Naturalistic Observations Vs Lab Experiments

Posted: February 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

Well hello everyone. Nice to “see” you all again. I hope you all had a good Christmas and Santa brought you all the presents that you wanted. Whats that you say? He did!? Gosh darn it, thats just marvellous! 🙂

Well it’s that time of year, the time students come out of hiding and face the light of day to attend lectures once again. it is also the time that the statistics blogs choose to raise their ugly heads.

Okay then…Are you sitting comfortably? …Then I’ll begin. 🙂

So today we will be talking about two types of psychological studies. The naturalistic observation and lab experiments. (bet you never guessed that from the title of this blog, did you?)

Okay so let us begin with a very brief definition of what each of the two different types of studies are.

Right…a naturalistic study takes place in the subjects own environment. So, for example, if some one wanted to see how aggressive school children are in the playground they would watch them in the school playground and take notes on their behaviour. There are several different ways of collecting the data in this kind of study. These can include: Tally counts (taking note of how many times something occurs) and observer narratives (observer takes notes during sessions of observation).  One of the major downsides to this form of study is that it can lack reliability. This is because at a school (and in many other environments) it is very hard to have exactly the same conditions so the results will always be different. 😦

A Lab Study is one of the main methods of study in psychology. One famous lab experiment is Milgrams obedience study which took place in the psychology labs at Yale.  Lab experiments are done in extremely controlled environment where every little thing can be monitored and altered if needs be. The independent variable can be manipulated in all sorts of ways and if any confounding variables (these are variables that were not expected to influence your results) are found they can be eliminated as soon as possible. All of this so that the variable of interest (independent variable) is the only variable affecting the dependent variable.

So now its time to talk about the uses of these two fine ways of doing research.

Naturalistic observations are good for:

  • Studying currently executed tasks and processes.
  • Seeing subjects in their natural environment – this helps to increase the external validity of the experiment.
  • Capturing activity that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
  • Yielding qualitative data.

Laboratory Experiments are good for:

  • Reducing confounding variables – this helps to increase the internal validity of the experiment.
  • Controlling the independent variables.
  • Easy replicable studies. This can help to generalise results.
  • Yielding quantitative data.

Now, with regards to validity (and I know I mentioned it briefly above but this is going a little more in depth). Lets start with naturalistic observations. Because there is very little/no interference with the natural environment of the subject these types of studies are said to be high in ecological validity. However because none of the variables are manipulated there is said to be very little control in these kinds of observations. This lack of control can make replication very difficult as I said before (sorry for repeating myself). Moving on to lab experiments. The artificial setting of the lab experiment may produce unnatural behaviour which will lack ecological validity (true to real life).

Well, I think I will end my brief ramblings about naturalistic studies and lab studies there. I know there is so much more that can be said on the subject but I just don’t want to bore you all.

Thank you all for reading

Until next time…:)

  1. stuffedwith cold says:

    This is REALLY good. It is very clear – just what I need in order to understand what you are doing. Use the word ‘simplistic’ rather than ‘simpleton’ but that is a minor detail. I like your tone and style, you make me want to read what you are saying and that is a good thing. Keep going – stats blogs may not be pleasant to do but they DO show that you know what you are talking about.

  2. picsandbits says:

    Hi PQ,
    Another ‘deep thought’ topic.
    I suspect that there is much more to this than you can cover in this format but what you do have room for is clear and concise – good stuff.

    Just a couple of points to pick up on – you sometimes make absolute statements where you could be a little less hard and fast. For instance at the end of the para on naturalistic obs you say that ‘the results will always be different’ where I would have preferred ‘may well be different’. This gives the same sense of the difficulty but leaves room for the improbable to occur.
    I would also suggest that if sample size is increased the effect of variations would decrease so there is may be a control mechanism available to the naturalistic experimenter there.

    As a final thought / question – why can naturalistic obs not be quantitative or laboratory obs qualitative? You can apply numbers to almost anything – that’s called statistics and you can describe a numerical result – thats called a narrative !!

  3. I love the clarification you have brought to this topic and well done for have such a focused structure on a rather large topic. I take my hat off to you. But now for the critique on which we get marked…
    When deciding which of the two methods is ‘better’ we should look at application, for example we use laboratory experiments for cognition, neuropsychology and behaviourism (just think of Pavlov and his canine companions, it would have been verging on impossible to condition the salvation in an naturalistic setting), but on the other hand we rely on naturalistic observations, mainly for social psychology to give us a realistic (actual) measure of behaviour.

    So when deciding which is in fact better, it is very much dependant on its uses, for the scientific ‘control’ focused paradigms a lab studie is required to uphold its scientific standing even though this research is less generalizable the real world like you mentioned. and because of this it is arguable that /lab studies are favored by the scientific community.

