Naturalistic Observation in Psychology

What is naturalistic observation?

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Naturalistic observation is a research method that is used by psychologists and other social scientists. The technique involves observing subjects in their natural environment. It can be used if conducting lab research would be unrealistic, cost-prohibitive, or would unduly affect the subject's behavior.

How Does Naturalistic Observation Work?

People do not necessarily behave in a lab setting the way they would in a natural environment. Researchers sometimes want to observe their subject's behavior as it happens ("in the wild," so to speak). Psychologists can get a better idea of how and why people react the way that they do by watching how they respond to situations and stimuli in real life.

Naturalistic observation is different than structured observation because it involves looking at a subject's behavior as it occurs in a natural setting with no attempts at intervention on the part of the researcher.

For example, a researcher interested in aspects of classroom behavior (such as the interactions between students or teacher-student dynamics) might use naturalistic observation as part of their research.

Performing these observations in a lab would be difficult because it would involve recreating a classroom environment. This would likely influence the behavior of the participants, making it difficult to generalize the observations made. By observing the subjects in their natural setting (the classroom where they work and learn), the researchers can more fully observe the behavior of interest as it occurs in the real world.

Advantages and Disadvantages 

An advantage of naturalistic observation is that it allows the investigators to directly observe the subject in a natural setting. The method gives scientists a first-hand look at social behavior and can help them notice things that they might never have encountered in a lab setting.

The observations can also serve as inspiration for further investigations, and the information gleaned from naturalistic observation can lead to insights that can be used to help people overcome problems and lead to healthier, happier lives.

Other advantages of naturalistic observation include:

  • Allows researchers to study things that cannot be manipulated in a lab due to ethical concerns. For example, while it would be unethical to study the effects of imprisonment by actually confining subjects, researchers can gather information by using naturalistic observation in actual prison settings.
  • Can support the external validity of the research. Researchers might say that the findings of a lab study can be generalized to a larger population, but that does not mean they would actually observe those findings occurring in a natural setting.

Naturalistic observation can be useful in many cases, but the method also has some potential downsides.

A disadvantage of naturalistic observation is that it can be difficult to determine the exact cause of a subject's behavior. The experimenter also cannot control for outside variables.

Other disadvantages of naturalistic observation include:

  • People might behave differently when they know they are being watched. Subjects might try to behave better than they normally would in to appear more socially desirable or acceptable to those who are observing them. Researchers can make efforts to avoid the issue, but it can be difficult to eliminate.
  • People might change their behavior to conform to what they think the researchers expect to see. In psychology, the term demand characteristics refer to subtle cues that let participants know what the experiment is about or what the researchers hope to find. Participants might alter their behavior to go along with what they think the researchers want.
  • Different observers can draw different conclusions from the same witnessed behavior. Two researchers might see the same actions yet attribute them to different causes.

Data Collection Methods 

Researchers use different techniques to collect and record data from naturalistic observation. For example, they might write down how many times a certain behavior occurred in a specific period of time or take a video-recording of subjects.

  • Audio or Video Recordings. Depending on the type of behavior being observed, the researchers might also decide to make audio or videotaped recordings of each observation session.
  • Observer Narrative. The observer might take notes during the session that they can refer back to. They can collect data and discern behavior patterns from these notes.
  • Tally Counts. The observer writes down when and how many times certain behaviors occurred.

How Often Is Data Collected?

It is rarely practical—or even possible—to observe every moment of a subject's life. Therefore, researchers often use sampling to gather information through naturalistic observation. The goal is to make sure that the sample of data is representative of the subject's overall behavior.

representative sample can be obtained through:

  • Time Sampling. Taking samples at different intervals of time (random or systematic).
  • Situation Sampling. Observing behavior in different situations and settings.

Examples

Imagine that you want to study risk-taking behavior in teenagers. You might choose to observe behavior in different settings, such as on a sledding hill, a rock-climbing wall, an ice-skating rink, and a bumper car ride. After you operationally define "risk-taking behavior," you would observe your teen subjects in these settings and record every incidence of what you have defined as risky behavior.

Famous examples of naturalistic observations include Charles Darwin's journey aboard the HMS Beagle, which served as the basis for his theory of natural selection, and Jane Goodall's work studying the behavior of chimpanzees.

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Article Sources
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  1. Pierce, Thomas. Naturalistic Observation. Department of Psychology. Radford University. Published 2018.

  2. Mehl MR, Robbins ML, Deters FG. Naturalistic observation of health-relevant social processes: the electronically activated recorder methodology in psychosomatics. Psychosom Med. 2012;74(4):410-7. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182545470

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Rewriting the Book of Nature - Darwin and the Beagle Voyage. Published May 14, 2014.

Additional Reading
  • Angrosino MV. Naturalistic Observation. Walnut Creek, Calif. Left Coast Press. 2007. Republished 2016.