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What happens in experimental research is that the researcher alters the independent variables so as to determine their impacts on the dependent variables. 

Therefore, when the experiment is controlled, you can expect that the researcher will control all other variables except for the independent variables. This is done so that the other variables do not have an influence on the dependent variables. 

In this article, we are going to consider controlled experiment, how important it is in a study, and how it can be designed. But before we dig deep, let us look at the definition of a controlled experiment.

What is a Controlled Experiment?

In a scientific experiment, a controlled experiment is a test that is directly altered by the researcher so that only one variable is studied at a time. The single variable being studied will then be the independent variable.

This independent variable is manipulated by the researcher so that its effect on the hypothesis or data being studied is known. While the researcher studies the single independent variable, the controlled variables are made constant to reduce or balance out their impact on the research.

To achieve a controlled experiment, the research population is mostly distributed into two groups. Then the treatment is administered to one of the two groups, while the other group gets the control conditions. This other group is referred to as the control group.

"control-experimental-group"

The control group gets the standard conditions and is placed in the standard environment and it also allows for comparison with the other group, which is referred to as the experimental group or the treatment group. Obtaining the difference between these two groups' behavior is important because in any scientific experiment, being able to show the statistical significance of the results is the only criterion for the results to be accepted.  

So to determine whether the experiment supports the hypothesis, or if the data is a result of chance, the researcher will check for the difference between the control group and experimental group. Then the results from the differences will be compared with the expected difference.

For example, a researcher may want to answer this question, do dogs also have a music taste? In case you're wondering too, yes, there are existing studies by researchers on how dogs react to different music genres. 

Back to the example, the researcher may develop a controlled experiment with high consideration on the variables that affect each dog. Some of these variables that may have effects on the dog are; the dog's environment when listening to music, the temperature of the environment, the music volume, and human presence. 

The independent variable to focus on in this research is the genre of the music. To determine if there is an effect on the dog while listening to different kinds of music, the dog's environment must be controlled. A controlled experiment would limit interaction between the dog and other variables. 

In this experiment, the researcher can also divide the dogs into two groups, one group will perform the music test while the other, the control group will be used as the baseline or standard behavior. The control group behavior can be observed along with the treatment group and the differences in the two group’s behavior can be analyzed. 

What is an Experimental Control?

Experimental control is the technique used by the researcher in scientific research to minimize the effects of extraneous variables. Experimental control also strengthens the ability of the independent variable to change the dependent variable.

For example, the cause and effect possibilities will be examined in a well-designed and properly controlled experiment if the independent variable (Treatment Y) causes a behavioral change in the dependent variable (Subject X).

In another example, a researcher feeds 20 lab rats with an artificial sweetener and from the researcher's observation, six of the rats died of dehydration. Now, the actual cause of death may be artificial sweeteners or an unrelated factor. Such as the water supplied to the rats being contaminated or the rats could not drink enough, or suffering a disease. 

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For a researcher, eliminating these potential causes one after the other will consume time, and be tedious. Hence, the researcher can make use of experimental control. This method will allow the researcher to divide the rats into two groups: one group will receive the artificial sweetener while the other one doesn't. The two groups will be placed in similar conditions and observed in similar ways. The differences that now occur in morbidity between the two groups can be traced to the sweetener with certainty.

From the example above, the experimental control is administered as a form of a control group. The data from the control group is then said to be the standard against which every other experimental outcome is measured.

Purpose & Importance of Control in Experimentation

1. One significant purpose of experimental controls is that it allows researchers to eliminate various confounding variables or uncertainty in their research. A researcher will need to use an experimental control to ensure that only the variables that are intended to change, are changed in research.  

2. Controlled experiments also allow researchers to control the specific variables they think might have an effect on the outcomes of the study. The researcher will use a control group if he/she believes some extra variables can form an effect on the results of the study. This is to ensure that the extra variable is held constant and possible influences are measured.  

3. Controlled experiments establish a standard that the outcome of a study should be compared to, and allow researchers to correct for potential errors. 

Read more: What are Cross-Sectional Studies: Examples, Definition, Types

Methods of Experimental Control

Here are some methods used to achieve control in experimental research

  • Use of Control Groups

Control groups are required for controlled experiments. Control groups will allow the researcher to run a test on fake treatment, and comparable treatment. It will also compare the result of the comparison with the researcher's experimental treatment. The results will allow the researcher to understand if the treatment administered caused the outcome or if other factors such as time, or others are involved and whether they would have yielded the same effects.  

For an example of a control group experiment, a researcher conducting an experiment on the effects of colors in advertising, asked all the participants to come individually to a lab. In this lab,  environmental conditions are kept the same all through the research.

