The ‘real-world approach' and its problems: A critique of the term ecological validity

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A popular goal in psychological science is to understand human cognition and behavior in the ‘real-world.’ In contrast, researchers have typically conducted their research in experimental research settings, a.k.a. the ‘psychologist’s laboratory.’ Critics have often questioned whether psychology’s laboratory experiments permit generalizable results. This is known as the ‘real-world or the lab’-dilemma. To bridge the gap between lab and life, many researchers have called for experiments with more ‘ecological validity’ to ensure that experiments more closely resemble and generalize to the ‘real-world.’ However, researchers seldom explain what they mean with this term, nor how more ecological validity should be achieved. In our opinion, the popular concept of ecological validity is ill-formed, lacks specificity, and falls short of addressing the problem of generalizability. To move beyond the ‘real-world or the lab’-dilemma, we believe that researchers in psychological science should always specify the particular context of cognitive and behavioral functioning in which they are interested, instead of advocating that experiments should be more ‘ecologically valid’ in order to generalize to the ‘realworld.’ We believe this will be a more constructive way to uncover the context-specific
and context-generic principles of cognition and behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Article number721
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 30 Apr 2020


  • ecological validity
  • experiments
  • real-world approach
  • generalizability
  • definitions


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