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- Random Assignment in Experiments | Introduction & Examples
Random Assignment in Experiments | Introduction & Examples
Published on March 8, 2021 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.
In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different treatment groups using randomization.
With simple random assignment, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group. Studies that use simple random assignment are also called completely randomized designs .
Random assignment is a key part of experimental design . It helps you ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study: any differences between them are due to random factors, not research biases like sampling bias or selection bias .
Table of contents
Why does random assignment matter, random sampling vs random assignment, how do you use random assignment, when is random assignment not used, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about random assignment.
Random assignment is an important part of control in experimental research, because it helps strengthen the internal validity of an experiment and avoid biases.
In experiments, researchers manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. To do so, they often use different levels of an independent variable for different groups of participants.
This is called a between-groups or independent measures design.
You use three groups of participants that are each given a different level of the independent variable:
- a control group that’s given a placebo (no dosage, to control for a placebo effect ),
- an experimental group that’s given a low dosage,
- a second experimental group that’s given a high dosage.
Random assignment to helps you make sure that the treatment groups don’t differ in systematic ways at the start of the experiment, as this can seriously affect (and even invalidate) your work.
If you don’t use random assignment, you may not be able to rule out alternative explanations for your results.
- participants recruited from cafes are placed in the control group ,
- participants recruited from local community centers are placed in the low dosage experimental group,
- participants recruited from gyms are placed in the high dosage group.
With this type of assignment, it’s hard to tell whether the participant characteristics are the same across all groups at the start of the study. Gym-users may tend to engage in more healthy behaviors than people who frequent cafes or community centers, and this would introduce a healthy user bias in your study.
Although random assignment helps even out baseline differences between groups, it doesn’t always make them completely equivalent. There may still be extraneous variables that differ between groups, and there will always be some group differences that arise from chance.
Most of the time, the random variation between groups is low, and, therefore, it’s acceptable for further analysis. This is especially true when you have a large sample. In general, you should always use random assignment in experiments when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.
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Random sampling and random assignment are both important concepts in research, but it’s important to understand the difference between them.
Random sampling (also called probability sampling or random selection) is a way of selecting members of a population to be included in your study. In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and experimental groups.
While random sampling is used in many types of studies, random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs.
Some studies use both random sampling and random assignment, while others use only one or the other.
Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalizability of your results, because it helps ensure that your sample is unbiased and representative of the whole population. This allows you to make stronger statistical inferences .
You use a simple random sample to collect data. Because you have access to the whole population (all employees), you can assign all 8000 employees a number and use a random number generator to select 300 employees. These 300 employees are your full sample.
Random assignment enhances the internal validity of the study, because it ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group. This helps you conclude that the outcomes can be attributed to the independent variable .
- a control group that receives no intervention.
- an experimental group that has a remote team-building intervention every week for a month.
You use random assignment to place participants into the control or experimental group. To do so, you take your list of participants and assign each participant a number. Again, you use a random number generator to place each participant in one of the two groups.
To use simple random assignment, you start by giving every member of the sample a unique number. Then, you can use computer programs or manual methods to randomly assign each participant to a group.
- Random number generator: Use a computer program to generate random numbers from the list for each group.
- Lottery method: Place all numbers individually in a hat or a bucket, and draw numbers at random for each group.
- Flip a coin: When you only have two groups, for each number on the list, flip a coin to decide if they’ll be in the control or the experimental group.
- Use a dice: When you have three groups, for each number on the list, roll a dice to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1 or 2 lands them in a control group; 3 or 4 in an experimental group; and 5 or 6 in a second control or experimental group.
This type of random assignment is the most powerful method of placing participants in conditions, because each individual has an equal chance of being placed in any one of your treatment groups.
Random assignment in block designs
In more complicated experimental designs, random assignment is only used after participants are grouped into blocks based on some characteristic (e.g., test score or demographic variable). These groupings mean that you need a larger sample to achieve high statistical power .
For example, a randomized block design involves placing participants into blocks based on a shared characteristic (e.g., college students versus graduates), and then using random assignment within each block to assign participants to every treatment condition. This helps you assess whether the characteristic affects the outcomes of your treatment.
In an experimental matched design , you use blocking and then match up individual participants from each block based on specific characteristics. Within each matched pair or group, you randomly assign each participant to one of the conditions in the experiment and compare their outcomes.
Sometimes, it’s not relevant or ethical to use simple random assignment, so groups are assigned in a different way.
When comparing different groups
Sometimes, differences between participants are the main focus of a study, for example, when comparing men and women or people with and without health conditions. Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.
