16 Advantages and Disadvantages of Naturalistic Observation Research in Psychology

Naturalistic observation is a method of research that is often used by social scientists and psychologists. It uses a technique which involves the observation of subjects while they remain in their natural environment. This process makes it possible to conduct research in situations where being in a laboratory is either cost-prohibitive, unrealistic, or could influence the behaviors of the individuals involved in the study.

People do not always behave the same way when they are in a lab setting compared to how they are in their natural setting. When specific behaviors require tracking, then the only way to observe them involves watching how decisions are made under specific situations and stimuli in real-life settings. This process makes it possible for social scientists to understand how people react.

It differs from structured observation because it looks at a behavior as it happens in a natural setting without an attempting to intervene on the part of the researcher.

There are several reasons why psychologists would use this method, just as there are a handful of situations where it would not be appropriate. That’s why a review of the naturalistic observation pros and cons is essential to the overall research process each time.

List of the Pros of Naturalistic Observation

1. It allows researchers to directly observe individuals in their natural setting.
People react differently when they find themselves in a situation that takes them out of their comfort zone. Individuals in laboratory settings may even try to provide the specific results that researchers want – or do the opposite and try to sabotage the project. By taking the naturalistic observation approach, it becomes possible for the investigators to observe directly when evaluating subjects without making a change to their levels of comfort.

2. It gives scientists a first-hand look at social behavior.
People will react differently in natural social situations compared to how they respond in settings where they know their interactions are under observation. Social researchers can observe choices in the natural setting that may even let them see things that may never occur in a laboratory setting. These unique observations can then inspire further investigation into specific behaviors. This process can then lead to insights that may help individuals overcome problems, eventually leading to a life that is happier and healthier than it was before.

3. It allows researchers to study ideas that cannot be manipulated otherwise.
Naturalistic observation makes it possible for researchers to study concepts that could not be manipulated if they were in a lab setting because of the ethics involved. Take a study on prisoner behaviors as an example of this. It would be unethical to confine the subjects of the study to create opportunities for information collection, but this process can gather data by using the principles of this method in a real prison or jail setting.

4. It helps to support the external validity of a research effort.
When social scientists are observing behavior, the choices made in a laboratory setting do not always translate to a generalization found in the larger population or demographic behind studied. If the initial findings of a lab setting can be seen in a natural setting under similar conditions, then the data obtained from the initial work receives validation. That makes the results of the work more believable and usable in the future.

5. It allows for multiple methods of data collection.
Researchers have a variety of techniques available to them when they need to collect data from naturalistic observation methods. They might write down the number of times they see a specific choice or action during a specific time, make a video recording of the individuals involved, or create an observer narrative which describes the session. Audio recordings are suitable in some situations as well. This structure makes it possible for researchers to go back over the scenarios observed to determine if there is more information available to draw a different conclusion.

6. It offers different windows for data collection without affecting results.
It is impractical for researchers to observe and collect information on every moment of an individual’s life. This process is even unrealistic when attempting to gather data on specific snapshots in time for some people. Naturalistic observation counters this issue by allowing for time sampling and situation sampling as part of the collection effort.

The first option allows for samples to be collected at different times, either random or systematic (or both) to collect info that makes a conclusion possible. Researchers would use the second option to observe choices or behaviors when they appear in a variety of different settings.

7. It creates the potential for more genuine reactions.
Social scientists who use the naturalistic observation approach to their research can receive realistic and accurate reactions from the individuals they track when compared to other methods of data collection. This process is even suitable for non-human subjects. People can forget that they are under observation when dealing with stressful or emotional situations, making it possible for researchers to see the buildup process that eventually leads to a choice or behavior.

8. It can be safer for the researchers when compared to other methods.
Social scientists who use the naturalistic observation method do not have the same requirements to interact with the individuals or non-human subjects involved in their research project. These researchers can observe the natural habitat or setting from a protected setting without compromising the quality of the data they collect. Behaviors are unpredictable, even in settings that seem calm, which is why this advantage is often a top priority when creating the framework for a new study.

List of the Cons of Naturalistic Observation

1. It can be challenging to control for outside variables.
Perhaps the most significant disadvantage of naturalistic observation is that researchers can sometimes struggle to determine what the exact cause of behaviors or choices is due to the presence of outside variables. When you operate in a natural setting, there are numerous pressures that can cause people to react in specific ways that may not be under observation. Someone who had an argument at home before attending class may react differently from a socialization point of view compared to someone who received news that made them happy.

2. It does not always generate accurate data.
People will still react differently when they know that they are under observation even though they are in a natural setting. There is an accountability factor that humans have a sensitivity toward when dealing with personal choices, ethics, and morality. If someone knows that their choices are being recorded, then they will attempt to behave in the most “correct” manner possible. For social scientists, that means the people involved my try to appear or acceptable or desirable from a social perspective.

Even when researchers make efforts to avoid this disadvantage, it can be challenging to eliminate the issue entirely.

3. It may cause conformity concerns with the collected data.
Some people will also attempt to behave in a specific way or offer choices that they believe will conform to what their expectation is for the purpose of the research study. There can be subtle cues in the environment that some participants can see, consciously or not, that communicates to them what the scientists hope to find with their work. When this issue appears under naturalistic observation conditions, then some individuals might alter their behavior to “go along” with what they believe the researchers want to see from them.

4. It creates information that can sometimes be subjective.
When there are multiple observers of behavior or choice involved in a research product, then each person could draw a different conclusion from the same behaviors that everyone witnessed. It is not uncommon for two researchers to see the same actions, but then attribute them to different causes.

5. It takes more time to complete naturalistic observations.
This research methods requires more of a time commitment when compared to the other options available to social scientists. It takes longer for specific choices or behaviors to appear, especially when someone can recall that they are under observation. Even with all of the advantages that occur with a natural reaction when collecting data, there can be an extensive investment necessary in the amount of time required to produce results. Some projects last for several years before they have enough information available to complete the research process.

6. It cannot account for potential distractions in the environment.
Researchers can control some variables during a naturalistic observation effort, but they are unable to control everything. Distractions could change the way people interact with one another. Think about a classroom setting where social scientists are attempting to see how students learn. If there was a loud horn blaring repetitively outside of that controlled environment, it would shift the interactions of the individuals involved. Instead of being focused on the teacher, their focus would be on the noise outside. Any data collected during this period would be essentially worthless.

7. It offers information that can have limited usefulness.
The data that social scientists collect through the naturalistic observation process is often useful during the first stages of a research program. It can help researchers to begin forming the foundation of an opinion or create an opportunity that leads to validated results. Once the project goes beyond this first stage, the value of the data becomes “hit or miss” in terms of value. That’s why a project may start with this method, and the move on to something different in the future.

8. It cannot account for observer bias.
There are no firm conclusions available in the naturalistic observation process because there is no way to account for observational bias. Although this disadvantage applies to almost any research method, this option relies on the direct observation of behavior to collect information. Even an unconscious bias can influence the final data without the researchers knowing that they influenced the info in some way. That means social scientists have little or no control over a situation or the results that they eventually release from their efforts.

The pros and cons of the naturalistic observation method prove that it can be effective to observe individuals in their natural environment instead of in laboratory situations. It can also produce a set of disadvantages which researchers cannot fully control. That’s why the data collected from this process, even when generalizations can transition to the general public, must be taken with a cautious approach.

About the Author
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.