The Meaning and Methods of Naturalistic Observation

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Scientific observation is made under precisely defined conditions, in an objective and systematic manner, with careful record keeping. Although observation is basic to all of psychology, we can distinguish among several types of observational studies. Observation is a method of collecting research data through watching an individual or group of participants and recording relevant behavior for later evaluation. This is a more objective technique of data collection than other methods for example interviews. Mahmud, J. (2009).

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Observation Methods

Price, P. C., Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang I.A., Leighton D.C & Cuttler, C. (2017). Observations involve watching human or animal participants and this can be achieved in three overall ways:

1. A Naturalistic observation is conducted in the participant’s normal environment without any intervention from the researcher in either the social or physical environment. For example, researchers interested in looking at certain aspects of classroom behavior, such as the dynamics between the teacher and the students, might choose naturalistic observation as part of their research.

2. A controlled observation is carried out in a situation which has been manipulated by the researchers, in terms of the physical or social environment. The cause and effect relationship can be studies through this method of observation, as both e independent and dependant variables can be altered/ manipulated according to the experiments requirements or objectives.

3. A Participant observation is the approach which allows researchers to observe situations and behaviors which are not mostly open to scientific examination. A similarity between participant observation and naturalistic observation is that both these methods are practiced without bringing about any change or variation in the situation being studied.

Along with the categories stated above, observations can be either overt/undisclosed (the role of the researcher as an observer is obvious) or covert/disclosed (the observer acts as a genuine participant of the experimental group, keeping their real identity hidden from the research subject) Usually, observations require a few resources and are cheap to carry out, however, they may be longitudinal and very time consuming. Wilkins, A. (2008).

Cherry, K. (June 29, 2019). A naturalistic observation can be used to study real world issues (mundane realism), and researchers are able to investigate variables which it would not be ethical to manipulate or change. However, this kind of observation has no control over extraneous variables and a casual relationship cannot be determined which lowers the validity and reliability of this technique. A naturalistic observation compared to a controlled observation is like the difference between studying wild animals in their natural habitat and studying them in a zoo. A famous example of a naturalistic observation is the research done by Jane Goodall (figure 1 below) on the gender roles, mating and social structure of the chimpanzees (in their natural habitat) in East Africa. Another famous example of a naturalistic approach is the field study conducted by Oldham and Brass on organizational work conditions. The study showed that the employee satisfaction rating decreased after the office layout was changed to an open plan one. This was a natural experiment because the researchers did not move the employees from one office to the other, but took advantage of this naturally occurring adjustment.

In terms of ecological validity, naturalistic observations are high, as they make it possible for a flow of behavior to be observed in its true setting. However, being micro-scaled observations, they may lack representation and cannot be generalized to a wider society[image: ]Figure1: Jane Goondals naturalistic study on chimpanzees.Retrieved from:

Controlled observations (usually structured observations) promise reliability through standardization, as there is good control over confounding variables, thus it is possible for a cause and effect relationship to be established. This observation is carried out in a situation which has been manipulated by the researchers, who decide when, where, with which participants and in which circumstances will the observation take place. Instead of writing a detailed description of all behavior observed, it is often convenient to define specific activities that are to be documented, as behavioral categories (i.e. conducting a structured observation). For instance, a laboratory experiment was conducted by Milgram on how obedient individuals would be to orders received from a person in authority (Figure2 below). To test this, he performed a procedure that involved the conduction of electric shocks to a victim on orders of a researcher. The participants’ destructive obedience (specific behavior) was observed through a one way mirror and observers noted any comments that were made. Mahmud, J. (2009).

Controlled observations are very often performed on animals, for example, to study their engagement in helping behaviors in order to maintain cooperative societies. Based on this theory an experiment was done on chimpanzee helping behavior by Yamamoto The study’s aim was whether chimpanzees can understand the needs of con-specifics and if they are able to respond to these needs through targeted helping. This experiment took place in an artificial setting where the chimpanzees were seated at adjacent experimental booths. The helping behavior of the subjects was operationalised as the item (correct or incorrect tool) offered by the participants to conspecifics. The behavior was recorded on video. Moreover, the physical movement and gestures of the participants were also observed through the video. Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J.T (2005).

