Learning Objectives

  • Describe the experimental process, including ways to control for bias
  • Identify and differentiate between independent and dependent variables

Causality: Conducting Experiments and Using the Data

As you’ve learned, the only way to establish that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables is to conduct a scientific experiment. Experiment has a different meaning in the scientific context than in everyday life. In everyday conversation, we often use it to describe trying something for the first time, such as experimenting with a new hair style or a new food. However, in the scientific context, an experiment has precise requirements for design and implementation.

Experimental Hypothesis

In order to conduct an experiment, a researcher must have a specific hypothesis to be tested. As you’ve learned, hypotheses can be formulated either through direct observation of the real world or after careful review of previous research. For example, if you think that the use of technology in the classroom has negative impacts on learning, then you have basically formulated a hypothesis—namely, that the use of technology in the classroom should be limited because it decreases learning. How might you have arrived at this particular hypothesis? You may have noticed that your classmates who take notes on their laptops perform at lower levels on class exams than those who take notes by hand, or those who receive a lesson via a computer program versus via an in-person teacher have different levels of performance when tested (Figure 2.15).

Many rows of students are in a classroom. One student has an open laptop on his desk.

Figure 1. How might the use of technology in the classroom impact learning? (credit: modification of work by Nikolay Georgiev/Pixabay)

These sorts of personal observations are what often lead us to formulate a specific hypothesis, but we cannot use limited personal observations and anecdotal evidence to rigorously test our hypothesis. Instead, to find out if real-world data supports our hypothesis, we have to conduct an experiment.

Designing an Experiment

The most basic experimental design involves two groups: the experimental group and the control group. The two groups are designed to be the same except for one difference— experimental manipulation. The experimental group gets the experimental manipulation—that is, the treatment or variable being tested (in this case, violent TV images)—and the control group does not. Since experimental manipulation is the only difference between the experimental and control groups, we can be sure that any differences between the two are due to experimental manipulation rather than chance.

In our example of how the use of technology should be limited in the classroom, we have the experimental group learn algebra using a computer program and then test their learning. We measure the learning in our control group after they are taught algebra by a teacher in a traditional classroom. It is important for the control group to be treated similarly to the experimental group, with the exception that the control group does not receive the experimental manipulation.

We also need to precisely define, or operationalize, how we measure learning of algebra. An operational definition is a precise description of our variables, and it is important in allowing others to understand exactly how and what a researcher measures in a particular experiment. In operationalizing learning, we might choose to look at performance on a test covering the material on which the individuals were taught by the teacher or the computer program. We might also ask our participants to summarize the information that was just presented in some way. Whatever we determine, it is important that we operationalize learning in such a way that anyone who hears about our study for the first time knows exactly what we mean by learning. This aids peoples’ ability to interpret our data as well as their capacity to repeat our experiment should they choose to do so.

Once we have operationalized what is considered use of technology and what is considered learning in our experiment participants, we need to establish how we will run our experiment. In this case, we might have participants spend 45 minutes learning algebra (either through a computer program or with an in-person math teacher) and then give them a test on the material covered during the 45 minutes.

Ideally, the people who score the tests are unaware of who was assigned to the experimental or control group, in order to control for experimenter bias. Experimenter bias refers to the possibility that a researcher’s expectations might skew the results of the study. Remember, conducting an experiment requires a lot of planning, and the people involved in the research project have a vested interest in supporting their hypotheses. If the observers knew which child was in which group, it might influence how they interpret ambiguous responses, such as sloppy handwriting or minor computational mistakes. By being blind to which child is in which group, we protect against those biases. This situation is a single-blind study, meaning that one of the groups (participants) are unaware as to which group they are in (experiment or control group) while the researcher who developed the experiment knows which participants are in each group.

A photograph shows three glass bottles of pills labeled as placebos.