In this type of study, the characteristic of interest (e.g., gender) is an independent variable, and the groups differ based on the different levels (e.g., men, women, etc.). All participants are tested the same way, and then their group-level outcomes are compared.
When it’s not ethically permissible
When studying unhealthy or dangerous behaviors, it’s not possible to use random assignment. For example, if you’re studying heavy drinkers and social drinkers, it’s unethical to randomly assign participants to one of the two groups and ask them to drink large amounts of alcohol for your experiment.
When you can’t assign participants to groups, you can also conduct a quasi-experimental study . In a quasi-experiment, you study the outcomes of pre-existing groups who receive treatments that you may not have any control over (e.g., heavy drinkers and social drinkers). These groups aren’t randomly assigned, but may be considered comparable when some other variables (e.g., age or socioeconomic status) are controlled for.
If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Student’s t -distribution
- Normal distribution
- Null and Alternative Hypotheses
- Chi square tests
- Confidence interval
- Quartiles & Quantiles
- Cluster sampling
- Stratified sampling
- Data cleansing
- Reproducibility vs Replicability
- Peer review
- Prospective cohort study
- Implicit bias
- Cognitive bias
- Placebo effect
- Hawthorne effect
- Hindsight bias
- Affect heuristic
- Social desirability bias
In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different groups using randomization. With this method, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group.
Random selection, or random sampling , is a way of selecting members of a population for your study’s sample.
In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample into control and experimental groups.
Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalizability of your results, while random assignment improves the internal validity of your study.
Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design. In this research design, there’s usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable.
In general, you should always use random assignment in this type of experimental design when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.
To implement random assignment , assign a unique number to every member of your study’s sample .
Then, you can use a random number generator or a lottery method to randomly assign each number to a control or experimental group. You can also do so manually, by flipping a coin or rolling a dice to randomly assign participants to groups.
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Random Assignment in Psychology: Definition & Examples
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In psychology, random assignment refers to the practice of allocating participants to different experimental groups in a study in a completely unbiased way, ensuring each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to any group.
In experimental research, random assignment, or random placement, organizes participants from your sample into different groups using randomization.
Random assignment uses chance procedures to ensure that each participant has an equal opportunity of being assigned to either a control or experimental group.
The control group does not receive the treatment in question, whereas the experimental group does receive the treatment.
When using random assignment, neither the researcher nor the participant can choose the group to which the participant is assigned. This ensures that any differences between and within the groups are not systematic at the onset of the study.
In a study to test the success of a weight-loss program, investigators randomly assigned a pool of participants to one of two groups.
Group A participants participated in the weight-loss program for 10 weeks and took a class where they learned about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.
Group B participants read a 200-page book that explains the benefits of weight loss. The investigator randomly assigned participants to one of the two groups.
The researchers found that those who participated in the program and took the class were more likely to lose weight than those in the other group that received only the book.
Random assignment ensures that each group in the experiment is identical before applying the independent variable.
In experiments , researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the treatment groups are the same at the onset of a study.
Thus, any changes that result from the independent variable can be assumed to be a result of the treatment of interest. This is particularly important for eliminating sources of bias and strengthening the internal validity of an experiment.
Random assignment is the best method for inferring a causal relationship between a treatment and an outcome.
Random Selection vs. Random Assignment
Random selection (also called probability sampling or random sampling) is a way of randomly selecting members of a population to be included in your study.
On the other hand, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and treatment groups.
Random selection ensures that everyone in the population has an equal chance of being selected for the study. Once the pool of participants has been chosen, experimenters use random assignment to assign participants into groups.
Random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs, while random selection can be used in a variety of study designs.
Random Assignment vs Random Sampling
Random sampling refers to selecting participants from a population so that each individual has an equal chance of being chosen. This method enhances the representativeness of the sample.
Random assignment, on the other hand, is used in experimental designs once participants are selected. It involves allocating these participants to different experimental groups or conditions randomly.
This helps ensure that any differences in results across groups are due to manipulating the independent variable, not preexisting differences among participants.
When to Use Random Assignment
Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design.
In these research designs, researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables.
There is usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable at the onset of the study.
How to Use Random Assignment
There are a variety of ways to assign participants into study groups randomly. Here are a handful of popular methods:
- Random Number Generator : Give each member of the sample a unique number; use a computer program to randomly generate a number from the list for each group.
- Lottery : Give each member of the sample a unique number. Place all numbers in a hat or bucket and draw numbers at random for each group.
- Flipping a Coin : Flip a coin for each participant to decide if they will be in the control group or experimental group (this method can only be used when you have just two groups)
- Roll a Die : For each number on the list, roll a dice to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1, 2, or 3 places them in a control group and rolling 3, 4, 5 lands them in an experimental group.