Research done through controlled observations is mostly overt as the researcher briefs the participants with the studies aim, so the participants are aware of being observed. Even though this method avoids deception, it can still lower validity of the research due to demand characteristics which may be shown by the subjects. Mahmud, J. (2009).

Milgram’s shock experiment on obedience. Milgram found out through controlled observation that about two thirds of his research participants were willing to administer dangerous shocks (a specific behavior) to another person just because they were told to by an authority figure. Retrieved from:

The observer in the social setting has to make another important decision that is whether to be a participant or a non-participant observer. In a participant observation, the researcher is able to observe and interpret, otherwise inaccessible behaviors by becoming an active participant in the group or situation that is being studied. Therefore, to get a deeper insight into the participants’ lives, the researcher joins in and becomes a part of the group being studied. For instance, if a research was being carried out on an animal’s life, the researcher would not only be studying them in their natural habitat but be living alongside the animal too. Non -participant observation involves observing participants without actively participating in the experiment. Price, P. C., Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang I.A., Leighton D.C & Cuttler, C. (2017).

Participant observations are either overt or covert. Overt is when the observer’s/researcher’s identity is not concealed and the subjects are aware of the observation. Covert is where the study is conducted undercover. The researcher’s real identity and objective are kept secretive from the group being studied. Price, P. C., Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang I.A., Leighton D.C & Cuttler, C. (2017).

A participant observation is carried out when researchers are sure that the individuals would respond to demand characteristics if they were aware of being recorded. For instance, the study carried out to test the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion by Schachter and Singer, was aimed at finding out if, given a state of physiological arousal for which the individual had no acceptable answer, cognitive factors can lead the individual to define their feeling with any available emotional labels. The participants in the study were misled through injecting them with a placebo, which according to the participants was an injection of Suproxin. A stooge was introduced as another participant (disguised participant) who created an environment of either anger or euphoria to observe the behaviors, responses and emotional labels given by participants to each condition. Another example of this method is the field experiment carried out by Piliavin et al, aimed to study bystander behavior in a natural setting. On each trial, four confederates (disguised participants) entered the train of which two made observations and the other two acted according to the aims of the study (victim and model).Russel, J., Lintern, F., Gauntlett, L. & Davies, J. (2016)

During a participant observation the experimenter is in a convenient position to better understand the experiences and viewpoint of the people they are studying when they are apart from the social group. However, the mere presence of the observer could create an observers bias and it also might affect the behavior of the people being observed. Wilkins, A. (2008).

Research carried out through participant observation has been extremely useful in answering everyday questions. For example the participant study conducted by Bandura et al. on the imitation of aggression, found out that kids are likely to act in accordance to their environment, and in the case of aggression, boys are expected to imitate aggressive behavior more than girls (a sex typed behavior).





  1. Cherry, K. (June 29, 2019). Naturalistic Observation in Psychology. Retrieved from
  2. Mahmud, J. (2009). Psychology “System and Theories”.
  3. Pelham, B.W., Carvallo, M., & Jones, J.T (2005). “Implicit egotism”. Current directions in Psychological Science, 14.
  4. Price, P. C., Jhangiani, R. S., Chiang I.A., Leighton D.C & Cuttler, C. (2017). Research Methods in Psychology (3rd ed.). Retrieved from
  5. Russel, J.,Lintern, F., Gauntlett, L. & Davies, J. (2016) Cambridge International AS Level and A Level Psychology Course book.
  6. Shaughnessy, J.S., Zechmeister, E.B. & Zechmeister, J.S. (2000). Research Methods in Psychology (5th ed.)
  7. Wilkins, A. (2008).“Collective emotions and symbolic boundaries among evangelical Christians”. Social Psychology Quarterly, 71.

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