Naturalistic observation is a data collection method that involves observing behavior as it occurs in a natural environment. It is a common methodology in psychology and anthropology.
The main idea is to see how people or animals act in their natural habitat, as opposed to a research laboratory. This will give researchers insights into a particular phenomenon under study that could not be obtained in the artificial setting of a lab. Sometimes, we also call this observational research.
Naturalistic Observation Examples
- Observing chimpanzees in the wild and recording their social interactions – Jane Goodall
- Observing children playing at different ages and examining their stages of cognitive development – Jean Piaget
- Observing how students interact in the workplace to get insights into classroom layout and teaching styles – This Study
- Observing an indigenous group of cattle herders in East Africa to see how they educate their youth – George J. Klima
- Observing how working-class high school students are taught differently to middle-class students – Paul Willis, Learning to Labour
- Observing a left-wing cooperative attempting to run their business collaboratively and democratically – Avi Lewis, The Take
- Observing the relationship between mothers and their children in their home to determine a taxonomy of attachment styles – Mary Ainsworth
- Following emergency room staff to see how their professional culture is developed and operates under pressure – Person et al.
- Placing cameras in wombat burrows to observe how they live, mate, and survive – Swinbourne et al.
- Observing a busy intersection to see how traffic jams begin and explore how changing the traffic light cadence can decrease congestion
- An experienced teacher sitting-in on a trainee teacher to observe them teaching
1. Jane Goodall’s Research
Dr. Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall is one of the most famous scientists in history. Her research on chimpanzees in Kenya and work in conservation are well-known throughout the world.
Her primary research method was naturalistic observation. She entered the natural habitat of the subject of her study, sat down with pen and paper, and began taking detailed notes of her observations. Those notes were later transcribed into numerous research papers for other scientists to learn from.
Her research produced many groundbreaking insights into animal behavior, including the fact that chimpanzees use tools, such as twigs and straw to “fish” for termites. This was an incredible discover, which led to the now famous quote by Louis Leakey, “we must now redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimps as humans.”
To learn about other fascinating uses of naturalistic observation, including links to numerous research tools like live cams at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, check-out this amazing resource page from National Geographic.
2. Linguistic Development of Children
Language development is a fascinating phenomenon. Human beings go from not being able to utter a single word, to having a vocabulary existing of thousands of words by the age of 5.
A typical study involves researchers training their research team on how to conduct objective observations of parental interactions with their children. The observers will then go to a family’s home, sit quietly in a corner of a room, and take detailed notes.
The data can include recording the number of interactions, number of words directed at the child, and types of words (e.g., expressive or factual). After all the data is collected, it is analyzed using statistical software and patterns of parental behavior that are linked to language development can be discovered.
Although naturalistic observation can give us valuable insights into the role of parental interactions in child development, this type of research is quite difficult to carry-out.
3. Observing Workplaces to Study Ergonomics
Ergonomics is the study of how human beings function in the environment, such as a work setting, or how they interact with various products or machine interfaces. This branch of study is sometimes referred to as “human factors.”
The goal is to improve people’s experience with the object of study to make it more efficient, effective, or pleasant.
The basic procedure is for a trained professional to observe people using the equipment, or product, while taking detailed notes on the user’s experience. This is often followed-up with a one-on-one interview, a survey, or focus group.
This type of naturalistic observation is so widely used today that there probably is not a single electronic gadget on the market that has not gone through some version of ergonomic analysis.
4. Satellite Images of Walmart
As reported by NPR, some stock market analysts use naturalistic observation of Walmart parking lots to earn huge profits. With the purchase of satellite images of selected Walmart parking lots, an analyst can count the number of cars and estimate how well business is going.
From other sources, the analyst knows the average amount of money spent by customers, broken down by time of day and geographic location. When combining that information with the satellite images, they start to build a detailed picture of the company’s sales.
Later, they can compare their estimates with the actual numbers released by the company during their quarterly reports. That will give the analyst an opportunity to refine how they collect their data and lead to more accurate estimates in the future.
