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    Section 1.4

    You can click the link section 1.4. to access the online version of this section of the textbook. Below is an edited version of section 1.4.

    Experimental Design

    Does aspirin reduce the risk of heart attacks? Is one brand of fertilizer more effective at growing roses than another? Is fatigue as dangerous to a driver as the influence of alcohol? Questions like these are answered using randomized experiments. In this module, you will learn important aspects of experimental design. Proper study design ensures the production of reliable, accurate data.


    The purpose of an experiment is to investigate the relationship between two variables. When one variable causes change in another, we call the first variable the explanatory variable. The affected variable is called the response variable. In a randomized experiment, the researcher manipulates values of the explanatory variable and measures the resulting changes in the response variable. The different values of the explanatory variable are called treatments. An experimental unit is a single object or individual to be measured.

    You want to investigate the effectiveness of vitamin E in preventing disease. You recruit a group of subjects and ask them if they regularly take vitamin E. You notice that the subjects who take vitamin E exhibit better health on average than those who do not. Does this prove that vitamin E is effective in disease prevention? It does not. There are many differences between the two groups compared in addition to vitamin E consumption. People who take vitamin E regularly often take other steps to improve their health: exercise, diet, other vitamin supplements, choosing not to smoke. Any one of these factors could be influencing health. As described, this study does not prove that vitamin E is the key to disease prevention.

    Additional variables that can cloud a study are called lurking variables. In order to prove that the explanatory variable is causing a change in the response variable, it is necessary to isolate the explanatory variable. The researcher must design her experiment in such a way that there is only one difference between groups being compared: the planned treatments. This is accomplished by the random assignment of experimental units to treatment groups. When subjects are assigned treatments randomly, all of the potential lurking variables are spread equally among the groups. At this point the only difference between groups is the one imposed by the researcher. Different outcomes measured in the response variable, therefore, must be a direct result of the different treatments. In this way, an experiment can prove a cause-and-effect connection between the explanatory and response variables.

    The power of suggestion can have an important influence on the outcome of an experiment. Studies have shown that the expectation of the study participant can be as important as the actual medication. In one study of performance-enhancing drugs, researchers noted:

    Results showed that believing one had taken the substance resulted in [performance] times almost as fast as those associated with consuming the drug itself. In contrast, taking the drug without knowledge yielded no significant performance increment.


    When participation in a study prompts a physical response from a participant, it is difficult to isolate the effects of the explanatory variable. To counter the power of suggestion, researchers set aside one treatment group as a control group. This group is given a placebo treatment–a treatment that cannot influence the response variable. The control group helps researchers balance the effects of being in an experiment with the effects of the active treatments. Of course, if you are participating in a study and you know that you are receiving a pill which contains no actual medication, then the power of suggestion is no longer a factor. Blinding in a randomized experiment preserves the power of suggestion. When a person involved in a research study is blinded, he does not know who is receiving the active treatment(s) and who is receiving the placebo treatment. A double-blind experiment is one in which both the subjects and the researchers involved with the subjects are blinded.


    Example 1.19

    Researchers want to investigate whether taking aspirin regularly reduces the risk of heart attack. Four hundred men between the ages of 50 and 84 are recruited as participants. The men are divided randomly into two groups: one group will take aspirin, and the other group will take a placebo. Each man takes one pill each day for three years, but he does not know whether he is taking aspirin or the placebo. At the end of the study, researchers count the number of men in each group who have had heart attacks.

    Identify the following values for this study: population, sample, experimental units, explanatory variable, response variable, treatments.


    Example 1.20

    The Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation conducted a study to investigate whether smell can affect learning. Subjects completed mazes multiple times while wearing masks. They completed the pencil and paper mazes three times wearing floral-scented masks, and three times with unscented masks. Participants were assigned at random to wear the floral mask during the first three trials or during the last three trials. For each trial, researchers recorded the time it took to complete the maze and the subject’s impression of the mask’s scent: positive, negative, or neutral.

    1. Describe the explanatory and response variables in this study.
    2. What are the treatments?
    3. Identify any lurking variables that could interfere with this study.
    4. Is it possible to use blinding in this study?

    Example 1.21

    A researcher wants to study the effects of birth order on personality. Explain why this study could not be conducted as a randomized experiment. What is the main problem in a study that cannot be designed as a randomized experiment?


    Try It 1.21

    You are concerned about the effects of texting on driving performance. Design a study to test the response time of drivers while texting and while driving only. How many seconds does it take for a driver to respond when a leading car hits the brakes?

    1. Describe the explanatory and response variables in the study.
    2. What are the treatments?
    3. What should you consider when selecting participants?
    4. Your research partner wants to divide participants randomly into two groups: one to drive without distraction and one to text and drive simultaneously. Is this a good idea? Why or why not?
    5. Identify any lurking variables that could interfere with this study.
    6. How can blinding be used in this study?



    Solution 1.19

    The population is men aged 50 to 84.
    The sample is the 400 men who participated.
    The experimental units are the individual men in the study.
    The explanatory variable is oral medication.
    The treatments are aspirin and a placebo.
    The response variable is whether a subject had a heart attack.


    Solution 1.20

    1. The explanatory variable is scent, and the response variable is the time it takes to complete the maze.
    2. There are two treatments: a floral-scented mask and an unscented mask.
    3. All subjects experienced both treatments. The order of treatments was randomly assigned so there were no differences between the treatment groups. Random assignment eliminates the problem of lurking variables.
    4. Subjects will clearly know whether they can smell flowers or not, so subjects cannot be blinded in this study. Researchers timing the mazes can be blinded, though. The researcher who is observing a subject will not know which mask is being worn.


    Solution 1.21

    The explanatory variable is birth order. You cannot randomly assign a person’s birth order. Random assignment eliminates the impact of lurking variables. When you cannot assign subjects to treatment groups at random, there will be differences between the groups other than the explanatory variable.