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5.1: Experiment Basics

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Explain what an experiment is and recognize examples of studies that are experiments and studies that are not experiments.
    2. Distinguish between the manipulation of the independent variable and control of extraneous variables and explain the importance of each.
    3. Recognize examples of confounding variables and explain how they affect the internal validity of a study.

    What Is an Experiment?

    As we saw earlier in the book, an experiment is a type of study designed specifically to answer the question of whether there is a causal relationship between two variables. In other words, whether changes in an independent variable cause a change in a dependent variable. Experiments have two fundamental features. The first is that the researchers manipulate, or systematically vary, the level of the independent variable. The different levels of the independent variable are called conditions. For example, in Darley and Latané’s experiment, the independent variable was the number of witnesses that participants believed to be present. The researchers manipulated this independent variable by telling participants that there were either one, two, or five other students involved in the discussion, thereby creating three conditions. For a new researcher, it is easy to confuse these terms by believing there are three independent variables in this situation: one, two, or five students involved in the discussion, but there is actually only one independent variable (number of witnesses) with three different levels or conditions (one, two or five students). The second fundamental feature of an experiment is that the researcher controls, or minimizes the variability in, variables other than the independent and dependent variable. These other variables are called extraneous variables. Darley and Latané tested all their participants in the same room, exposed them to the same emergency situation, and so on. They also randomly assigned their participants to conditions so that the three groups would be similar to each other to begin with. Notice that although the words manipulation and control have similar meanings in everyday language, researchers make a clear distinction between them. They manipulate the independent variable by systematically changing its levels and control other variables by holding them constant.

    Manipulation of the Independent Variable

    Again, to manipulate an independent variable means to change its level systematically so that different groups of participants are exposed to different levels of that variable, or the same group of participants is exposed to different levels at different times. For example, to see whether expressive writing affects people’s health, a researcher might instruct some participants to write about traumatic experiences and others to write about neutral experiences. As discussed earlier in this chapter, the different levels of the independent variable are referred to as conditions , and researchers often give the conditions short descriptive names to make it easy to talk and write about them. In this case, the conditions might be called the “traumatic condition” and the “neutral condition.”

    Notice that the manipulation of an independent variable must involve the active intervention of the researcher. Comparing groups of people who differ on the independent variable before the study begins is not the same as manipulating that variable. For example, a researcher who compares the health of people who already keep a journal with the health of people who do not keep a journal has not manipulated this variable and therefore has not conducted an experiment. This distinction is important because groups that already differ in one way at the beginning of a study are likely to differ in other ways too. For example, people who choose to keep journals might also be more conscientious, more introverted, or less stressed than people who do not. Therefore, any observed difference between the two groups in terms of their health might have been caused by whether or not they keep a journal, or it might have been caused by any of the other differences between people who do and do not keep journals. Thus the active manipulation of the independent variable is crucial for eliminating potential alternative explanations for the results.

    Of course, there are many situations in which the independent variable cannot be manipulated for practical or ethical reasons and therefore an experiment is not possible. For example, whether or not people have a significant early illness experience cannot be manipulated, making it impossible to conduct an experiment on the effect of early illness experiences on the development of hypochondriasis. This caveat does not mean it is impossible to study the relationship between early illness experiences and hypochondriasis—only that it must be done using nonexperimental approaches. We will discuss this type of methodology in detail later in the book.

    Independent variables can be manipulated to create two conditions and experiments involving a single independent variable with two conditions is often referred to as a single factor two-level design. However, sometimes greater insights can be gained by adding more conditions to an experiment. When an experiment has one independent variable that is manipulated to produce more than two conditions it is referred to as a single factor multi level design. So rather than comparing a condition in which there was one witness to a condition in which there were five witnesses (which would represent a single-factor two-level design), Darley and Latané’s used a single factor multi-level design, by manipulating the independent variable to produce three conditions (a one witness, a two witnesses, and a five witnesses condition).

    Control of Extraneous Variables

    As we have seen previously in the chapter, an extraneous variable is anything that varies in the context of a study other than the independent and dependent variables. In an experiment on the effect of expressive writing on health, for example, extraneous variables would include participant variables (individual differences) such as their writing ability, their diet, and their gender. They would also include situational or task variables such as the time of day when participants write, whether they write by hand or on a computer, and the weather. Extraneous variables pose a problem because many of them are likely to have some effect on the dependent variable. For example, participants’ health will be affected by many things other than whether or not they engage in expressive writing. This influencing factor can make it difficult to separate the effect of the independent variable from the effects of the extraneous variables, which is why it is important to control extraneous variables by holding them constant.