Figure 2. Providing the control group with a placebo treatment protects against bias caused by expectancy. (credit: Elaine and Arthur Shapiro)

In a double-blind study, both the researchers and the participants are blind to group assignments. Why would a researcher want to run a study where no one knows who is in which group? Because by doing so, we can control for both experimenter and participant expectations. If you are familiar with the phrase placebo effect, you already have some idea as to why this is an important consideration. The placebo effect occurs when people’s expectations or beliefs influence or determine their experience in a given situation. In other words, simply expecting something to happen can actually make it happen.

The placebo effect is commonly described in terms of testing the effectiveness of a new medication. Imagine that you work in a pharmaceutical company, and you think you have a new drug that is effective in treating depression. To demonstrate that your medication is effective, you run an experiment with two groups: The experimental group receives the medication, and the control group does not. But you don’t want participants to know whether they received the drug or not.

Why is that? Imagine that you are a participant in this study, and you have just taken a pill that you think will improve your mood. Because you expect the pill to have an effect, you might feel better simply because you took the pill and not because of any drug actually contained in the pill—this is the placebo effect.

To make sure that any effects on mood are due to the drug and not due to expectations, the control group receives a placebo (in this case a sugar pill). Now everyone gets a pill, and once again neither the researcher nor the experimental participants know who got the drug and who got the sugar pill. Any differences in mood between the experimental and control groups can now be attributed to the drug itself rather than to experimenter bias or participant expectations (Figure 2).

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Independent and Dependent Variables

In a research experiment, we strive to study whether changes in one thing cause changes in another. To achieve this, we must pay attention to two important variables, or things that can be changed, in any experimental study: the independent variable and the dependent variable. An independent variable is manipulated or controlled by the experimenter. In a well-designed experimental study, the independent variable is the only important difference between the experimental and control groups. In our example of how technology use in the classroom affects learning, the independent variable is the type of learning by participants in the study (Figure 2.17). A dependent variable is what the researcher measures to see how much effect the independent variable had. In our example, the dependent variable is the learning exhibited by our participants.

A box labeled “independent variable: taking notes on a laptop or by hand” contains a photograph of a classroom of students with an open laptop on one student's desk. An arrow labeled “influences change in the…” leads to a second box. The second box is labeled “dependent variable: performance on measure of learning” and has a photograph of a student at a desk, taking a test.

Figure 3. In an experiment, manipulations of the independent variable are expected to result in changes in the dependent variable. (credit: “classroom” modification of work by Nikolay Georgiev/Pixabay; credit “note taking”: modification of work by KF/Wikimedia)

We expect that the dependent variable will change as a function of the independent variable. In other words, the dependent variable depends on the independent variable. A good way to think about the relationship between the independent and dependent variables is with this question: What effect does the independent variable have on the dependent variable? Returning to our example, what effect does watching a half hour of violent television programming or nonviolent television programming have on the number of incidents of physical aggression displayed on the playground?

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Selecting and Assigning Experimental Participants

Now that our study is designed, we need to obtain a sample of individuals to include in our experiment. Our study involves human participants so we need to determine who to include. Participants are the subjects of psychological research, and as the name implies, individuals who are involved in psychological research actively participate in the process. Often, psychological research projects rely on college students to serve as participants. In fact, the vast majority of research in psychology subfields has historically involved students as research participants (Sears, 1986; Arnett, 2008). But are college students truly representative of the general population? College students tend to be younger, more educated, more liberal, and less diverse than the general population. Although using students as test subjects is an accepted practice, relying on such a limited pool of research participants can be problematic because it is difficult to generalize findings to the larger population.

Our hypothetical experiment involves children, and we must first generate a sample of child participants. Samples are used because populations are usually too large to reasonably involve every member in our particular experiment (Figure 4). If possible, we should use a random sample (there are other types of samples, but for the purposes of this section, we will focus on random samples). A random sample is a subset of a larger population in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected. Random samples are preferred because if the sample is large enough we can be reasonably sure that the participating individuals are representative of the larger population. This means that the percentages of characteristics in the sample—sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic level, and any other characteristics that might affect the results—are close to those percentages in the larger population.