This is a type of naturalistic observation that results in huge profits for companies that know how to use the data. For other examples, click here.
5. Spying on Farms
Although naturalistic observation is usually used when studying human or animal behavior, it can also be used to observe plant growth.
Believe it or not, big money can be made in the futures markets by predicting the price of various agricultural commodities.
Some companies use infrared imaging software to observe how well various crops are developing all over the world, such as corn and wheat. The images not only track the number of acres being planted, but can also assess how well they are growing by measuring the amount of chlorophyll in the plants.
By tracking growth over time, analysts can identify any changes that may significantly affect supply and demand in the future. Having that edge can lead to massive profits.
6. Observing Group Dynamics During Office Meetings
Understanding the dynamics of how work teams make decisions is a well-researched area in Industrial Psychology. This involves naturalistic observations of team interactions at work.
Bad decisions can lead to disastrous results. On the other hand, making wise decisions regarding strategic planning or product selection can generate tremendous profits.
One insight revealed through naturalistic observation research is that various members of a work-team play different roles.
For example, some play the role of task-master. They like to keep the team focused on objectives and meeting deadlines. While others serve to help the team get along. They’re called harmonizers and they try to defuse conflicts.
The research typically involves trained observers sitting to the side or watching the team conduct their meetings through CCTV. The observers take notes on who says what to whom, and the nature of those comments.
By examining the observations later, it is possible to identify weaknesses in how decisions are made and suggest ways to improve the decision-making process.
7. Observing Screentime vs Quality of Romantic Relationships
Social scientists have expressed concern that screentime, or social media use, may impact the quality of romantic relationships (Quiroz & Mickelson, 2021). But one researcher took this to a new level by watching romantic couples’ phone usage!
Unfortunately, a lot of research in this area relies on surveys. One survey will assess frequency of social media use and another survey will assess quality of the current romantic relationship.
Naturalist observation could provide more realistic information. For example, two trained observers could be placed at various public places, such as a farmer’s market.
One observer tracks the touching behavior of couples, an acceptable indicator of romantic involvement (Gulledge et al., 2003), while the other tracks screentime.
Once all the data is collected, a simple analysis comparing the rate of touching to screentime could reveal if there is an association, or not.
Of course, to fully answer any question requires multiple studies using different methods. Combined, a clearer understanding of the phenomenon under study gradually (i.e., years) emerges.
8. Naturalistic Observation of Infant Attachment
Mary Ainsworth is well-known for her strange situations test to assess attachment quality. However, before developing this test, she conducted naturalistic observations of infant/caregiver behavior in Uganda for 2 years starting in 1954, after a 4-year collaboration with John Bowlby.
She visited the homes of 26 families with babies during bi-monthly, 2-hour visits. She wrote detailed notes on the infants’ interactions with their mothers and in the presence of others, in addition to mothers’ responses to her questions about infant care.
The notes were then expanded and summarized into reports and checked for accuracy by an interpreter that accompanied her during the visits.
As reported by Bretherton (2013), “…secure-attached infants cried little and engaged in exploration when their mother was present, while insecure-attached infants were frequently fussy even with mother in the same room” (p. 461).
9. Observing Subliminal Messaging and Popcorn Sales Correlation
The idea that messages presented below the threshold of conscious awareness could affect behavior has been around for decades. It all began with a 1957 study that claimed subliminal messages in a movie increased popcorn sales by nearly 60%.
As it turns out, the research was never conducted.
However, if a person wanted to actually conduct this kind of research it could be done. First, messages that suggested eating popcorn would have to be spliced into a film; another version f the film would not contain the messages.
Both films would be shown simultaneously at the same theatre. As customers purchased tickets, they would be randomly assigned to watch one of the two versions. A trained observer would sit nearby the concession stand and keep track of how many customers viewing each version purchased popcorn during and after the film finished. This is the naturalistic observation component.
A simple comparison of popcorn sales between each film would test the hypothesis and settle the issue forever.
10. Time and Motion Studies to Increase Productivity
A time and motion study is a method for making work processes more efficient. Being more efficient means higher profits.
