Study notes

Observational Techniques - Strengths and Limitations

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Here is a summary of some of the key strengths and limitations of a variety of observational techniques.

Natural observations

STRENGTHSHigh ecological validity as the researcher records naturally occurring behaviour in a natural environment, without any outside interference from the researcher.LIMITATIONSCannot be replicated to check reliability, as the researcher is not in control of variables.

Controlled observations

STRENGTHSLow ecological validity as the researcher records behaviours in an artificial (manipulated) environment, with potential outside interference from the researcher.


Can be replicated to check reliability, as the researcher is in control of variables and therefore can repeat the method as they wish

Covert observations

STRENGTHSInvestigator effects are unlikely meaning that participants’ behaviour will be genuine.LIMITATIONSLess ethical as participants are not aware they are taking part and cannot give fully informed consent

Overt observations

STRENGTHSIt is possible to inform participants in advance and obtain informed consent.LIMITATIONSBehaviour can be distorted through investigator effects in which the participant changes their behaviour through social desirability bias

Participant observation


The researcher can obtain in-depth data as they are in close proximity to the participants and so are unlikely to overlook or miss any behaviours.


The researchers’ presence might influence the participants’ behaviour due to evaluation apprehension,

Non-participant observation


Investigator effects and evaluation apprehension are less likely as the researcher is not visible.


Due to a lack of proximity the researcher might overlook or miss behaviours of interest.

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