When is Random Assignment not used?
- When it is not ethically permissible: Randomization is only ethical if the researcher has no evidence that one treatment is superior to the other or that one treatment might have harmful side effects.
- When answering non-causal questions : If the researcher is just interested in predicting the probability of an event, the causal relationship between the variables is not important and observational designs would be more suitable than random assignment.
- When studying the effect of variables that cannot be manipulated: Some risk factors cannot be manipulated and so it would not make any sense to study them in a randomized trial. For example, we cannot randomly assign participants into categories based on age, gender, or genetic factors.
Drawbacks of Random Assignment
While randomization assures an unbiased assignment of participants to groups, it does not guarantee the equality of these groups. There could still be extraneous variables that differ between groups or group differences that arise from chance. Additionally, there is still an element of luck with random assignments.
Thus, researchers can not produce perfectly equal groups for each specific study. Differences between the treatment group and control group might still exist and the results of a randomized trial may sometimes be wrong, but this is absolutely okay.
Scientific evidence is a long and continuous process, and the groups will tend to be equal in the long run when data is aggregated in a meta-analysis.
Additionally, external validity (i.e., the extent to which the researcher can use the results of the study to generalize to the larger population) is compromised with random assignment.
Random assignment is challenging to implement outside of controlled laboratory conditions and might not represent what would happen in the real world at the population level.
Random assignment also can be more costly than simple observational studies where an investigator is just observing events without intervening with the population.
Randomization also can be time-consuming and challenging, especially when participants refuse to receive the assigned treatment or do not adhere to recommendations.
What is the difference between random sampling and random assignment?
Random sampling refers to randomly selecting a sample of participants from a population. Random assignment refers to randomly assigning participants to treatment groups from the selected sample.
Does random assignment increase internal validity?
Yes, random assignment ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group, enhancing the internal validity of the study.
Does random assignment reduce sampling error?
Yes, with random assignment, participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either a control group or an experimental group, resulting in a sample that is, in theory, representative of the population.
Random assignment does not completely eliminate sampling error because a sample is only an approximation of the population from which it is drawn. However, random sampling is a way to minimize sampling errors.
When is random assignment not possible?
Random assignment is not possible when the experimenters cannot control the treatment or independent variable.
For example, if you want to compare how men and women perform on a test, you cannot randomly assign subjects to these groups.
Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups in this study, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.
Does random assignment eliminate confounding variables?
Yes, random assignment eliminates the influence of any confounding variables on the treatment because it distributes them at random among the study groups. Randomization invalidates any relationship between a confounding variable and the treatment.
Why is random assignment of participants to treatment conditions in an experiment used?
Random assignment is used to ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study. This allows researchers to conclude that the outcomes of the study can be attributed to the intervention at hand and to rule out alternative explanations for study results.
Bogomolnaia, A., & Moulin, H. (2001). A new solution to the random assignment problem . Journal of Economic theory , 100 (2), 295-328.
Krause, M. S., & Howard, K. I. (2003). What random assignment does and does not do . Journal of Clinical Psychology , 59 (7), 751-766.
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What Is a Random Sample in Psychology?
How Subsets of Subjects Are Used for Research
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.
- Choosing a Random Sample
- Pros and Cons
Random sampling is a technique in which each person is equally likely to be selected. Simply put, a random sample is a subset of individuals randomly selected by researchers to represent an entire group. The goal is to get a sample of people representative of the larger population.
It involves determining the target population, determining the number of participants you need, and then picking participants in a way that gives everyone an equal chance of being selected at random.
At a Glance
Random sampling is important in psychology because it helps ensure that research samples are representative of the entire group. This sampling method can reduce bias, but it can also be costly and time-consuming to perform.
Knowing more about how random sampling works can help you in your own studies and give you a better understanding of how research works and what it might mean about the larger population.
Example of Random Sampling in Psychology
For example, if researchers were interested in learning about alcohol use among college students in the United States, the larger population (in other words, the "group of interest"), would be made up of every kid in every college and university in the country.
It would be virtually impossible to interview each and every one of these people to find out if they drink, what types of alcohol they drink, how often, under what circumstances, how much (a beer or two per week versus enough to get intoxicated every weekend), and so forth.
Instead of undertaking such a monumental task, scientists will pull together a random sample of college students to represent the total population of college students.
Types of Random Sampling in Psychology
Random sampling can occur in a few different ways:
- Simple random sampling involves having a list of each member of the target population. Each person is assigned a number, and then the necessary number of participants is randomly chosen using a lottery method.
