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Ecological validity refers to the extent to which the findings of a research study are able to be generalized to real-life settings. Learn about ecological validity, how it differs from external validity, and more.

Definition of Ecological Validity

Suppose that you were interested in studying how people respond to life-threatening situations, so you create a virtual simulation of a plane crash. You take ten participants and record their behaviors, pulse, and adrenaline levels as they go through the virtual simulation. You find that heart rate and adrenaline increase during the simulation.

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You also notice that during the final moments of the plane crash simulation, a majority of the participants were able to accurately follow the safety instructions that were given in the beginning of the flight.You want to know if your study is valid, which means the study measures what it is supposed to measure. One way for us to examine the study’s validity is to look at ecological validity, which is the extent to which the conclusions of your research study can be generalized to the settings and situations in which the phenomenon that you are studying would naturally occur.

High and Low Ecological Validity

If your research study has high ecological validity, then you can generalize the findings of your research study to real-life settings.

If your study has high ecological validity, you would expect that people who are in actual plane crashes would experience increased heart rate and adrenaline. You would also expect them to be able to follow all of the safety instructions.Let’s say that you researched people who have been in plane crashes and survived and found out that they did experience increased heart rate and adrenaline. However, the increase during the real-life situation was much higher than during the virtual simulation. In addition, you also found that none of the survivors were able to recall or follow the safety instructions during the actual plane crash. In this example, your study has low ecological validity. This means that you cannot generalize your findings to real-life plane crash situations.

Generally speaking, when you conduct research in settings that are realistic, meaning they’re done in a natural environment, your study has high ecological validity. When you conduct research in artificial settings that lack realism and have very little in common with real-life settings, such as a virtual simulation of a life-or-death experience, you will likely have low ecological validity.

Relation to Experimental Control

There is almost always a trade-off between ecological validity and experimental control. The more we try to control a study or experiment, the less ecological validity that we have. This is because when we control an experiment, we are changing the conditions under which the experiment occurs. These changes are different from what we would find in a natural setting.

Let’s say in the virtual simulation we made sure that there was no wind or debris, and we minimized distractions in order to make sure that the participants were only responding to the situation. However, we know that when an actual plane crashes in the real world, there is wind, debris, people screaming, and other factors. By controlling for these things, we are moving further and further away from the natural settings. This limits our ability to generalize our findings to people in natural settings.

Relation to External Validity

Ecological validity is related to your ability to generalize your results.

There are three types of generalization:

  1. Population generalization: Whether your findings apply to people other than the ones in your study
  2. Environmental generalization: Whether your findings apply to other situations or environments other than those used in your study
  3. Temporal generalization: Whether your findings apply at any time and not just during the specific time or season that the study was conducted

Ecological validity is primarily concerned with environmental generalization. Ecological validity tells us whether or not our findings can be generalized to real-world settings. External validity refers to whether your study results can be generalized to the population that you are studying across setting and time. As such, external validity is concerned with population, environmental, and temporal generalization. It is possible for a study to have low ecological validity but high external validity since ecological validity is just one aspect of external validity. Likewise, it is possible for a study to have high ecological validity but low external validity provided that the study has low population and temporal generalization.

Lesson Summary

Valid means the study measures what it is supposed to measure. Ecological validity refers to the ability to generalize study findings to real-world settings. High ecological validity means you can generalize the findings of your research study to real-life settings. Low ecological validity means you cannot generalize your findings to real-life situations.Ecological validity is related to your ability to generalize your results. There are three types of generalization:

  1. Population generalization: Whether your findings apply to people other than the ones in your study
  2. Environmental generalization: Whether your findings apply to other situations or environments other than those used in your study
  3. Temporal generalization: Whether your findings apply at any time and not just during the specific time or season that the study was conducted

External validity refers to whether your study results can be generalized to the population that you are studying across settings and time.

As such, external validity is concerned with population, environmental, and temporal generalization.

Key Terms

Definition of ecological validity
  • Valid: the study measures what it is supposed to measure
  • Ecological Validity: the extent to which the conclusions of a research study can be generalized to the settings and situations in which the phenomenon being studied would naturally occur
  • High Ecological Validity: the study findings can be generalized to a real-life scenario
  • Low Ecological Validity: the study findings are not able to be generalized to a real-life scenario
  • External Validity: whether the study results can be generalized to the population being studied regardless of settings and time

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Define ecological validity
  • Distinguish between high ecological validity and low ecological validity
  • Recall the three types of generalizations for ecological validity
  • Explain how ecological validity relates to external validity

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