Ecological Validity: Definition, Dimensions, And More

Ecological Validity is important is because we need to make sure that results don’t change when brought outside the confines of a sterile lab environment. 

Sometimes, there is concern that the controls put in place while completing a study can actually affect the outcome in a way that is outside of the normal parameters. 

Experimental Settings Can Create False Statistics

Water in the glass

Normally, a lab’s environment is controlled. The environment is kept sterile and distractions are minimized. This is what we mostly think of when we consider a laboratory, although it sometimes isn’t the best way to conduct an experiment. Here are some examples:

1. Lighting, Equipment Malfunctions, and Noise are Taken out of Play

Blue electric sparks

Laboratory lights are bright, but not overwhelmingly so. The equipment is checked before an experiment is begun and noise is kept to a minimum, normally complete silence.  

Think about it, though- is light always perfect? Is it always quiet? Do mishaps occur?

2. Instructions Are Made Clear

If a scientist’s team is not clear about the instructions of the experiment, they will always ask and get clarification ahead of time to reduce confusion and avoid potential disaster. 

This has been known to actually decrease the positive results of an experiment, though, because it hinders the scientists from being able to think for themselves during the process.

3. Fatigue is Avoided at All Costs

Blue sparks on plasma

Scientists are always careful to get a good night’s rest in before they begin a new experiment. You will also find that most laboratories are equipped with refreshments and ergonomic furniture to keep them sitting upright and alert throughout the process. 

However, in areas of psychological study, exhaustion should be taken into account. People get tired and we shouldn’t pretend that they don’t. 

The issue is that these precautions do not play well into the usual environments in which most things occur. 

When we test in a completely sterile and well prepared laboratory, we forget that the environment there might potentially affect results, also. 

This is when we have to explore Ecological Validity. This, though does create new concerns.

4. Lower Level of Internal Validity

When we elevate the importance of external validity, we tend to lower the level of internal validity.

Internal Validity refers to the process we discussed earlier, where a laboratory and experimental setting is prepared so it can produce clean and concise results without interference or distractions. 

5. Confounding Variables Usually Affect Experimental Outcomes

Assorted color flower

Confounding Variables are results that affect other results and create misguided results in an experimental setting.

One way that scientists have decided to avoid these issues is to do their experiments in a natural setting without letting the people around know that an experiment is taking place. 

Naturally, this isn’t always possible, but when it is, it’s the best way to make an experiment work.

Let’s say you want to test how likely people are to remember the steps of CPR six months after certification. Obviously, it’s not possible to really drown people for the sake of seeing if the person beside them will know what to do. 

Instead, you might approach them randomly and offer them a prize if they are able to complete the steps successfully.

An example of using real people in a setting where they are unaware would be to test a group of people about how long we retain the ability to ride a bike. You could do this by approaching people in a public place and seeing if they are able to get on and ride. 

Ecological Validity is a Widely Debated Topic 

Woman holding pen

Ecological Validity is often debated among scientists. It was a theory that was originally brought to the forefront of science by Egon Brunswick

Brunswick gave it sort of a narrow meaning in terms of perception. He said it’s how an organism uses parts of its habitat to form conclusions about a problem. When Egon Brunswick was no longer around to explain his theory, other scientists began arguing about what the term really means.

Because nobody can quite agree on what the term means, you will find various ways in which the theory is implemented into experimental practices. These methods can even at times be contradictory from one scientist to the next, one experiment to the next. 

The most popular opinion of the definition is that the results of an experiment are affected by the outside forces at play. However, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the definition used by your own university or employer. 

There are Multiple Dimensions of Ecological Validity

woman with question mark background

Despite the fact that there is no universally set definition of what ecological validity means, all definitions revolve around the environmental settings of an experiment.  

Regardless of the area of study, the results of an experiment are always affected by the environment in which the study occurs.

To better understand the aspect of environment affecting an experiment, we should focus closely on three important dimensions of science.

1. The Test Environment Matters

Depending on the area of study, the test environment should be changed to fit the circumstances. This should usually go without saying.

One of the areas of study where this is most important is in psychological assessments. 

The setting in these studies must be controlled to eliminate confusion, exhaustion, discomfort, and any distractions that aren’t necessary to the study, itself. This becomes an issue when we look at real-world responses.

Psychologically, we aren’t always faced with an easy, clean, and comfortable situation. It can be hard to ethically study a person’s response to things that make them uncomfortable. This means that, sometimes, people will call the testing environment into question as a factor that has skewed the results. Therefore, the setting must be changed to get a better idea of the true result.

2. Examine the Stimuli Closely

To understand ecological validity, we have to evaluate it at all factors. Examining the stimuli closely means we can have a better understanding of when a reaction occurs, how and why. This is the very basis of ecological validity, itself. 

3. Be Conscious of Behavioral Responses

We have to give our test subjects the means to respond as they normally would. An example of this is, when testing how a farmer might respond to a tractor incident, we should provide them a dashboard similar to a tractor and not expect them to be able to write their responses or perform the same way by using technology like a touch screen. 

A person who can’t respond as they normally would will not be able to provide honest feedback, which will most certainly skew the results of any test you are trying to administer.

We Must Always Evaluate Our Biases

man looking overhead

Have you ever read an article that quoted a study as saying that one subject performed “significantly better than” another? Most of the time, this isn’t actually the case. 

If you look at who funded this research, you will often find that the “winner” of the study was financially involved in making the study happen. 

Does this mean the results are completely made up? 

No. It simply means that there is a certain level of bias at play.

Often, in these kinds of studies, evaluators are asked to put certain aspects of evaluation into play that will help lean the results one way or another. 

Other times, when there is no purchase or product bias at play, a large difference in responses can be related to an alternate explanation. 

One example of this is when studying pain. Let’s say that subject A reported that they felt more pain relief from a placebo than from an actual drug, itself. Obviously, we know this can’t possibly be a true result. We must now look deeper to determine why this has happened.

Perhaps the pain naturally resolved itself. Perhaps it was always imagined. Perhaps they were experiencing the pain as a result of the body’s lack of a certain nutrient that is found in the placebo, but not the drug, itself. 

We must pick apart every level of the experiment to figure out what has actually taken place.

In Summary, Ecological Validity Can Mean Many Things

tress on a broken glass

Ecological Validity refers to the way a test result is influenced by outside factors or stimulants. 

Outside factors can include a variety of things. Most commonly, we see issues in outside factors affecting results in relation to test subjects that are allowing psychological influences or bias to change how they respond to the experiment itself. 

While there is no set definition of what the term actually means, there is a general consensus that it is strongly related to the way an environment affects a test subject. This is the definition that is most commonly used, but you should always check with your employer or professor to see if their definition is at all different before you begin an experiment.