Naturalistic Observation in Psychology

Naturalistic observation is a research method commonly used by psychologists and other social scientists. This technique involves observing subjects in their natural environment. This type of research is often utilized in situations where conducting lab research is unrealistic, cost prohibitive or would unduly affect the subject's behavior.

What is naturalistic observation?
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

How Does Naturalistic Observation Work?

In many instances, people might not behave the same way in a lab setting that they might in a more natural environment. For this reason, behaviors sometimes need to be observed as they happen "in the wild" so to speak. By watching how people respond to certain situations and stimuli in real-life, psychologists can get a better idea of how and why people react. 

Naturalistic observation differs from structured observation in that it involves looking at a behavior as it occurs in its natural setting with no attempts at intervention on the part of the researcher.

For example, researchers interested in looking at certain aspects of classroom behavior, such as interactions between students or even the dynamics between the teacher and students, might opt to use naturalistic observation as part of their research.

Performing such research in a lab would be difficult since it would involve recreating a classroom environment, and would likely influence the behavior of the participants, making it difficult to generalize the observations. By observing the subjects in their natural setting (the classroom where they work and learn each and every day), the researchers can get a better look at the behavior of interest as they occur in the real world.

Advantages and Disadvantages 

So what are some of the reasons why psychologists might want to use naturalistic observation as part of their research? One of the biggest advantages of this type of research is that it allows the investigators to directly observe the subject in a natural setting.

This gives scientists a first-hand look at social behavior and may even allow them to notice things that they might never have encountered in a lab. Such observations can serve as inspiration for further investigations into particular behaviors. The information gleaned from naturalistic observation may also lead to insights that can help people overcome problems and lead to healthier, happier lives.

Some other advantages of naturalistic observation:

  • It 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 real prison settings.
  • It can help support the external validity of the research. It is one thing to say that the findings of a lab study will generalize to a larger population, but quite another to actually observe those findings occurring in a natural setting.

While naturalistic observation can be useful in many cases, this method also has some potential downsides that must be considered.

One of the disadvantages of naturalistic observation includes the fact that it can be difficult to determine the exact cause of a behavior and the experimenter cannot control for outside variables.

Some other disadvantages of naturalistic observation:

  • People may behave differently when they know they are being watched. Sometimes people try to behave better than they normally would in order to appear more socially desirable or acceptable. Researchers can make efforts to avoid this, but it can be difficult to eliminate this problem entirely.
  • People may try to behave in a certain way in order 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. As a result of these demand characteristics, participants may alter their behavior in order to go along with what they think the researchers want.
  • Different observers may 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 may utilize a number of different techniques to collect data from naturalistic observation. This might involve writing down the number of times a certain behavior occurred in a specific period of time or making an actual video-recording of the subjects of interest.

  • Tally Counts: The observer writes down when and how many times certain behaviors occurred.
  • Observer Narratives: The observer may take notes during the session and then go back later to try to collect data and discern behavior patterns from these notes.
  • Audio or Video Recordings: Depending on the type of behavior being observed, the researchers might also decide to make actual audio or videotaped recordings of each observation session.

How Often Is Data Collected?

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

Obtaining a representative sample can occur in a few different ways:

  • Time Sampling: Involves taking samples at different intervals of time, which may be random or systematic.
  • Situation Sampling: Involves observing behavior in a variety of different situations and settings.


Let's imagine that you want to study differences in risk-taking behavior between teenage boys and girls. You might choose to observe behavior in a few 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 then observe teens in these settings and record every incidence of what you define as risky behavior.

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

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