- Stratified random sampling involves dividing members of the target population into homogenous groups based on specific characteristics of interest (such as age, gender, diagnosis, etc), and then drawing a random sample from each sub-group.
- Cluster random sampling involves dividing the larger population into smaller clusters that are representative of the larger group. Researchers then draw a random number of clusters to be included in the sample.
- Systematic random sampling involves using a systematic sampling method, like selecting every 15th member of the group to be included in the sample.
How Researchers Create Random Samples
Random sampling can be costly and time-consuming. However, this approach to gathering data for research does provide the best chance of putting together an unbiased sample that is truly representative of an entire group as a whole.
Returning to the imaginary study of alcohol use among college students, here's how random sampling might work:
Determine the Total Population
According to the National Center for Education Statistics ( NCES), approximately 19.7 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in 2020, the most recent statistics available. These 20 million individuals represent the total population to be studied.
Determine the Characteristics of the Population
For the purpose of drawing a random sample of this group, all students must have an equal chance of being selected. For example, scientists conducting the study would need to make sure that the sample included the same percentage of men and women as the larger population.
According to the NCES statistics, 11.3 million of the total population of college students are female, and 8.5 million are male. The sample group would need to reflect this same ratio of women to men.
Represent All Characteristics In the Random Sample
Besides gender, researchers would also want to go through the same process for other characteristics—for example, race, cultural background, year in school, socioeconomic status, and so forth, depending on the specific purpose of the study.
For instance, if they wanted to home in on alcohol use among Asian students, they would create a random sample consisting only of Asian students. By the same token, if the study were focused on how much students drink during the week, they would create a questionnaire or other method for finding only kids who drink on weekdays for their research.
Pros and Cons of Random Sampling in Psychology
The most significant benefit of random sampling is that it helps reduce the risk of bias. Researchers also suggest that it can improve statistical analysis and allow them to quantify non-responses.
The biggest downside of random sampling is that it can be difficult to obtain.
This type of sampling tends to be more costly in terms of money, time, and resources. Because of this, researchers sometimes have to utilize other sampling methods.
What This Means For You
When you read a health study based on a random sample, be aware that the findings are based not on every single person in the population that fit certain criteria, but on a subset of subjects chosen to represent them. This should help you put the study in perspective.
Elfil M, Negida A. Sampling methods in clinical research: An educational review . Emerg (Tehran) . 2017;5(1):e52.
Bornstein MH, Jager J, Putnick DL. Sampling in developmental science: Situations, shortcomings, solutions, and standards . Dev Rev . 2013;33(4):357-370. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2013.08.003
National Center for Education Statistics. Fast Facts: Back to school statistics .
Pierce M, McManus S, Jessop C, et al. Says who? The significance of sampling in mental health surveys during COVID-19 . Lancet Psychiatry . 2020;7(7):567-568. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30237-6
By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
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Course: ap®︎/college statistics > unit 6.
- Statistical significance of experiment
Random sampling vs. random assignment (scope of inference)
- Conclusions in observational studies versus experiments
- Finding errors in study conclusions
- (Choice A) Just the residents involved in Hilary's study. A Just the residents involved in Hilary's study.
- (Choice B) All residents in Hilary's town. B All residents in Hilary's town.
- (Choice C) All residents in Hilary's country. C All residents in Hilary's country.
- (Choice A) Yes A Yes
- (Choice B) No B No
- (Choice A) Just the residents in Hilary's study. A Just the residents in Hilary's study.
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Chapter 6: Experimental Research
- Explain the difference between between-subjects and within-subjects experiments, list some of the pros and cons of each approach, and decide which approach to use to answer a particular research question.
- Define random assignment, distinguish it from random sampling, explain its purpose in experimental research, and use some simple strategies to implement it.
- Define what a control condition is, explain its purpose in research on treatment effectiveness, and describe some alternative types of control conditions.
- Define several types of carryover effect, give examples of each, and explain how counterbalancing helps to deal with them.
In this section, we look at some different ways to design an experiment. The primary distinction we will make is between approaches in which each participant experiences one level of the independent variable and approaches in which each participant experiences all levels of the independent variable. The former are called between-subjects experiments and the latter are called within-subjects experiments.
In a between-subjects experiment , each participant is tested in only one condition. For example, a researcher with a sample of 100 university students might assign half of them to write about a traumatic event and the other half write about a neutral event. Or a researcher with a sample of 60 people with severe agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) might assign 20 of them to receive each of three different treatments for that disorder. It is essential in a between-subjects experiment that the researcher assign participants to conditions so that the different groups are, on average, highly similar to each other. Those in a trauma condition and a neutral condition, for example, should include a similar proportion of men and women, and they should have similar average intelligence quotients (IQs), similar average levels of motivation, similar average numbers of health problems, and so on. This matching is a matter of controlling these extraneous participant variables across conditions so that they do not become confounding variables.