In our example, let’s say we decide our population of interest is fourth graders. But all fourth graders is a very large population, so we need to be more specific; instead we might say our population of interest is all fourth graders in a particular city. We should include students from various income brackets, family situations, races, ethnicities, religions, and geographic areas of town. With this more manageable population, we can work with the local schools in selecting a random sample of around 200 fourth graders who we want to participate in our experiment.

In summary, because we cannot test all of the fourth graders in a city, we want to find a group of about 200 that reflects the composition of that city. With a representative group, we can generalize our findings to the larger population without fear of our sample being biased in some way.

(a) A photograph shows an aerial view of crowds on a street. (b) A photograph shows s small group of children.

Figure 4. Researchers may work with (a) a large population or (b) a sample group that is a subset of the larger population. (credit “crowd”: modification of work by James Cridland; credit “students”: modification of work by Laurie Sullivan)

Now that we have a sample, the next step of the experimental process is to split the participants into experimental and control groups through random assignment. With random assignment, all participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either group. There is statistical software that will randomly assign each of the fourth graders in the sample to either the experimental or the control group.

Random assignment is critical for sound experimental design. With sufficiently large samples, random assignment makes it unlikely that there are systematic differences between the groups. So, for instance, it would be very unlikely that we would get one group composed entirely of males, a given ethnic identity, or a given religious ideology. This is important because if the groups were systematically different before the experiment began, we would not know the origin of any differences we find between the groups: Were the differences preexisting, or were they caused by manipulation of the independent variable? Random assignment allows us to assume that any differences observed between experimental and control groups result from the manipulation of the independent variable.

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Issues to Consider

While experiments allow scientists to make cause-and-effect claims, they are not without problems. True experiments require the experimenter to manipulate an independent variable, and that can complicate many questions that psychologists might want to address. For instance, imagine that you want to know what effect sex (the independent variable) has on spatial memory (the dependent variable). Although you can certainly look for differences between males and females on a task that taps into spatial memory, you cannot directly control a person’s sex. We categorize this type of research approach as quasi-experimental and recognize that we cannot make cause-and-effect claims in these circumstances.

Experimenters are also limited by ethical constraints. For instance, you would not be able to conduct an experiment designed to determine if experiencing abuse as a child leads to lower levels of self-esteem among adults. To conduct such an experiment, you would need to randomly assign some experimental participants to a group that receives abuse, and that experiment would be unethical.

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Research Design Review

Learn more about research design and methods in the following interactive.


cause-and-effect relationship: changes in one variable cause the changes in the other variable; can be determined only through an experimental research design
confirmation bias: tendency to ignore evidence that disproves ideas or beliefs
control group: serves as a basis for comparison and controls for chance factors that might influence the results of the study—by holding such factors constant across groups so that the experimental manipulation is the only difference between groups
correlation: relationship between two or more variables; when two variables are correlated, one variable changes as the other does
dependent variable: variable that the researcher measures to see how much effect the independent variable had
double-blind study: experiment in which both the researchers and the participants are blind to group assignments
experimental group: group designed to answer the research question; experimental manipulation is the only difference between the experimental and control groups, so any differences between the two are due to experimental manipulation rather than chance
experimenter bias: researcher expectations skew the results of the study
independent variable: variable that is influenced or controlled by the experimenter; in a sound experimental study, the independent variable is the only important difference between the experimental and control group
operational definition: description of what actions and operations will be used to measure the dependent variables and manipulate the independent variables
participants: subjects of psychological research
placebo effect: people’s expectations or beliefs influencing or determining their experience in a given situation
random assignment: method of experimental group assignment in which all participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either group
random sample: subset of a larger population in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected
replicate: repeating an experiment using different samples to determine the research’s reliability
single-blind study: experiment in which the researcher knows which participants are in the experimental group and which are in the control group
statistical analysis: determines how likely any difference between experimental groups is due to chance


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