Cause-and-effect relationships happen in all aspects of life, from business to medicine, to marketing, to education, and so much more. They are the invisible threads that connect both our actions and inactions to their outcomes. 

Causal research is the type of research that investigates cause-and-effect relationships. It is more comprehensive than descriptive research, which just talks about how things affect each other.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can use informal research to gain insight into your research results and make more informed decisions.

What’s the Difference Between Correlation and Causation

Defining Causal Research

Causal research investigates why one variable (the independent variable) is causing things to change in another ( the dependent variable). 

For example, a causal research study about the cause-and-effect relationship between smoking and the prevalence of lung cancer. Smoking prevalence would be the independent variable, while lung cancer prevalence would be the dependent variable. 

You would establish that smoking causes lung cancer by modulating the independent variable (smoking) and observing the effects on the dependent variable (lung cancer).

What’s the Difference Between Correlation and Causation

Correlation simply means that two variables are related to each other. But it does not necessarily mean that one variable causes changes in the other. 

For example, let’s say there is a correlation between high coffee sales and low ice cream sales. This does not mean that people are not buying ice cream because they prefer coffee. 

Both of these variables correlate because they’re influenced by the same factor: cold weather.

The Need for Causal Research

Examples of Where Causal Relationships Are Critical

The major reason for investigating causal relationships between variables is better decision-making, which leads to developing effective solutions to complex problems. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  • Decision-Making

Causal research enables us to figure out how variables relate to each other and how a change in one variable affects another. This helps us make better decisions about resource allocation, problem-solving, and achieving our goals.

In business, for example, customer satisfaction (independent variable) directly impacts sales (dependent variable). If customers are happy with your product or service, they’re more likely to keep returning and recommending it to their friends, which translates into more sales.

  • Developing Effective Solutions to Problems

Understanding the causes of a problem,  allows you to develop more effective solutions to address it. For example, medical causal research enables you to understand symptoms better, create new prevention strategies, and provide more effective treatment for illnesses.

Key Elements of Causal Research

Examples of Where Causal Relationships Are Critical

Here are a couple of ways  you can leverage causal research:

  • Policy-making: Causal research informs policy decisions about issues such as education, healthcare, and the environment. Let’s say causal research shows that the availability of junk food in schools directly impacts the prevalence of obesity in teenagers. This would inform the decision to incorporate more healthy food options in schools.
  • Marketing strategies: Causal research studies allow you to identify factors that influence customer behavior to develop effective marketing strategies. For example, you can use causal research to reach and attract your target audience with the right content.
  • Product development: Causal research enables you to create successful products by understanding users’ pain points and providing products that meet these needs.

Research Designs for Establishing Causality

Key Elements of Causal Research

Let’s take a deep dive into what it takes to design and conduct a causal study:

  • Control and Experimental Groups

In a controlled study, the researchers randomly put people into one of two groups: the control group, who don’t get the treatment, or the experimental group, who do.

Having a control group allows you to compare the effects of the treatment to the effects of no treatment. It enables you to rule out the possibility that any changes in the dependent variable are due to factors other than the treatment.

  • Independent variable: The independent variable is the variable that affects the dependent variable. It is the variable that you alter to see the effect on the dependent variable.
  • Dependent variable: The dependent variable is the variable that is affected by the independent variable. This is what you measure to see the impact of the independent variable.

An Illustration of How Independent vs Dependent Variable Works in Causal Research

Here’s an illustration to help you understand how to differentiate and use variables in causal research:

Let’s say you want to investigate “the effect of dieting on weight loss”, dieting would be the independent variable, and weight loss would be the dependent variable. Next, you would vary the independent variable (dieting) by assigning some participants to a restricted diet and others to a control group. 

You will see the cause-and-effect relationship between dieting and weight loss by measuring the dependent variable (weight loss) in both groups.

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Research Designs for Establishing Causality

There are several ways to investigate the relationship between variables, but here are the most common:

A. Experimental Design

Experimental designs are the gold standard for establishing causality. In an experimental design, the researcher randomly assigns participants to either a control group or an experimental group. The control group does not receive the treatment, while the experimental group does.

Pros of experimental designs:

  • Highly rigorous
  • Explicitly establishes causality
  • Strictly controls for extraneous variables

Cons:

  • Time-consuming and expensive
  • Difficult to implement in real-world settings
  • Not always ethical

B. Quasi-Experimental Design

A quasi-experimental design attempts to determine the causal relationship without fully randomizing the participant distribution into groups. The primary reason for this is ethical or practical considerations.

Different types of quasi-experimental designs

  • Time series design: This design involves collecting data over time on the same group of participants. You see the cause-and-effect relationship by identifying the changes in the dependent variable that coincide with changes in the independent variable.
  • Nonequivalent control group design: This design involves comparing an experimental group to a control group that is not randomly assigned. The differences between the two groups explain the cause-and-effect relationship.
  • Interrupted time series design: Unlike the time series that measures changes over time, this introduces treatment at a specific point in time. You figure out the relationship between treatment and the dependent variable by looking for any changes that occurred at the time the treatment was introduced.

