Naturalistic Observation | Definition, Guide, & Examples

Naturalistic observation is a qualitative research method where you record the behaviors of your research subjects in real world settings. You avoid interfering with or influencing any variables in a naturalistic observation.

You can think of naturalistic observation as “people watching” with a purpose.

Note: Naturalistic observation is one of the research methods that can be used for an observational study design. Another common type of observation is the controlled observation. In this case, the researcher observes the participant in a controlled environment (e.g., a lab). The observer controls most variables and makes sure participants are observed structurally (e.g., by coding certain behaviors).

What is naturalistic observation?

In naturalistic observations, you study your research subjects in their own environments to explore their behaviors without any outside influence or control. It’s a research method used in field studies.

Traditionally, naturalistic observation studies have been used by animal researchers, psychologists, ethnographers, and anthropologists. Naturalistic observations are helpful as a hypothesis-generating approach, because you gather rich information that can inspire further research.

Example: Naturalistic observation in zoology
In the 1930s, zoologist Konrad Lorenz famously coined the term “imprinting,” which describes a critical period of learning for animals. He came up with the idea by observing ducklings and goslings as they hatched and then taking detailed notes on their behaviors.

Based on his naturalistic observations, he believed that these birds imprinted on the first potential parent in their surroundings, and they quickly learned to follow them and their actions.

He later devised experiments to test the hypothesis and found clear support for his theory.

Naturalistic observation is especially valuable for studying behaviors and actions that may not be replicable in controlled lab settings.

Examples: Naturalistic observation in different fields
Field Example
Child development You track language development in a child’s natural environment, their own home, with an audio recording device.
Consumer research You study how grocery shoppers navigate a store and shop differently after a layout change.
Sports psychology You triangulate reports of drug use among athletes with in-person observations.

Types of naturalistic observation methods

Naturalistic observations can be:

  • Covert or overt: You either hide or reveal your identity as an observer to the participants you observe.
  • Participant or non-participant: You participate in the activity or behavior yourself, or you observe from the sidelines.

There are four main ways of using naturalistic observations.

Types of naturalistic observation
Participant observation Non-participant observation
Covert observation Subjects are unaware that you’re observing them, because telling them may affect their behaviors.

You also immerse yourself in the activity you’re researching yourself.

You don’t inform or show participants you’re observing them.

You observe participants from a distance without being involved.

Example: You study organizational practices in small startups by joining one as an employee.

You don’t reveal that you’re a researcher, and you take notes on behavioral data in secret.

Example: You take video recordings of classroom activities to study as an observer.

Participants are unaware they’re being observed because the cameras are placed discreetly.

Overt observation You inform or make it clear to participants that you are observing them.

You also participate in the activity you’re researching yourself.

Participants are aware you’re observing them.

You observe participants from a distance without being involved.

Example: You join a startup as an intern and perform research there for your thesis.

You participate in the organization while studying their organizational practices with everyone’s knowledge.

Example: You join a classroom and study student behaviors without taking part in the activities yourself.

It’s clear to your participants that you’re observing them.

Importantly, all of these take place in naturalistic settings rather than experimental laboratory settings. While you may actively participate in some types of observations, you refrain from influencing others or interfering with the activities you are observing too much.

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How to collect data

You can use a variety of data collection methods for naturalistic observations.

Audiovisual recordings

Nowadays, it’s common to collect observations through audio and video recordings so you can revisit them at a later stage or share them with other trained observers. It’s best to place these recording devices discreetly so your participants aren’t distracted by them.

However, make sure you receive informed consent in a written format from each participant prior to recording them.

Example: Audiovisual recordings
You place video cameras in a school playground to study the frequency and type of interactions children have with their peers over time. You make sure these cameras are placed out of sight so that your research subjects don’t pay attention to them.

Note-taking

You can take notes while conducting naturalistic observations. Note down anything that seems relevant or important to you based on your research topic and interests in an unstructured way.

Example: Note-taking
You observe social interactions and alcohol use in a college bar and take notes. You record your perceptions of research subjects’ beer consumption levels, their speech volume and frequency, their general demeanors, and anything else that sticks out.

Tally counts

If you’re studying specific behaviors or events, it’s often helpful to make frequency counts of the number of times these occur during a certain time period. You can use a tally count to easily note down each instance that you observe in the moment.

Example: Tally counts
You focus on observing four college students in particular at a college bar. You study their alcohol use behaviors and record the number of drinks they consume during one visit.