The primary way that researchers accomplish this kind of control of extraneous variables across conditions is called random assignment , which means using a random process to decide which participants are tested in which conditions. Do not confuse random assignment with random sampling. Random sampling is a method for selecting a sample from a population, and it is rarely used in psychological research. Random assignment is a method for assigning participants in a sample to the different conditions, and it is an important element of all experimental research in psychology and other fields too.
In its strictest sense, random assignment should meet two criteria. One is that each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to each condition (e.g., a 50% chance of being assigned to each of two conditions). The second is that each participant is assigned to a condition independently of other participants. Thus one way to assign participants to two conditions would be to flip a coin for each one. If the coin lands heads, the participant is assigned to Condition A, and if it lands tails, the participant is assigned to Condition B. For three conditions, one could use a computer to generate a random integer from 1 to 3 for each participant. If the integer is 1, the participant is assigned to Condition A; if it is 2, the participant is assigned to Condition B; and if it is 3, the participant is assigned to Condition C. In practice, a full sequence of conditions—one for each participant expected to be in the experiment—is usually created ahead of time, and each new participant is assigned to the next condition in the sequence as he or she is tested. When the procedure is computerized, the computer program often handles the random assignment.
One problem with coin flipping and other strict procedures for random assignment is that they are likely to result in unequal sample sizes in the different conditions. Unequal sample sizes are generally not a serious problem, and you should never throw away data you have already collected to achieve equal sample sizes. However, for a fixed number of participants, it is statistically most efficient to divide them into equal-sized groups. It is standard practice, therefore, to use a kind of modified random assignment that keeps the number of participants in each group as similar as possible. One approach is block randomization . In block randomization, all the conditions occur once in the sequence before any of them is repeated. Then they all occur again before any of them is repeated again. Within each of these “blocks,” the conditions occur in a random order. Again, the sequence of conditions is usually generated before any participants are tested, and each new participant is assigned to the next condition in the sequence. Table 6.2 shows such a sequence for assigning nine participants to three conditions. The Research Randomizer website will generate block randomization sequences for any number of participants and conditions. Again, when the procedure is computerized, the computer program often handles the block randomization.
Random assignment is not guaranteed to control all extraneous variables across conditions. It is always possible that just by chance, the participants in one condition might turn out to be substantially older, less tired, more motivated, or less depressed on average than the participants in another condition. However, there are some reasons that this possibility is not a major concern. One is that random assignment works better than one might expect, especially for large samples. Another is that the inferential statistics that researchers use to decide whether a difference between groups reflects a difference in the population takes the “fallibility” of random assignment into account. Yet another reason is that even if random assignment does result in a confounding variable and therefore produces misleading results, this confound is likely to be detected when the experiment is replicated. The upshot is that random assignment to conditions—although not infallible in terms of controlling extraneous variables—is always considered a strength of a research design.
Treatment and Control Conditions
Between-subjects experiments are often used to determine whether a treatment works. In psychological research, a treatment is any intervention meant to change people’s behaviour for the better. This intervention includes psychotherapies and medical treatments for psychological disorders but also interventions designed to improve learning, promote conservation, reduce prejudice, and so on. To determine whether a treatment works, participants are randomly assigned to either a treatment condition , in which they receive the treatment, or a control condition , in which they do not receive the treatment. If participants in the treatment condition end up better off than participants in the control condition—for example, they are less depressed, learn faster, conserve more, express less prejudice—then the researcher can conclude that the treatment works. In research on the effectiveness of psychotherapies and medical treatments, this type of experiment is often called a randomized clinical trial .
There are different types of control conditions. In a no-treatment control condition , participants receive no treatment whatsoever. One problem with this approach, however, is the existence of placebo effects. A placebo is a simulated treatment that lacks any active ingredient or element that should make it effective, and a placebo effect is a positive effect of such a treatment. Many folk remedies that seem to work—such as eating chicken soup for a cold or placing soap under the bedsheets to stop nighttime leg cramps—are probably nothing more than placebos. Although placebo effects are not well understood, they are probably driven primarily by people’s expectations that they will improve. Having the expectation to improve can result in reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, which can alter perceptions and even improve immune system functioning (Price, Finniss, & Benedetti, 2008)  .
