What is Ecological Validity?
Ecological validity refers to how accurately researchers can generalize a study’s findings to real-world situations. Simply put, it measures how closely an experiment reflects the behaviors and experiences of individuals in their natural environment.
High and low ecological validity indicate the following:
- High: Study results can be reliably applied to real-life settings.
- Low: Study results might not accurately reflect what happens in real-life situations.
Ecological validity is a type of external validity, which relates to the generalizability of experimental results to larger populations. However, the ecological type focuses on the environmental and behavioral aspects of generalizability.
Ecological validity is particularly relevant in the field of psychology because human subjects frequently react differently in different environments. Assessing this concept forces researchers to consider whether their experiment approximates real-world experiences. Are the results generalizable to real-life situations?
High ecological validity is preferable because it allows researchers to gain insights into how people behave in the real world, which is essential for creating interventions or treatment plans that are effective in everyday life. Additionally, high levels can help prevent the tendency of research participants to alter their behavior based on their perception of the researcher’s expectations, the study’s purpose, and unusual environments.
Low ecological validity can be problematic because it limits the generalizability of research findings. Various factors can cause this problem, such as using artificial environments or conditions that do not accurately reflect real-world experiences. When research findings have low generalizability, applying them in practical settings or understanding how they might impact people’s behaviors and experiences outside the laboratory can be challenging.
Examples of Low and High Ecological Validity
Imagine researchers are testing the effectiveness of a new computerized math program. For the experiment, school-aged subjects use the math program and then take a test. Eventually, the researchers hope that teachers will use their math program in the classroom.
An experiment with low ecological validity asks the subjects to use the program and take the test in a lab by themselves. The experimenters observe the participants while they use the program and during testing. Subjects solve math problems while seated at a desk in a quiet room.
This study does not accurately reflect the real-world situations in which school students learn math and solve problems. For example, it includes experimenter observation in an unfamiliar setting. It also does not account for the influence of real-world distractions, such as noise or interruptions, which can impact people’s ability to concentrate and solve problems.
A high ecological validity version of this experiment might ask participants to use the math program and take the test in their regular math classes. This type of study accurately reflects the real-world situations in which students learn math and take tests. For example, it incorporates the positive influence of teachers and the classroom setting on learning. It also includes realistic negative environmental factors, such as noise, social interactions, and interruptions, that can impact people’s ability to learn and solve problems.
How to Assess Ecological Validity
Assessing ecological validity can be challenging because there is no standard way to measure it. However, researchers can use several strategies to increase it. These include selecting conditions that reflect real-world experiences, using naturalistic settings, and including diverse populations.
Additionally, researchers can use observational techniques to collect data in real-world settings and compare it to data collected in artificial settings to assess the degree of ecological validity.
The questions below can help you evaluate ecological validity:
- What setting does the study occur in?
- What real-world settings do you want to apply the results to?
- What are the differences and similarities between the study and real-world settings?
Drawbacks of Ecological Validity
In experiments, there tends to be a negative relationship between ecological validity and internal validity. High ecological validity usually comes at the expense of lower internal validity and vice versa.
This tradeoff is due to the experimental conditions necessary to produce each type of validity. Internal validity is the extent to which a study’s results can be attributed causally to manipulating the independent variable rather than other factors.
High internal validity requires a tightly controlled environment that minimizes extraneous variables. This environment, found in laboratory settings, allows for strict measurement methodologies, random assignment, and standardized treatment, ruling out alternative explanations for outcomes. On the other hand, this artificial environment doesn’t reflect the real world, reducing ecological validity.
High ecological validity requires experimental conditions that resemble the real-world setting, as found in observational studies. However, these studies open the door to confounding and lurking variables providing alternative explanations for the results, reducing internal validity.
The solution is to conduct multiple experiments in different settings, including true experiments in a lab and observational studies in the field, to increase both internal and ecological validity.
It’s worth noting that studies conducted in a laboratory setting do not automatically lack ecological validity. Additionally, the applicability of findings to a wider population also depends on other factors like population validity.
Ecological validity is an essential consideration in psychology because it measures the extent to which researchers can accurately generalize experimental findings to real-world situations. High levels are desirable because it allows a study’s results to provide insights into how people behave in the real world.
However, there are several limitations to consider, such as the limitations of experiments conducted in a lab, the lack of a standard way to assess it, and the tradeoff between internal and ecological validity.
Despite these limitations, researchers can use strategies to increase ecological validity. By considering this concept in research design, psychologists can improve the applicability and relevance of their findings to real-life situations.
Internal and external validity, San Jose State University
Glenn H. Bracht and Gene V. Glass, External Validity of Experiments, American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Nov., 1968), pp. 437-474.