What Is Naturalistic Observation?

Naturalistic Observation
Naturalistic observation involves looking at subjects within their natural environment. Paul Biris / Getty Images

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.

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 dynamic 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 of Naturalistic Observation

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.

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 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 include 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 that they normally would in order to appear more socially desirable or acceptable.
  • People may try to behave in a certain way in order to conform with what they think the researchers expects to see.
  • Different observers may draw different conclusions from the same witnessed behavior. Two researcher

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