What Is Naturalistic Observation?

Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Naturalistic observation is a research method that involves observing subjects in their natural environment. This approach is often used by psychologists and other social scientists. It is a form of qualitative research, which focuses on collecting, evaluating, and describing non-numerical data.

It can be useful if conducting lab research would be unrealistic, cost-prohibitive, or would unduly affect the subject's behavior. The goal of naturalistic observation is to observe behavior as it occurs in a natural setting without interference or attempts to manipulate variables.

This article discusses how naturalistic observation works and the pros and cons of doing this type of research. It also covers how data is collected and examples of when this method might be used.

How Does Naturalistic Observation Work?

People do not necessarily behave in a lab setting the way they would in a natural environment. Researchers sometimes want to observe their subject's behavior as it happens ("in the wild," so to speak). Psychologists can get a better idea of how and why people react the way that they do by watching how they respond to situations and stimuli in real life.

Naturalistic observation is different than structured observation because it involves looking at a subject's behavior as it occurs in a natural setting, with no attempts at intervention on the part of the researcher.

For example, a researcher interested in aspects of classroom behavior (such as the interactions between students or teacher-student dynamics) might use naturalistic observation as part of their research.

Performing these observations in a lab would be difficult because it would involve recreating a classroom environment. This would likely influence the behavior of the participants, making it difficult to generalize the observations made.

By observing the subjects in their natural setting (the classroom where they work and learn), the researchers can more fully observe the behavior they are interested in as it occurs in the real world.

Naturalistic Observation Pros and Cons 

Like other research methods, naturalistic observation has advantages and disadvantages.

Pros
  • More realistic

  • More affordable

  • Can detect patterns

Cons
  • Inability to manipulate or control variables

  • Cannot explain why behaviors happen

  • Risk of observer bias

Pros

An advantage of naturalistic observation is that it allows the investigators to directly observe the subject in a natural setting. The method gives scientists a first-hand look at social behavior and can help them notice things that they might never have encountered in a lab setting.

The observations can also serve as inspiration for further investigations. The information gleaned from naturalistic observation can lead to insights that can be used to help people overcome problems and lead to healthier, happier lives.

Other advantages of naturalistic observation include:

  • Allows researchers to study behaviors or situations that cannot be manipulated in a lab due to ethical concerns. For example, it would be unethical to study the effects of imprisonment by actually confining subjects. But researchers can gather information by using naturalistic observation in actual prison settings.
  • Can support the external validity of research. Researchers might believe that the findings of a lab study can be generalized to a larger population, but that does not mean they would actually observe those findings in a natural setting. They may conduct naturalistic observation to make that confirmation.

Cons

Naturalistic observation can be useful in many cases, but the method also has some downsides. Some of these include:

  • Inability to draw cause-and-effect conclusions: The biggest disadvantage of naturalistic observation is that determining the exact cause of a subject's behavior can be difficult.
  • Lack of control: Another downside is that the experimenter cannot control for outside variables.
  • Lack of validity: While the goal of naturalistic observation is to get a better idea of how it occurs in the real world, experimental effects can still influence how people respond. The Hawthorne effect and other demand characteristics can play a role in people altering their behavior simply because they know they are being observed.
  • Observer bias: The biases of the people observing the natural behaviors can influence the interpretations that experimenters make.

It is also important to note that naturalistic observation is a type of correlational research (others include surveys and archival research). A correlational study is a non-experimental approach that seeks to find statistical relationships between variables. Naturalistic observation is one method that can be used to collect data for correlational studies.

While such methods can look at the direction or strength of a relationship between two variables, they cannot determine if one causes the other. As the saying goes, correlation does not imply causation.

Data Collection Methods 

Researchers use different techniques to collect and record data from naturalistic observation. For example, they might write down how many times a certain behavior occurred in a specific period of time or take a video recording of subjects.

  • Audio or video recordings: Depending on the type of behavior being observed, the researchers might also decide to make audio or videotaped recordings of each observation session. They can then later review the recordings.
  • Observer narrative: The observer might take notes during the session that they can refer back to. They can collect data and discern behavior patterns from these notes.
  • Tally counts:The observer writes down when and how many times certain behaviors occurred.

How Often Is Data Collected?

It is rarely practical—or even possible—to observe every moment of a subject's life. Therefore, researchers often use sampling to gather information through naturalistic observation.

The goal is to make sure that the sample of data is representative of the subject's overall behavior. A representative sample is a selection that accurately depicts the characteristics that are present in the total subject of interest. A representative sample can be obtained through:

  • Time sampling: This involves taking samples at different intervals of time (random or systematic). For example, a researcher might observe a person in the workplace to notice how frequently they engage in certain behaviors and to determine if there are patterns or trends.
  • Situation sampling: This type of sampling involves observing behavior in different situations and settings. An example of this would be observing a child in a classroom, home, and community setting to determine if certain behaviors only occur in certain settings.
  • Event sampling: This approach involves observing and recording each time an event happens. This allows the researchers to better identify patterns that might be present. For example, a researcher might note every time a subject becomes agitated. By noting the event and what was occurring around the time of each event, researchers can draw inferences about what might be triggering those behaviors.

Examples of Naturalistic Observation

Imagine that you want to study risk-taking behavior in teenagers. You might choose to observe behavior in different settings, such as 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 observe your teen subjects in these settings and record every incidence of what you have defined as risky behavior.

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.

A Word From Verywell

Naturalistic observation can play an important role in the research process. It offers a number of advantages, including often being more affordable and less intrusive than other types of research.

In some cases, researchers may utilize naturalistic observation as a way to learn more about something that is happening in a certain population. Using this information, they can then formulate a hypothesis that can be tested further.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mehl MR, Robbins ML, Deters FG. Naturalistic observation of health-relevant social processes: the electronically activated recorder methodology in psychosomatics. Psychosom Med. 2012;74(4):410-7. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3182545470

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Rewriting the book of nature - Darwin and the Beagle voyage.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.