Data sampling

There’s a lot of information you can collect when you conduct research in natural, uncontrolled environments. To simplify your data collection, you’ll often use data sampling.

Data sampling allows you to narrow down the focus of your data recording to specific times or events.

Time sampling

You record observations only at specific times. These time intervals can be randomly selected (e.g., at 8:03, 10:34, 12:51) or systematic (e.g., every 2 hours). You record whether your behaviors of interest occur during these time periods.

Example: Time sampling
You observe the social behaviors of children in a classroom. You systematically observe and record all social behaviors for 5 minutes every 2 hours over a few days.

Event sampling

You record observations only when specific events occur. You may use a tally count to note the frequency of the event or take notes each time you see the event occurring.

Example: Event sampling
You focus on cooperative behaviors between eight-year-olds in a classroom. During group activities, you observe and take notes every time you come across helping social behaviors between children.

Advantages of naturalistic observation

Naturalistic observation is a valuable tool because of its flexibility, external validity, and suitability for research topics that can’t be studied in a lab.

  • Flexibility

Because naturalistic observation is a non-experimental method, you’re not bound to strict procedures. You can avoid using rigid protocols and also change your methods midway if you need to.

  • Ecological validity

Naturalistic observations are particularly high in ecological validity, because you use real life environments instead of lab settings. People don’t always act in the same ways in and outside the lab. Your participants behave in more authentic ways when they are unaware they’re being observed.

  • Innovation

Naturalistic observations help you study topics that you can’t in the lab for ethical reasons.  You can also use technology to record conversations, behaviors, or other noise, provided you have consent or it’s otherwise ethically permissible.

Disadvantages of naturalistic observation

The downsides of naturalistic observation include its lack of scientific control, ethical considerations, and potential for bias from observers and subjects.

  • Lack of control

Since you perform research in natural environments, you can’t control the setting or any variables. Without this control, you won’t be able to draw conclusions about causal relationships. You also may not be able to replicate your findings in other contexts, with other people, or at other times.

  • Ethical considerations

Most people don’t want to be observed as they’re going about their day without their explicit consent or awareness. It’s important to always respect privacy and try to be unobtrusive. It’s also best to use naturalistic observations only in public situations where people expect they won’t be alone.

Note: Don’t record people without receiving written informed consent prior to the observations.
  • Observer bias

Because you indirectly collect data, there’s always a risk of observer bias in naturalistic observations. Your perceptions and interpretations of behavior may be influenced by your own experiences and inaccurately represent the truth. This type of bias is particularly likely to occur in participant observation methods.

  • Subject bias

When you observe subjects in their natural environment, they may sometimes be aware they’re being observed. As a result, they may change their behaviors to act in more socially desirable ways to confirm your expectations.

Frequently asked questions about naturalistic observation

What is the definition of a naturalistic observation?

Naturalistic observation is a qualitative research method where you record the behaviors of your research subjects in real world settings. You avoid interfering or influencing anything in a naturalistic observation.

You can think of naturalistic observation as “people watching” with a purpose.

What are the pros and cons of naturalistic observation?

Naturalistic observation is a valuable tool because of its flexibility, external validity, and suitability for topics that can’t be studied in a lab setting.

The downsides of naturalistic observation include its lack of scientific control, ethical considerations, and potential for bias from observers and subjects.

How can I minimize observer bias in my research?

You can use several tactics to minimize observer bias.

  • Use masking (blinding) to hide the purpose of your study from all observers.
  • Triangulate your data with different data collection methods or sources.
  • Use multiple observers and ensure interrater reliability.
  • Train your observers to make sure data is consistently recorded between them.
  • Standardize your observation procedures to make sure they are structured and clear.
What is social desirability bias?

Social desirability bias is the tendency for interview participants to give responses that will be viewed favorably by the interviewer or other participants. It occurs in all types of interviews and surveys, but is most common in semi-structured interviews, unstructured interviews, and focus groups.

Social desirability bias can be mitigated by ensuring participants feel at ease and comfortable sharing their views. Make sure to pay attention to your own body language and any physical or verbal cues, such as nodding or widening your eyes.

This type of bias can also occur in observations if the participants know they’re being observed. They might alter their behavior accordingly.

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Pritha Bhandari

Pritha has an academic background in English, psychology and cognitive neuroscience. As an interdisciplinary researcher, she enjoys writing articles explaining tricky research concepts for students and academics.