Placebo effects are interesting in their own right (see Note “The Powerful Placebo” ), but they also pose a serious problem for researchers who want to determine whether a treatment works. Figure 6.2 shows some hypothetical results in which participants in a treatment condition improved more on average than participants in a no-treatment control condition. If these conditions (the two leftmost bars in Figure 6.2 ) were the only conditions in this experiment, however, one could not conclude that the treatment worked. It could be instead that participants in the treatment group improved more because they expected to improve, while those in the no-treatment control condition did not.
Fortunately, there are several solutions to this problem. One is to include a placebo control condition , in which participants receive a placebo that looks much like the treatment but lacks the active ingredient or element thought to be responsible for the treatment’s effectiveness. When participants in a treatment condition take a pill, for example, then those in a placebo control condition would take an identical-looking pill that lacks the active ingredient in the treatment (a “sugar pill”). In research on psychotherapy effectiveness, the placebo might involve going to a psychotherapist and talking in an unstructured way about one’s problems. The idea is that if participants in both the treatment and the placebo control groups expect to improve, then any improvement in the treatment group over and above that in the placebo control group must have been caused by the treatment and not by participants’ expectations. This difference is what is shown by a comparison of the two outer bars in Figure 6.2 .
Of course, the principle of informed consent requires that participants be told that they will be assigned to either a treatment or a placebo control condition—even though they cannot be told which until the experiment ends. In many cases the participants who had been in the control condition are then offered an opportunity to have the real treatment. An alternative approach is to use a waitlist control condition , in which participants are told that they will receive the treatment but must wait until the participants in the treatment condition have already received it. This disclosure allows researchers to compare participants who have received the treatment with participants who are not currently receiving it but who still expect to improve (eventually). A final solution to the problem of placebo effects is to leave out the control condition completely and compare any new treatment with the best available alternative treatment. For example, a new treatment for simple phobia could be compared with standard exposure therapy. Because participants in both conditions receive a treatment, their expectations about improvement should be similar. This approach also makes sense because once there is an effective treatment, the interesting question about a new treatment is not simply “Does it work?” but “Does it work better than what is already available?
The Powerful Placebo
Many people are not surprised that placebos can have a positive effect on disorders that seem fundamentally psychological, including depression, anxiety, and insomnia. However, placebos can also have a positive effect on disorders that most people think of as fundamentally physiological. These include asthma, ulcers, and warts (Shapiro & Shapiro, 1999)  . There is even evidence that placebo surgery—also called “sham surgery”—can be as effective as actual surgery.
Medical researcher J. Bruce Moseley and his colleagues conducted a study on the effectiveness of two arthroscopic surgery procedures for osteoarthritis of the knee (Moseley et al., 2002)  . The control participants in this study were prepped for surgery, received a tranquilizer, and even received three small incisions in their knees. But they did not receive the actual arthroscopic surgical procedure. The surprising result was that all participants improved in terms of both knee pain and function, and the sham surgery group improved just as much as the treatment groups. According to the researchers, “This study provides strong evidence that arthroscopic lavage with or without débridement [the surgical procedures used] is not better than and appears to be equivalent to a placebo procedure in improving knee pain and self-reported function” (p. 85).
In a within-subjects experiment , each participant is tested under all conditions. Consider an experiment on the effect of a defendant’s physical attractiveness on judgments of his guilt. Again, in a between-subjects experiment, one group of participants would be shown an attractive defendant and asked to judge his guilt, and another group of participants would be shown an unattractive defendant and asked to judge his guilt. In a within-subjects experiment, however, the same group of participants would judge the guilt of both an attractive and an unattractive defendant.
The primary advantage of this approach is that it provides maximum control of extraneous participant variables. Participants in all conditions have the same mean IQ, same socioeconomic status, same number of siblings, and so on—because they are the very same people. Within-subjects experiments also make it possible to use statistical procedures that remove the effect of these extraneous participant variables on the dependent variable and therefore make the data less “noisy” and the effect of the independent variable easier to detect. We will look more closely at this idea later in the book. However, not all experiments can use a within-subjects design nor would it be desirable to.
Carryover Effects and Counterbalancing
The primary disad vantage of within-subjects designs is that they can result in carryover effects. A carryover effect is an effect of being tested in one condition on participants’ behaviour in later conditions. One type of carryover effect is a practice effect , where participants perform a task better in later conditions because they have had a chance to practice it. Another type is a fatigue effect , where participants perform a task worse in later conditions because they become tired or bored. Being tested in one condition can also change how participants perceive stimuli or interpret their task in later conditions. This type of effect is called a context effect . For example, an average-looking defendant might be judged more harshly when participants have just judged an attractive defendant than when they have just judged an unattractive defendant. Within-subjects experiments also make it easier for participants to guess the hypothesis. For example, a participant who is asked to judge the guilt of an attractive defendant and then is asked to judge the guilt of an unattractive defendant is likely to guess that the hypothesis is that defendant attractiveness affects judgments of guilt. This knowledge could lead the participant to judge the unattractive defendant more harshly because he thinks this is what he is expected to do. Or it could make participants judge the two defendants similarly in an effort to be “fair.”
