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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.

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Figure 2.17 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 is the effect of being taught a lesson through a computer program versus through an in-person instructor?

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.

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Our hypothetical experiment involves high school students, and we must first generate a sample of students. Samples are used because populations are usually too large to reasonably involve every member in our particular experiment (Figure 2.18). If possible, we should use a random sample (there are other types of samples, but for the purposes of this chapter, 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 algebra students. But all algebra students is a very large population, so we need to be more specific; instead we might say our population of interest is all algebra students 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 algebra students who we want to participate in our experiment.

In summary, because we cannot test all of the algebra students 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.

Figure 2.18 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 algebra students 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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Use this online random number generator (http://openstax.org/l/rannumbers) to learn more about random sampling and assignments.

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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