Natural Experiment

Whilst oftentimes people tend to think of experiments occurring in laboratories and controlled settings, psychologists also consider real-world environments as opportunities to investigate phenomena. Behaviour changes depending on the setting, and investigating research areas in their natural settings can amplify the validity of the findings. Natural experiments offer researchers the opportunity to investigate human behaviour in everyday life. 

Natural Experiment Natural Experiment

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore natural experiments used in psychological research.
    • We will start by highlighting the natural experiment definition.
    • We will then explore how natural experiments are used in psychology and cover natural experiment examples of research to demonstrate to help illustrate our points.
    • Moving on, we will cover natural and field experiments to highlight the differences between the two types of investigations.
    • And to finish, we will explore the natural experiment's advantages and disadvantages.

    Natural Experiment Natural disaster StudySmarterFig. 1 - Natural experiments may investigate events like natural disasters.

    Natural Experiment Defintion

    Natural experiments are essentially experiments that investigate naturally occurring phenomena. The natural experiment definition is a research procedure that occurs in the participant's natural setting that requires no manipulation by the researcher.

    In experiments, changes in the independent variable (IV) are observed to identify if these changes affect the dependent variable (DV). However, in natural experiments, the researcher does not manipulate the IV. Instead, they observe the natural changes that occur.

    Some examples of naturally occurring IVs are sex at birth, whether people have experienced a natural disaster, experienced a traumatic experience, or been diagnosed with a specific illness.

    These examples show that it's next to impossible for the researcher to manipulate these.

    Natural Experiment: Psychology

    Why may researchers choose to use a natural experiment? As we have just discussed, sometimes researchers can't manipulate the IV. But, they may still wish to see how changes in the IV affect the DV, so use a natural experiment.

    Sometimes a researcher can manipulate the IV, but it may be unethical or impractical to do so, so they conduct a natural experiment.

    In natural experiments, the researcher can see how changes in the IV affect a DV, but unlike in lab experiments, the researcher has to identify how the IV is changing. In contrast, lab experiments pre-determine how the IV will be manipulated.

    Natural Experiment: Examples

    Natural experiments often take place in real-world settings. An example can be seen in examining the effect of female and male performance in an office environment and if gender plays a role in the retention of customers. Other examples include examining behaviours in schools, and the effect age has on behaviour.

    Let's look at a hypothetical study that uses a natural experiment research method.

    A research team was interested in investigating attitudes towards the community after experiencing a natural disaster.

    The study collected data using interviews. The IV was naturally occurring as the researcher did not manipulate the IV; instead, they recruited participants who had recently experienced a natural disaster.

    Natural Experiment vs Field Experiment

    The table below summarises the key similarities and differences between natural experiments vs field experiments.

    Natural ExperimentField Experiment
    It takes place in a natural settingYY
    Researcher manipulates IVNY

    Natural Experiment: Advantages and Disadvantages

    In the following section will present the natural experiment's advantages and disadvantages. We will discuss the new research possibilities, causal conclusions, rare opportunities, pre-existing sampling bias and ethical issues.

    Natural Experiment, busy street with cars and trains, StudySmarterFig 2 - Natural experiments have their advantages and disadvantages.

    New Research Opportunities

    Natural experiments provide opportunities for research that can't be done for ethical and practical reasons.

    For example, it is impossible to manipulate a natural disaster or maternal deprivation on participants.

    So, natural experiments are the only ethical way for researchers to investigate the causal relationship of the above topics. Thus, natural experiments open up practical research opportunities to study conditions that cannot be manipulated.

    High Ecological Validity

    Natural experiments have high ecological validity because natural experiments study real-world problems that occur naturally in real-life settings.

    When research is found to use and apply real-life settings and techniques, it is considered to have high mundane realism.

    And the advantage of this is that the results are more likely applicable and generalisable to real-life situations.

    Rare Opportunities

    There are scarce opportunities for researchers to conduct a natural experiment. Most natural events are ‘one-off’ situations. Because natural events are unique, the results have limited generalisability to similar situations.

    In addition, it is next to impossible for researchers to replicate natural experiments; therefore, it is difficult to establish the reliability of findings.

    Pre-Existing Sampling Bias

    In natural experiments, pre-existing sampling bias can be a problem. In natural experiments, researchers cannot randomly assign participants to different conditions because naturally occurring events create them. Therefore, in natural experiments, participant differences may act as confounding variables.

    As a result, sample bias in natural experiments can lead to low internal validity and generalisability of the research.

    Ethical Issues

    Although natural experiments are considered the only ethically acceptable method for studying conditions that can't be manipulated, ethical issues may still arise. Because natural experiments are often conducted after traumatic events, interviewing or observing people after the event could cause psychological harm to participants.

    Researchers should prepare for potential ethical issues, such as psychological harm, usually dealt with by offering therapy. However, this can be pretty costly. And the ethical issue may lead participants to drop out of the research, which can also affect the quality of the research.


    Natural Experiment - Key takeaways

    • The natural experiment definition is a research procedure that occurs in the participant's natural setting that requires no manipulation of the researcher.

    • Some examples of naturally occurring IVs are sex at birth, whether people have experienced a natural disaster, experienced a traumatic experience, or been diagnosed with a specific illness.

    • Sometimes a researcher can manipulate the IV, but it may be unethical or impractical to do so, so they conduct a natural experiment.

    • The advantages of natural experiments are that they provide opportunities for research that researchers cannot do for ethical or practical reasons and have high ecological validity.

    • The disadvantages of natural experiments are reliability issues, pre-existing sample bias, and ethical issues, such as conducting a study after traumatic events may cause psychological distress.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Natural Experiment

    What is a natural experiment?

    The natural experiment definition is a research procedure that occurs in the participant's natural setting that requires no manipulation of the researcher. 

    What is an example of natural experiment?

    Beckett (2006) investigated the effects of deprivation on children’s IQ at age 11. They compared 128 Romanian children who UK families had adopted at various ages and 50 UK children who had been adopted before six months. They found that Romanian children who had been adopted before six months of age had similar IQs to the UK children; however, Romanian children adopted after six months of age had much worse scores. 

    What are the characteristics of a natural experiment?

    The characteristics of natural experiments are that they are carried out in a natural setting and the IV is not manipulated in this type of experiment. 

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of natural experiments?

    The advantages of natural experiments are that they provide opportunities for research that researchers cannot do for ethical or practical reasons and have high ecological validity.


    And the disadvantages of natural experiments are reliability issues, pre-existing sample bias, and ethical issues, such as conducting a study after traumatic events may cause psychological distress.

    What are natural experiments in research?

    Natural experiments in psychology research are often used when manipulating a variable is unethical or impractical.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    After Hurricane Katrina, researchers wanted to investigate how the natural disaster affected mental health. What type of experiment is likely to be conducted? 

    Sampling bias can be an issue in natural experiments; this can influence the research's...

    True or false: Ethical issues can be a potential concern for natural experiments. 

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