Carryover effects can be interesting in their own right. (Does the attractiveness of one person depend on the attractiveness of other people that we have seen recently?) But when they are not the focus of the research, carryover effects can be problematic. Imagine, for example, that participants judge the guilt of an attractive defendant and then judge the guilt of an unattractive defendant. If they judge the unattractive defendant more harshly, this might be because of his unattractiveness. But it could be instead that they judge him more harshly because they are becoming bored or tired. In other words, the order of the conditions is a confounding variable. The attractive condition is always the first condition and the unattractive condition the second. Thus any difference between the conditions in terms of the dependent variable could be caused by the order of the conditions and not the independent variable itself.
There is a solution to the problem of order effects, however, that can be used in many situations. It is counterbalancing , which means testing different participants in different orders. For example, some participants would be tested in the attractive defendant condition followed by the unattractive defendant condition, and others would be tested in the unattractive condition followed by the attractive condition. With three conditions, there would be six different orders (ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB, and CBA), so some participants would be tested in each of the six orders. With counterbalancing, participants are assigned to orders randomly, using the techniques we have already discussed. Thus random assignment plays an important role in within-subjects designs just as in between-subjects designs. Here, instead of randomly assigning to conditions, they are randomly assigned to different orders of conditions. In fact, it can safely be said that if a study does not involve random assignment in one form or another, it is not an experiment.
An efficient way of counterbalancing is through a Latin square design which randomizes through having equal rows and columns. For example, if you have four treatments, you must have four versions. Like a Sudoku puzzle, no treatment can repeat in a row or column. For four versions of four treatments, the Latin square design would look like:
There are two ways to think about what counterbalancing accomplishes. One is that it controls the order of conditions so that it is no longer a confounding variable. Instead of the attractive condition always being first and the unattractive condition always being second, the attractive condition comes first for some participants and second for others. Likewise, the unattractive condition comes first for some participants and second for others. Thus any overall difference in the dependent variable between the two conditions cannot have been caused by the order of conditions. A second way to think about what counterbalancing accomplishes is that if there are carryover effects, it makes it possible to detect them. One can analyze the data separately for each order to see whether it had an effect.
When 9 is “larger” than 221
Researcher Michael Birnbaum has argued that the lack of context provided by between-subjects designs is often a bigger problem than the context effects created by within-subjects designs. To demonstrate this problem, he asked participants to rate two numbers on how large they were on a scale of 1-to-10 where 1 was “very very small” and 10 was “very very large”. One group of participants were asked to rate the number 9 and another group was asked to rate the number 221 (Birnbaum, 1999)  . Participants in this between-subjects design gave the number 9 a mean rating of 5.13 and the number 221 a mean rating of 3.10. In other words, they rated 9 as larger than 221! According to Birnbaum, this difference is because participants spontaneously compared 9 with other one-digit numbers (in which case it is relatively large) and compared 221 with other three-digit numbers (in which case it is relatively small) .
Simultaneous Within-Subjects Designs
So far, we have discussed an approach to within-subjects designs in which participants are tested in one condition at a time. There is another approach, however, that is often used when participants make multiple responses in each condition. Imagine, for example, that participants judge the guilt of 10 attractive defendants and 10 unattractive defendants. Instead of having people make judgments about all 10 defendants of one type followed by all 10 defendants of the other type, the researcher could present all 20 defendants in a sequence that mixed the two types. The researcher could then compute each participant’s mean rating for each type of defendant. Or imagine an experiment designed to see whether people with social anxiety disorder remember negative adjectives (e.g., “stupid,” “incompetent”) better than positive ones (e.g., “happy,” “productive”). The researcher could have participants study a single list that includes both kinds of words and then have them try to recall as many words as possible. The researcher could then count the number of each type of word that was recalled. There are many ways to determine the order in which the stimuli are presented, but one common way is to generate a different random order for each participant.
Between-Subjects or Within-Subjects?
Almost every experiment can be conducted using either a between-subjects design or a within-subjects design. This possibility means that researchers must choose between the two approaches based on their relative merits for the particular situation.
Between-subjects experiments have the advantage of being conceptually simpler and requiring less testing time per participant. They also avoid carryover effects without the need for counterbalancing. Within-subjects experiments have the advantage of controlling extraneous participant variables, which generally reduces noise in the data and makes it easier to detect a relationship between the independent and dependent variables.