Pros of quasi-experimental designs

  • Cost-effective
  • More feasible to implement in real-world settings
  • More ethical than experimental designs

Cons

  • Not as thorough as experimental designs
  • May not accurately establish causality
  • More susceptible to bias

Establishing Causality without Experiments

Using experiments to determine the cause-and-effect relationship between each dependent variable and the independent variable can be time-consuming and expensive. As a result, the following are cost-effective methods for establishing a causal relationship:

  • Longitudinal Studies

Long-term studies are observational studies that follow the same participants or groups over a long period. This way, you can see changes in variables you’re studying over time, and establish a causal relationship between them.

For example, you can use a longitudinal study to determine the effect of a new education program on student performance. You then track students’ academic performance over the years to see if the program improved student performance.

Challenges of Longitudinal Studies

One of the biggest problems of longitudinal studies is confounding variables. These are factors that are related to both the independent variable and the dependent variable.

Confounding variables can make it hard to isolate the cause of an independent variable’s effect. Using the earlier example, if you’re looking at how new educational programs affect student success, you need to make sure you’re controlling for factors such as students’ socio-economic background and their prior academic performance.

  • Instrumental Variables (IV) Analysis

Instrumental variable analysis (IV) is a statistical approach that enables you to estimate causal effects in observational studies. An instrumental variable is a variable that is correlated with the independent variable but is not correlated with the dependent variable except through the independent variable.

For example, in academic achievement research, an instrumental variable could be the distance to the nearest college. This variable is correlated with family income but doesn’t correlate with academic achievement except through family income.

Challenges of Instrumental Variables (IV) Analysis

A primary limitation of IV analysis is that it can be challenging to find a good instrumental variable. IV analysis can also be very sensitive to the assumptions of the model.

Challenges and Pitfalls

Establishing Causality without Experiments

It is a powerful tool for solving problems, making better decisions, and advancing human knowledge. However, causal research is not without its challenges and pitfalls.

  • Confounding Variables

A confounding variable is a variable that correlates with both the independent and dependent variables, and it can make it difficult to isolate the causal effect of the independent variable. 

For example, let’s say you are interested in the causal effect of smoking on lung cancer. If you simply compare smokers to nonsmokers, you may find that smokers are more likely to get lung cancer. 

However, the relationship between smoking and lung cancer may be confounded by other factors, such as age, socioeconomic status, or exposure to secondhand smoke. These other factors may be responsible for the increased risk of lung cancer in smokers, rather than smoking itself.

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Strategy to Control for Confounding Variables

Confounding variables can lead to misleading results and make it difficult to determine the cause-and-effect between variables. Here are some strategies that allow you to control for confounding variables and improve the reliability of causal research findings:

  • Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT)

In an RCT, participants are randomly assigned to either the treatment group or the control group. This ensures that the two groups are comparable on all confounding variables, except for the treatment itself.

  • Statistical Methods

Using statistical methods such as multivariate regression analysis allows you to control for multiple confounding variables simultaneously.

  • Reverse Causation

Reverse Causation is when the relationship between the cause and effect of variables is reversed. 

For example, let’s say you want to find a correlation between education and income. You’d expect people with higher levels of education to earn more, right? 

Well, what if it’s the other way around? What if people with higher income are only more college-educated because they can afford it and lower-income people can’t?

Strategy to Control for Reverse Causation

Here are some ways to prevent and mitigate the effect of reverse causation:

  • Longitudinal study

A longitudinal study follows the same individuals or groups over time. This allows researchers to see how changes in one variable (e.g., education) are associated with changes in another variable (e.g., income) over time.

  • Instrumental Variables Analysis

Instrumental variables analysis is a statistical technique that estimates the causal effect of a variable when there is reverse causation.

 

Real-World Applications

Causal research allows us to identify the root causes of problems and develop solutions that work. Here are some examples of the real-world applications of causal research:

  • Healthcare Research:

Causal research enables healthcare professionals to figure out what causes diseases and how to treat them.

 For example, medical researchers can use casual research to figure out if a drug or treatment is effective for a specific condition. It also helps determine what causes certain diseases.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are widely regarded as the standard for determining causal relationships in healthcare research. They have been used to determine the effects of multiple medical interventions, such as the effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines, surgery, as well as lifestyle changes on health.

 

  • Public Policy Impact

Causal research can also be used to inform public policy decisions. For example, a causal study showed that early childhood education for disadvantaged children improved their academic performance and reduced their likelihood of dropping out. This has been leveraged to support policies that increase early childhood education access.

You can also use causal research to see if existing policies are working. For example, a causal study proves that giving ex-offenders job training reduces their chances of reoffending. The governments would be motivated to set up, fund, and mandate ex-offenders to take training programs.

Conclusion

Understanding causal effects helps us make informed decisions across different fields such as health, business, lifestyle, public policy, and more. But, this research method has its challenges and limitations.

Using the best practices and strategies in this guide can help you mitigate the limitations of causal research. Start your journey to seamlessly collecting valid data for your research with Formplus.


  • Moradeke Owa
  • on 10 min read

Formplus

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