For the researcher to determine the effect of colors in advertising, each of the participants is placed in either of the two groups: the control group or the experimental group.

In the control group, the advertisement color is yellow to represent the clothing industry while blue is given as the advertisement color to the experimental group to represent the clothing industry also. The only difference in these two groups will be the color of the advertisement, other variables will be similar.

  • Use of Masking (blinding)

Masking occurs in an experiment when the researcher hides condition assignments from the participants.  If it's double-blind research, both the researcher and the participants will be in the dark. Masking or blinding is mostly used in clinical studies to test new treatments.

Masking as a control measure takes place because sometimes, researchers may unintentionally influence the participants to act in ways that support their hypotheses. In another scenario, the goal of the study might be revealed to the participants through the study environment and this may influence their responses.

Masking, however, blinds the participants from having a deeper knowledge of the research whether they’re in the control group or the experimental group. This helps to control and reduce biases from either the researcher or the participants that could influence the results of the study.

  • Use of Random Assignment

Random assignment or distribution is used to avoid systematic differences between participants in the experimental group and the control group. This helps to evenly distribute extraneous participant variables, thereby making the comparison between groups valid. Another usefulness of random assignment is that it shows the difference between true experiments from quasi-experiments.

Learn About: Double-Blind Studies in Research: Types, Pros & Cons

How to Design a Controlled Experiment

For a researcher to design a controlled experiment, the researcher will need:

  • A hypothesis that can be tested.
  • One or more independent variables can be changed or manipulated precisely.
  • One or more dependent variables can be accurately measured.

Then, when the researcher is designing the experiment, he or she must decide on:

  • How will the variables be manipulated?
  • How will control be set up in case of any potential confounding variables?
  • How large will the samples or participants included in the study be?
  • How will the participants be distributed into treatment levels?

How you design your experimental control is highly significant to your experiment's external and internal validity.

Controlled Experiment Examples

1. A good example of a controlled group would be an experiment to test the effects of a drug. The sample population would be divided into two, the group receiving the drug would be the experimental group while the group receiving the placebo would be the control group (Note that all the variables such as age, and sex, will be the same).

The only significant difference between the two groups will be the taking of medication. You can determine if the drug is effective or not if the control group and experimental group show similar results. 

2. Let’s take a look at this example too. If a researcher wants to determine the impact of different soil types on the germination period of seeds, the researcher can proceed to set up four different pots. Each of the pots would be filled with a different type of soil and then seeds can be planted on the soil. After which each soil pot will be watered and exposed to sunlight.

The researcher will start to measure how long it took for the seeds to sprout in each of the different soil types. Control measures for this experiment might be to place some seeds in a pot without filling the pot with soil. The reason behind this control measure is to determine that no other factor is responsible for germination except the soil.

Here, the researcher can also control the amount of sun the seeds are exposed to, or how much water they are given. The aim is to eliminate all other variables that can affect how quickly the seeds sprouted. 

Experimental controls are important, but it is also important to note that not all experiments should be controlled and It is still possible to get useful data from experiments that are not controlled.

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Problems with Controlled Experiments

It is true that the best way to test for cause and effect relationships is by conducting controlled experiments. However, controlled experiments also have some challenges. Some of which are:

  1. Difficulties in controlling all the variables especially when the participants in your research are human participants. It can be impossible to hold all the extra variables constant because all individuals have different experiences that may influence their behaviors.
  2. Controlled experiments are at risk of low external validity because there's a limit to how the results from the research can be extrapolated to a very large population.
  3. Your research may lack relatability to real world experience if they are too controlled and that will make it hard for you to apply your outcomes outside a controlled setting.

Control Group vs an Experimental Group

There is a thin line between the control group and the experimental group. That line is the treatment condition. As we have earlier established, the experimental group is the one that gets the treatment while the control group is the placebo group.

All controlled experiments require control groups because control groups will allow you to compare treatments, and to test if there is no treatment while you compare the result with your experimental treatment.

Therefore, both the experimental group and the control group are required to conduct a controlled experiment

FAQs about Controlled Experiments

  • Is the control condition the same as the control group?

The control group is different from the control condition. However, the control condition is administered to the control group. 

  • What are positive and negative control in an experiment?

The negative control is the group where no change or response is expected while the positive control is the group that receives the treatment with a certainty of a positive result.

Conclusion

While the controlled experiment is beneficial to eliminate extraneous variables in research and focus on the independent variable only to cause an effect on the dependent variable.

Researchers should be careful so they don't lose real-life relatability to too controlled experiments and also, not all experiments should be controlled.

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