  4. kennedy92 says:

    You cover the topic really well and it is a very common arguement of which type of research is better. I think observational studies can be incredibly beneficial as they provide indepth data. Also these observations in a natural evironment would not occur in a lab environment. It is extremely difficult to get a natural response in a lab environment as the environment itself is not ‘natural’. It is difficult to decide which is the best method as both types have produced amazing research and have benefited society in some way. This debate is very much like the qualitative Vs quantitative research one which is also a difficult one to find an answer. I found a website that clearly shows the different aspects of qualitative and quantitative research in a table form and found it quite useful ( ). Another website that discusses this discussion in a clear way (that isnt filled with a load of jargon and is easy to understand) is which explains the difference between the two methods. I hope these help (if your interested) and I found your blog really easy to read and not too formal which is great for a blog.

    • Jessicaaro says:

      Natural observations are good but I think that controlled observations in lab can produce more reliable data. Natural observation can sometime be too out in the environment unless what your studying is an event that can only occur in nature, such as natural disasters. The problem lies in actually identifying a cause and effect because there are so many variables (1). With an observation in a lab you can control for this and make sure that a particular action is the ’cause’ of the behavior. A very good example of a controlled observation experiment is ‘the strange situation’ which is very useful on indicating attachment in children (2).


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  6. psuc27 says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog as it was very clear and concise in what you were aiming to get across. Personally I think there is no clear cut answer to which research method is ‘better’, as each has its advantages and disadvantages. Naturalistic observation studies, for example, is a good method for wanting to observe participants behaviours occurring naturally, however, it can be time consuming as the “sought-after” behaviour may never occur and there is no control over the environment. The lab experiments, for example, are a good way of being able to establish cause and effect and allows for a lot of control, however, limitations involve artificiality and can be subject to demand characteristics. So both have their advantages and disadvantages and both can be seen as perhaps qualitative vs quantitative and there is no ‘better’ research method as the decision on which research method to use can also be dependant on the researchers own preference and experience, time, money, the population, the proposed audience, and what other resources are available (Hathaway, 1995). In conclusion, I would say that it is important not to discount either research method for its disadvantages but perhaps rather incorporate elements of both methods to ensure thorough and accurate studies.

  7. Another strength of lab experiments is that cause and effect can easily be established. For example, in the famous lab study conducted by Loftus and Palmer (1974)¹, it was easily established that different words for ‘crash’ had an effect on their speed judgement of a car crash. However, another weakness associated with lab experiments is that they often lack mundane realism. The study by Loftus and Palmer definitely lacks mundane realism, since seeing a car crash on a video would not have the same emotional impact on participants than if they saw the crash in real life. I also agree with you that lab experiments can often produce unnatural behaviour. This is especially true when the participants are showing demand characteristics, which can greatly alter their results.

    ¹. Loftus, EF; Palmer JC (1974). “Reconstruction of Automobile Destruction : An Example of the Interaction Between Language and Memory”. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13: 585–9

  8. Jack says:

    I think the issue of unnatural behaviour in a lab and the possibility of participants not taking experiments seriously is something that is not combatted enough. I don’t reckon there are a whole lot of psychology undergrads that view their SONA experiments as actually contributing to science. We all bumble in and sit for an hour or more completing monotonous tasks for a minute credit in a sub section of a module that equates to nothing in the real world. Perhaps it is time to return to a more hands of way of carrying out psychological experiments… it might even keep the undergrads somewhat interested in experiment participation

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  10. In your blog you list a few advantages of using the laboratory experiment in research. You argue that lab experiments have a high level on internal control however, it is important to note that due this high level of internal control, lab experiments have a low level of external and ecological validity. These low levels of ecological and external validity are a result of the artificial setting used in lab experiments and mean that the results may not generalise to the population. Many lab experiments lack what is known as mundame realism. An example is Loftus and Palmer (1974) lab experiment investigating the eye witness testimony. Participants were shown a video clip of two cars in a head on collision and were then asked a series of follow up questions to test the effect of leading questions used in the eyewitness testimony. However, the video clip does not have the same emotional impact on participants as a real life car crash would.

    Additionally, demand characteristics and investigator effects can significantly reduce the high level of internal validity. Demand characteristics refer to when participants behave differently in an experiment because they are aware that they are being watched. It has been argued that demand characteristics were present in Milgram’s study. It was suggest that the results may be a result of participants guessing the aims of the research and what the researcher wants to see and try to please the experimenter for example, showing obedience.

    Also, whilst natural behaviour is being observed in naturalistic observations resulting in a high level of ecological validity, there is little or no control over confounding variables which is a huge limitation of using naturalistic observations as a research method exploring behaviour.


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  13. Anonymous says:

    wow this is great and it helped me a lot in my psychology homework. thanks!

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