First, workers are observed and recorded. Then, some steps to complete a task may be eliminated while ways to shorten the time it takes to complete other steps are identified.
Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were early pioneers in this type of naturalistic observation study.
Frank owned a construction company and Lilian was a psychologist. They observed Frank’s bricklayers and reduced the number of movements needed to carry out their work from 18 to 4.
From there they started a consulting business, helping manufacturers improve efficiency during the industrial revolution. After Frank’s early passing at the age of 54, Lillian went on to become the first female member of the Society for Industrial Engineers and the only psychologist to appear on a postage stamp (in 1884).
Types of Naturalistic Observation
There are many versions of naturalistic observation. Below are two common onese:
- Participant/Non-participant refers to whether the person collecting the data is also participating in the activity being studied or is solely observing from the sidelines.
Understanding the customs of an exotic culture by participating in some of the rituals may provide some very valuable insights from a personal perspective. Or, the researcher may prefer to observe the cultural practices from a distance, which can also provide a lot of valuable information.
- Covert/Overt observation refers to whether the people being observed are aware that they are under study. Since people may change their behavior if they know they are being watched, a researcher may choose to not inform the people that they are under study. Overt observation means that the people under study are fully aware of the researcher’s presence.
As with all scientific studies in the social sciences conducted by university scientists, each study must be evaluated by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) before it can begin. The IRB scrutinizes the methods for ethical issues and may require researchers to make adjustments to the procedures before being approved.
Benefits of Naturalistic Observation
Sometimes people will act differently in a laboratory setting because they know they are being observed. They may try to act more polite or portray themselves in a favorable light.
In a naturalistic observation study, participants are often unaware they are being observed, so they do not try to alter their behavior.
In animal studies, conducting research in the field may be the only way to study the phenomenon of interest, as one cannot construct a rainforest or similar habitat in the lab.
Naturalistic observation is a great way to collect data on a phenomenon as it exists in its natural environment. If studying people, there are aspects of behavior that cannot be observed in a laboratory setting, and people often change their behavior if they know a social scientist is watching them.
If studying animals, it is just simply not possible to recreate an entire habitat in a research lab. So, scientists must venture into the wild and observe animals on their own turf. This will provide insights into their behavior that cannot be obtained in a laboratory.
We can even use naturalistic observation to track consumer behavior and make predictions regarding corporate sales or agricultural futures. That information can lead to huge profits.
Naturalistic observation is an incredibly valuable research tool that has application in science and business.
Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1967). Infancy in Uganda. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Bretherton, I. (2013). Revisiting Mary Ainsworth’s conceptualization and assessments of maternal sensitivity-insensitivity. Attachment & Human Development, 15(5–6), 460–484. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2013.835128
d’Apice, K., Latham, R., & Stumm, S. (2019). A naturalistic home observational approach to children’s language, cognition, and behavior. Developmental Psychology, 55(7),1414-1427. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000733
Gulledge, A. K., Gulledge, M. H., & Stahmannn, R. F. (2003). Romantic physical affection types and relationship satisfaction.The American Journal of Family Therapy,31(4), 233-242.
Lenhart, A., & Duggan, M. (2014). Couples, the internet, and social media: How American couples use digital technology to manage life, logistics, and emotional intimacy within their relationships. Pew Research Center.
Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2014/02/11/couples-the-internet-and-social-media/
Quiroz, S., Mickelson, K. (2021). Are online behaviors damaging our in-person connections? Passive versus active social media use on romantic relationships. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.5817/CP2021-1-1
Ulvi, O., Karamehic-Muratovic, A., Baghbanzadeh, M., Bashir, A., Smith, J., & Haque, U. (2022). Social Media Use and Mental Health: A Global Analysis. https://doi.org/10.3390/epidemiologia3010002
Wagner, S. A., Mattson, R. E., Davila, J., Johnson, M. D., & Cameron, N. M. (2020). Touch me just enough: The intersection of adult attachment, intimate touch, and marital satisfaction.Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(6), 1945-1967.
Dave Cornell (PhD)
Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.
Chris Drew (PhD)
This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.