A good rule of thumb, then, is that if it is possible to conduct a within-subjects experiment (with proper counterbalancing) in the time that is available per participant—and you have no serious concerns about carryover effects—this design is probably the best option. If a within-subjects design would be difficult or impossible to carry out, then you should consider a between-subjects design instead. For example, if you were testing participants in a doctor’s waiting room or shoppers in line at a grocery store, you might not have enough time to test each participant in all conditions and therefore would opt for a between-subjects design. Or imagine you were trying to reduce people’s level of prejudice by having them interact with someone of another race. A within-subjects design with counterbalancing would require testing some participants in the treatment condition first and then in a control condition. But if the treatment works and reduces people’s level of prejudice, then they would no longer be suitable for testing in the control condition. This difficulty is true for many designs that involve a treatment meant to produce long-term change in participants’ behaviour (e.g., studies testing the effectiveness of psychotherapy). Clearly, a between-subjects design would be necessary here.
Remember also that using one type of design does not preclude using the other type in a different study. There is no reason that a researcher could not use both a between-subjects design and a within-subjects design to answer the same research question. In fact, professional researchers often take exactly this type of mixed methods approach.
- Experiments can be conducted using either between-subjects or within-subjects designs. Deciding which to use in a particular situation requires careful consideration of the pros and cons of each approach.
- Random assignment to conditions in between-subjects experiments or to orders of conditions in within-subjects experiments is a fundamental element of experimental research. Its purpose is to control extraneous variables so that they do not become confounding variables.
- Experimental research on the effectiveness of a treatment requires both a treatment condition and a control condition, which can be a no-treatment control condition, a placebo control condition, or a waitlist control condition. Experimental treatments can also be compared with the best available alternative.
- You want to test the relative effectiveness of two training programs for running a marathon.
- Using photographs of people as stimuli, you want to see if smiling people are perceived as more intelligent than people who are not smiling.
- In a field experiment, you want to see if the way a panhandler is dressed (neatly vs. sloppily) affects whether or not passersby give him any money.
- You want to see if concrete nouns (e.g., dog ) are recalled better than abstract nouns (e.g., truth ).
- Discussion: Imagine that an experiment shows that participants who receive psychodynamic therapy for a dog phobia improve more than participants in a no-treatment control group. Explain a fundamental problem with this research design and at least two ways that it might be corrected.
- Price, D. D., Finniss, D. G., & Benedetti, F. (2008). A comprehensive review of the placebo effect: Recent advances and current thought. Annual Review of Psychology, 59 , 565–590. ↵
- Shapiro, A. K., & Shapiro, E. (1999). The powerful placebo: From ancient priest to modern physician . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. ↵
- Moseley, J. B., O’Malley, K., Petersen, N. J., Menke, T. J., Brody, B. A., Kuykendall, D. H., … Wray, N. P. (2002). A controlled trial of arthroscopic surgery for osteoarthritis of the knee. The New England Journal of Medicine, 347 , 81–88. ↵
- Birnbaum, M.H. (1999). How to show that 9>221: Collect judgments in a between-subjects design. Psychological Methods, 4(3), 243-249. ↵
An experiment in which each participant is only tested in one condition.
A method of controlling extraneous variables across conditions by using a random process to decide which participants will be tested in the different conditions.
All the conditions of an experiment occur once in the sequence before any of them is repeated.
Any intervention meant to change people’s behaviour for the better.
A condition in a study where participants receive treatment.
A condition in a study that the other condition is compared to. This group does not receive the treatment or intervention that the other conditions do.
A type of experiment to research the effectiveness of psychotherapies and medical treatments.
A type of control condition in which participants receive no treatment.
A simulated treatment that lacks any active ingredient or element that should make it effective.
A positive effect of a treatment that lacks any active ingredient or element to make it effective.
Participants receive a placebo that looks like the treatment but lacks the active ingredient or element thought to be responsible for the treatment’s effectiveness.
Participants are told that they will receive the treatment but must wait until the participants in the treatment condition have already received it.
Each participant is tested under all conditions.
An effect of being tested in one condition on participants’ behaviour in later conditions.
Participants perform a task better in later conditions because they have had a chance to practice it.
Participants perform a task worse in later conditions because they become tired or bored.
Being tested in one condition can also change how participants perceive stimuli or interpret their task in later conditions.
Testing different participants in different orders.
Research Methods in Psychology - 2nd Canadian Edition by Paul C. Price, Rajiv Jhangiani, & I-Chant A. Chiang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.