What Is Ecological Validity? | Definition & Examples
Ecological validity measures how generalizable experimental findings are to the real world, such as situations or settings typical of everyday life. It is a subtype of external validity.
If a test has high ecological validity, it can be generalized to other real-life situations, while tests with low ecological validity cannot.
Ecological validity is often applied in experimental studies of human behavior and cognition, such as in psychology and related fields.
What is ecological validity?
Ecological validity assesses the validity of a study’s findings based on the environment or setting in which the study took place. If you have reason to suspect that the study’s environment may have influenced the generalizability of its results or led to research bias, the study’s ecological validity may be questioned.
Assessing ecological validity
To assess the ecological validity of a study, you must critically examine the setting where it took place. It’s not as cut-and-dried as “the experiment took place in a lab, therefore it lacks ecological validity.” Rather, it’s more about pointing out what can prevent results from one environment or setting from being successfully applied to another.
The following questions can help you assess ecological validity:
- What environment is the study taking place in?
- To what other environment(s) are you trying to apply these conclusions?
- How are these two different, or similar?
It’s important to keep in mind that research studies conducted in a lab setting don’t necessarily lack ecological validity. And generalizability does not depend on ecological validity alone—you need to consider other factors, too, such as population validity.
Ecological validity vs. external validity
External validity examines whether study findings can be generalized beyond the sample. In other words, it analyzes whether you can apply what you’ve found in your study to other populations, situations, or variables.
On the other hand, ecological validity examines, specifically, whether the study findings can be generalized to real-life settings. Ecological validity is a subtype of external validity.
Examples of ecological validity
Measuring ecological validity shows you to what degree results obtained from research or experiments are representative of conditions in the real world. Here are a few examples.
When results obtained from research or (controlled) experiments are not representative of conditions in the real world, the study findings are characterized by low ecological validity.
Limitations of ecological validity
Ecological validity has a few limitations to be aware of.
Often, research studies in fields like psychology are conducted in laboratories, with the goal of better understanding human behavior. Ideally, an experiment like this will produce generalizable results—meaning that it predicts behavior outside the laboratory. If so, the study shows evidence of ecological validity.
However, laboratories are controlled environments. Distractions are minimized so that study participants can focus on the task at hand, clear instructions are provided, and researchers ensure that equipment works. Additionally, lab experiments risk having demand characteristics, or cues that point to the study’s objectives. These cues may lead participants to alter their behavior.
As these are all conditions that are usually not present in real life, they may compromise the study’s ecological validity.
Lack of standard measurements
There is no consensus about a standard definition of ecological validity; in fact, multiple definitions exist. As a result, there are no agreed-upon standards for measuring ecological validity. This leads some researchers to question the usefulness of ecological validity, arguing that being specific about what behavior or context you are testing is sufficient to mitigate research bias.
Tradeoff with internal validity
As mentioned above, controlled laboratory environments are not always a good fit for high ecological validity. However, controlled environments are better for establishing the cause-and-effect relationships needed for high internal validity, where it’s ideal for circumstances to be as identical as possible.
This can lead to a bit of a tradeoff between the almost-unnatural setting needed to assess internal validity and the approximation of real life needed to assess ecological validity. While a natural environment yields high ecological validity, it comes with the risk of more external factors influencing the relationship between different types of variables, leading to low internal validity.
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Frequently asked questions
- Why is ecological validity not prioritized in studies conducted in theory-testing mode?
The purpose of theory-testing mode is to find evidence in order to disprove, refine, or support a theory. As such, generalizability is not the aim of theory-testing mode.
Due to this, the priority of researchers in theory-testing mode is to eliminate alternative causes for relationships between variables. In other words, they prioritize internal validity over external validity, including ecological validity.
- What’s the difference between reliability and validity?
Reliability and validity are both about how well a method measures something:
- Reliability refers to the consistency of a measure (whether the results can be reproduced under the same conditions).
- Validity refers to the accuracy of a measure (whether the results really do represent what they are supposed to measure).
If you are doing experimental research, you also have to consider the internal and external validity of your experiment.
- What is the difference between internal and external validity?
The validity of your experiment depends on your experimental design.
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