Ecological validity

A term beloved by students and all too often wrongly used. Consider this:

  • Lab experiment – independent variable manipulated, DV measured in lab by experimenter.
  • Field experiment – independent variable manipulated, DV measured in natural environment, participant may behave more ‘naturally’ because unaware of being assessed.
  • Natural experiment – independent variable not manipulated by experiment, DV often measured in lab by experimenter.

Natural experiments are just as ‘artificial’ as lab experiments. What often matters most is the participant’s awareness that their behaviour is being assessed. It happens in a natural experiment as much as a lab experiment. Natural experiments aren’t so natural.

Another issue is the task participants are required to do – such as memorising word lists or giving electric shocks. It isn’t the lab environment that matters, what matters is how much like everyday life the tasks are.


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