How to study developmental psychology: methods, designs & tools

How to study developmental psychology: methods, designs & tools

Posted by Jacqueline Martinali on Wed 02 Feb. 2022 - 6 minute read

Every person goes through a development during his life. A physical development, but also a social, emotional, cognitive, and intellectual development. Researchers in developmental psychology examines the various stages of life, from baby to schoolchild, to adolescent, to adult and finally to the elderly. They look at how and why people do the things they do. Observing people’s behavior is a good method for this.

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What is developmental psychology?

Developmental psychology is a scientific discipline that explores how individuals change and grow across their lifespan, focusing on the physical, cognitive, emotional, and social aspects of development. It examines how various factors, such as genetics, environment, and experiences, shape and influence an individual's development from infancy to adulthood. 

By studying developmental processes, researchers gain insights into typical and atypical patterns of human behavior, contributing to our understanding of human development and informing interventions to support healthy development.

Studying changes across the lifespan

Not only the observable actions are studied, but also how people perceive themselves and the world, how they think and fantasize and which feelings and desires they experience. Moreover, it is not only about the development of an individual researchers look at, but also about the development of interactions between people and about the development of relationships and groups.

The knowledge that arises from these studies can make a difference in areas such as youth health care, education, in policy formulation, or it can contribute to solutions for societal challenges. After all, while most people follow common patterns in their development, others reach developmental milestones at a different pace. Research in developmental psychology is designed to help all people reach their full potential.

Research methods to study developmental psychology

Besides behavioral observation, as mentioned above, there are other additional ways to scrutinize the development of humans and answer your research questions. For example, think of:

  • Controlled experiments, such as the Still Face Experiment or Piaget’s conservation tasks
  • In-depth interviews
  • Self-reports or surveys, such as the Social Skills Questionnaire (SSQ) or the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)
  • Correlational studies
  • Archival research

In the Noldus Webinar about Research tools in Developmental Psychology, we explain how our research tools can be used to study behavior. Curious? Watch the webinar on demand now!

Since developmental psychology is all about time and how things change over the course of life, it is important to combine the above mentioned methods with a longitudinal or cross-sectional research design. For example, you can conduct a longitudinal experiment or a cross-sectional survey.

See more research examples of Developmental Psychology.

Longitudinal versus cross-sectional research design

The main idea behind longitudinal research is that you take one group of people – all of the same age – and study them over some period of time. This could be weeks, months, or even years. This way, you can investigate changes in individuals over time by comparing one person’s data at several moments in time. 

It brings you in-depth data and a high internal validity. The disadvantages are that this is very time-consuming and the chance that participants drop out is high.

Instead, you can do a cross-sectional study. In this case, you compare groups of people of different ages at one point of time. This is a much quicker way of doing research, you get fast results, and you do not have to worry about people dropping out. 

However, it is possible that cohort effects will appear. The differences found in one group may be caused by age, or because people in a particular group grew up under different circumstances or were exposed to different influences.

Equipment available for developmental psychology research

There is quite a few equipment available to gather data in the best possible way. Things to consider when you set up a study for answering your research questions are for example:

Do you want to go on site to gather data, or is a laboratory setting more suitable?

A perfect solution for the first option is to use a portable lab. This way, all equipment needed is packed in a suitcase, which you can carry around, put in the back of your car, or even take with you on a plane trip. 

It is easy to set up and enables you to gather data from participants while they behave in their natural environment, such as their own home.

To be able to control all kind of settings or circumstances for your experiment or if you need a lot of additional hardware to measure your data with and you do not want to be dragging all this stuff back and forth, a stationary observation lab is more suitable. 

It can be equipped with cameras, microphones, a one-way mirror to observe participants unobtrusively, data acquisition systems, eye-trackers, and much more. All the equipment is built in and integrates nicely, making it a smoothly running lab. 

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However, building a lab is not just about the hardware, you also need software to facilitate your data collection. To choose which software fits best, something to consider is:

Will your dataset mostly exist of qualitative or quantitative data?

A software system such as Viso is particularly suitable to gather qualitative data. This audio and video recording system enables you to control multiple cameras from different angles and to zoom in on certain situations.

In the picture below, you can see an example. One camera is pointed at the parent’s face, the second on the child, and the third one on both parent and child, providing an overview of the situation.

Viso screenshot father feeding baby 3 cameras timeline

Besides, in Viso you can predefine relevant behaviors you want to study and annotate these during or after your observations or recording sessions. You can play back the recorded sessions immediately afterwards, without any downtime.

To be able to analyze your data quantitatively, you need a software tool such as The Observer XT. This is a manual event recorder for detailed annotations and analysis. 

With use of more detailed coding schemes, you can create a log of annotated behaviors, thus providing insight on length and frequency of the behavior and then analyze these behaviors in a descriptive or numerical way. The analysis options make The Observer XT a unique tool.

In addition, The Observer XT is a powerful tool, which allows you to integrate different kinds of data streams, such as facial expressions, eye tracking, and physiology. Making your experimental data richer.

Also read: how to make coding behavioral data more fun.

To finish, there is a third important element that you should take into account in your study setup and choice of equipment:

Are your participants able to describe their feelings in spoken words?

If your research includes children, especially babies, they may not be able to let you know how they feel or what there are thinking by putting it into words or answering a survey question. To be able to measure some of these feelings and emotions in another way, you can assess their non-verbal behavior.

A quantitative tool to measure non-verbal behavior from facial expressions is for example FaceReader. Based on Action Units in the face, FaceReader determines six basic emotions, as well as valence and arousal. Especially for infants ranging in age from 6 to 24 months old, Baby FaceReader is available.

Put it all together in one clear overview

There are many ways to conduct your research in developmental psychology and available tools to support you in this. In order to put everything together in an orderly manner, we have developed an interactive pdf. Check it out at your convenience at:


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