Naturalistic Observation in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Naturalistic…
  • 1:03 Data Gathering
  • 3:24 Examples
  • 5:42 Ethics
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Many different research methodologies are used in psychology. So many approaches exist because psychologists are interested in a wide range of topics. The least invasive of these methods is called naturalistic observation.

What Is Naturalistic Observation?

There's an old saying that begins like this: 'If only I could be a fly on the wall in that room…' This saying refers to someone's interest in the goings-on in a meeting or conversation. The term naturalistic observation refers to this sort of curiosity.

Let's break the term down. Naturalistic relates to an unchanged, normal environment within which the subject of the study functions. Observation stands for the necessity of watching how someone behaves in order to gather data. Naturalistic observation, therefore, is a method of observing people in their normal environment. Researchers using this method of data collection are interested in observing a subject's unaltered behavior in his normal environment. Employing this methodology makes as little impact as possible on both the environment and the subject's behavior. So, what is this kind of data gathering used for?

Data Gathering

Let's discuss what data is and how it is used. Psychologists (and most other scientists) rely upon data to make sense of the world. Data is used to inform theories, which are evidence-based answers to questions about how the world works. Note that theories are based upon evidence and are different from hypotheses, which are potential, untested answers to questions. A scientist cannot simply develop a real, scientific theory without evidence to build it.

The terms 'theory' and 'hypothesis' are often used interchangeably by lay people in non-scientific contexts, but they are not the same when discussing scientists or scientific studies.

Among the methods used for collecting data, naturalistic observation is the least invasive and least likely to change a study subject's behavior. Methods that are more invasive include sending out surveys, creating situations in a closely monitored setting, and laboratory testing with a control group and a treatment group. These methods vary in their degree of invasiveness. Surveys can be boring and some people may not take them seriously. Setting up a fictional situation - such as asking a subject to perform a behavior and then observing them - introduces elements uncommon to daily life. This might influence the outcome of the study. Laboratory studies are practical for some research, but in cases where not all variables can be isolated, other methods may yield better results.

One issue with all of these other methods is that they are 'artificial'. Great care may be taken in the design of these studies, but the situations are to some degree uncommon. Thus, it is difficult to determine how accurately these methods capture real-life behavior.

In naturalistic observation, the tasks people perform and the people they interact with are all genuine elements of their lives. Thus, their behavior is much more likely to represent normal daily interactions. This can be a design issue with naturalistic observation. The study should be carefully designed to reduce the impact of the researcher's presence in the environment. The researcher should be unobtrusive, as subjects may react to their unfamiliar presence in the environment.


A classic example of naturalistic observation can be found in many experimental psychology courses. In one study, a student researcher stands on a corner with a stop sign. He or she is holding a pad of paper or a similar recording device. The student notes whether passing drivers completely stop at the sign. The second phase of the observation takes place on the same corner, except this time the student is hidden. Equal time is given to both sections of the study. In general, people will make sure to come to a complete stop when they know they're being observed. For this study to have real weight, it needs to be done a statistically significant number times. For the purposes of experimental psychology in a college course, however, one or two rounds will suffice.

Another example of naturalistic observation is a study at a local mall or shopping center. An observer notes how many individuals in a group open the door for other members of the group. Other observations might include the gender of the person opening the door or the composition of the group in terms of gender, apparent age, and apparent relationship. Another behavior of interest might be how often individuals in one group open the door for members of other groups roaming the mall. Again, in order to have enough results to be statistically significant, proper care must be taken to observe enough instances of the behavior.

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