or a sports game (Pro evolution soccer).


*Also: Road Rage is more likely to cause aggressive behavior because it’s a situation that we can relate to. Peaceful person? – Buy a bike.


They found an increase in brain activity when the subjects were playing the sports games and lesser brain activity while playing shooter games. (Therefore it doesn’t take that much brain capacity to fire a gun, but quite a genius to kick a round object in a net). The hypothesis established was that people become more emotionally engaged and more angry when presented a situation to which they can relate.

This supports that it’s not the game itself that causes violent behavior, but the emotional engagement to the game itself.


The Bobo doll experiment, conducted by Albert Bandura 1961, studied aggressive behavior associated with aggression. Bandura’s goal with the research was to support the theory that violence and aggression can be explained by social learning: “Monkey see, Monkey do”.

Bandura used a total of 26 boys and 36 girls between the ages of 3 and 6. The children were split into three groups of 24 each. Two of these groups were then exposed to scenarios with different levels aggression, and the third one was used as a control group. Half of each of the “aggression” groups observed the scenario with a same-sex adult model, and the other half observed it with a different-sex adult model. 


With the groups categorized like this:

  • Aggressive adult model scenario (24 children)      Same-sex adult model

                                                                           Different-sex adult model


  • Non-aggressive adult model (24 children)          Same-sex adult model

                                                                           Different-sex adult model


  • Control Group (24 children)


The experiment was qualitative, studying  one case at a time, isolated from the other children. The child and the adult model would enter a play room at the same time, but before entering the room the child was told that the toys in one corner were for the adult to play with, these being a toy set, a mallet and the Bobo-doll. After one minute the adult model started to show aggression ( or not) towards the doll, depending or what group were tested. 

The results were that the children behaved the same way as the adult role-model had behaved earlier towards the Bobo-doll. The children that observed the aggressive adult role model were more likely to show aggression towards the doll, supporting the social learning theory.

Playing a video game is not watching someone else do something or preform an action. It is making the choice yourself. Film on the other hand, is  watching someone else act. And if the Social learning theory is to be applied, films are more likely to cause violent behavior than video games.
Looking at it, where do we learn a “football” behavior? Cheer for a team, complain about the referee or get angry when our team is losing? – It’s probably from older generations, as children.

Further reading:

Bobo-doll experiment summary –

Dr Goodsons study summary - (Is to be taken with moderation, it’s a gaming organization that did the interview)

Dr Goodsons study #2 –

And of course The daily Mails contribution…. ( Not a source, but good read anyway)