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What Is Naturalistic Observation?

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Naturalistic observation

Naturalistic observation involves looking at subjects within their natural environment.

Image: Leszek Nowak

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.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Naturalistic Observation

One of the advantages of this type of research is that it allows the researcher 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 actually occurring in a natural setting.

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.

  • 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.

Data Collection Methods Used in Naturalistic Observation

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 upon the type of behavior being observed, the researchers might also decide to make actual audio or video-taped 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 as different intervals of time, which may be random or systematic.

  • Situation sampling: Involves observing a behavior in a variety of different situations and settings.

Examples of Naturalistic Observation

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 a 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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Goodwin, C.J. (2004). Research in Psychology: Methods and Design. Wiley.

Jackson, S.L. (2005). Research Methods and Statistics: A Critical Thinking Approach. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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Kendra Cherry

Kendra Cherry
Psychology Guide

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