    Extraneous Variables as “Noise”

    Extraneous variables make it difficult to detect the effect of the independent variable in two ways. One is by adding variability or “noise” to the data. Imagine a simple experiment on the effect of mood (happy vs. sad) on the number of happy childhood events people are able to recall. Participants are put into a negative or positive mood (by showing them a happy or sad video clip) and then asked to recall as many happy childhood events as they can. The two leftmost columns of Table \(\PageIndex{1}\) show what the data might look like if there were no extraneous variables and the number of happy childhood events participants recalled was affected only by their moods. Every participant in the happy mood condition recalled exactly four happy childhood events, and every participant in the sad mood condition recalled exactly three. The effect of mood here is quite obvious. In reality, however, the data would probably look more like those in the two rightmost columns of Table \(\PageIndex{1}\). Even in the happy mood condition, some participants would recall fewer happy memories because they have fewer to draw on, use less effective recall strategies, or are less motivated. And even in the sad mood condition, some participants would recall more happy childhood memories because they have more happy memories to draw on, they use more effective recall strategies, or they are more motivated. Although the mean difference between the two groups is the same as in the idealized data, this difference is much less obvious in the context of the greater variability in the data. Thus one reason researchers try to control extraneous variables is so their data look more like the idealized data in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\), which makes the effect of the independent variable easier to detect (although real data never look quite that good).

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Hypothetical Noiseless Data and Realistic Noisy Data
    Idealized “noiseless” dataRealistic “noisy” data
    Happy moodSad moodHappy moodSad mood
    4331
    4363
    4324
    4340
    4355
    4327
    4332
    4315
    4361
    4382
    M = 4M = 3M = 4M = 3

    One way to control extraneous variables is to hold them constant. This technique can mean holding situation or task variables constant by testing all participants in the same location, giving them identical instructions, treating them in the same way, and so on. It can also mean holding participant variables constant. For example, many studies of language limit participants to right-handed people, who generally have their language areas isolated in their left cerebral hemispheres. Left-handed people are more likely to have their language areas isolated in their right cerebral hemispheres or distributed across both hemispheres, which can change the way they process language and thereby add noise to the data.

    In principle, researchers can control extraneous variables by limiting participants to one very specific category of person, such as 20-year-old, heterosexual, female, right-handed psychology majors. The obvious downside to this approach is that it would lower the external validity of the study—in particular, the extent to which the results can be generalized beyond the people actually studied. For example, it might be unclear whether results obtained with a sample of younger heterosexual women would apply to older homosexual men. In many situations, the advantages of a diverse sample (increased external validity) outweigh the reduction in noise achieved by a homogeneous one.

    Extraneous Variables as Confounding Variables

    The second way that extraneous variables can make it difficult to detect the effect of the independent variable is by becoming confounding variables. A confounding variable is an extraneous variable that differs on average across levels of the independent variable (i.e., it is an extraneous variable that varies systematically with the independent variable). For example, in almost all experiments, participants’ intelligence quotients (IQs) will be an extraneous variable. But as long as there are participants with lower and higher IQs in each condition so that the average IQ is roughly equal across the conditions, then this variation is probably acceptable (and may even be desirable). What would be bad, however, would be for participants in one condition to have substantially lower IQs on average and participants in another condition to have substantially higher IQs on average. In this case, IQ would be a confounding variable.

    To confound means to confuse , and this effect is exactly why confounding variables are undesirable. Because they differ systematically across conditions—just like the independent variable—they provide an alternative explanation for any observed difference in the dependent variable. Figure 5.1 shows the results of a hypothetical study, in which participants in a positive mood condition scored higher on a memory task than participants in a negative mood condition. But if IQ is a confounding variable—with participants in the positive mood condition having higher IQs on average than participants in the negative mood condition—then it is unclear whether it was the positive moods or the higher IQs that caused participants in the first condition to score higher. One way to avoid confounding variables is by holding extraneous variables constant. For example, one could prevent IQ from becoming a confounding variable by limiting participants only to those with IQs of exactly 100. But this approach is not always desirable for reasons we have already discussed. A second and much more general approach—random assignment to conditions—will be discussed in detail shortly.

    6.1.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 5.1 Hypothetical Results From a Study on the Effect of Mood on Memory. Because IQ also differs across conditions, it is a confounding variable.

    Key Takeaways

    • An experiment is a type of empirical study that features the manipulation of an independent variable, the measurement of a dependent variable, and control of extraneous variables.
    • An extraneous variable is any variable other than the independent and dependent variables. A confound is an extraneous variable that varies systematically with the independent variable.

    Exercises

    1. Practice: List five variables that can be manipulated by the researcher in an experiment. List five variables that cannot be manipulated by the researcher in an experiment.
    2. Practice: For each of the following topics, decide whether that topic could be studied using an experimental research design and explain why or why not.
      1. Effect of parietal lobe damage on people’s ability to do basic arithmetic.
      2. Effect of being clinically depressed on the number of close friendships people have.
      3. Effect of group training on the social skills of teenagers with Asperger’s syndrome.
      4. Effect of paying people to take an IQ test on their performance on that test.