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What is an independent variable?

Last updated

14 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

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Hugh Good

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Independent and dependent variables are two significant variable categories in statistical modeling and research designs. Therefore, when conducting research, it is important to be clear as to the independent and dependent variables within your study to understand cause-and-effect relationships between variables of interest.

Independent variables are features or values fixed within the population or study under investigation. An example might be a subject's age within a study - other variables, such as what they eat, how long they sleep, and how much TV they watch wouldn't change the subject's age. 

On the other hand, a dependent variable can be influenced by other factors or variables. For example, how well you perform on a series of tests (a dependent variable) could be influenced by how long you study or how much sleep you get before the night of the exam. 

A better understanding of independent variables, specifically the types, how they function in research contexts, and how to distinguish them from dependent variables, will assist you in determining how to identify them in your studies. 

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Types of independent variables

Independent variables can be of several types, depending on the hypothesis and research. However, the most common types are experimental independent variables and subject variables.

Experimental independent variables

Experimental variables are those that can be directly manipulated in a study. In other words, these are independent variables that you can manipulate to discover how they influence your dependent variables. 

For example, you may have two study groups split by independent variables: one receiving a new drug treatment and one receiving a placebo. These types of studies generally require the random assignment of research participants to different groups to observe how results vary based on the influence of different independent variables.

A proper experiment requires you to randomly assign different levels of an independent variable to your participants.

Random assignment helps you control participant characteristics, so they don't affect your experimental results. This helps you to have confidence that your dependent variable results come solely from the experimental independent variable manipulation.

Subject variables

Subject variables are independent variables that can't be changed in a study but can be used to categorize study participants. They are mostly features that differ between study subjects. For instance, as a social researcher, you can use gender identification, race, education level, or income as key independent variables to classify your research subjects.

Unlike experimental variables, subject variables necessitate a quasi-experimental approach because there is no random assignment. This type of independent variable comprises features and attributes inherent within study participants; therefore, they cannot be assigned randomly. 

Instead, you can develop a research approach in which you evaluate the findings of different groups of participants based on their features. It is important to note that any research design that uses non-random assignment is vulnerable to study biases such as sampling and selection bias.

What is the importance of independent variables?

As noted previously, independent variables are critical in developing a study design. This is because they assist researchers in determining cause-and-effect relationships. Controlled experiments require minimal to no outside influence to make conclusions. 

Identifying independent variables is one way to eliminate external influences and achieve greater certainty that research results are representative. By controlling for outside influences as much as possible, you can make meaningful inferences about the link between independent and dependent variables.

In most cases, changes in the independent variables cause changes in the dependent variables. For example, if you change an independent variable such as age, you might expect a dependent variable such as cognitive function or running speed to change if the age difference is large. However, there are situations when variations in the independent variables do not influence the dependent variable.

How can you choose an independent variable?

Choosing independent variables within your research will be driven by the objectives of your study. Start by formulating a hypothesis about the outcome you anticipate, and then choose independent variables that you believe will significantly influence the dependent variables.

Make sure you have experimental and control groups that have identical features. They should only differ based on the treatment they get for the independent variable. In this case, your control group will undergo no treatment or changes in the independent variable, versus the experimental group, which will receive the treatment or a wide variation of the independent variable.

How to include an independent variable in an experiment

The type of study or experiment greatly impacts the nature of an independent variable. If you are doing an experiment involving a control condition or group, you will need to monitor and define the values of the independent variables you are using within test condition groups.

In an observational experiment, the explanatory variables' values are not predetermined, but instead are observed in their natural surroundings.

Model specification is the process of deciding which independent variables to incorporate into a statistical model. It involves extensive study, numerous specific topics, and statistical aspects.

Including one independent variable in a regression model entails performing a simple regression, while for more than one independent variable, it is a multiple regression. The names might be different, but the analysis, interpretation, and assumptions are all the same.

What are some examples of independent variables?

To better understand the concept of independent variables, have a look at these few examples used in different contexts:

  • Mental health context: As a medical researcher, you may be interested in finding out whether a new type of treatment can reduce anxiety in people suffering from a social anxiety disorder. Your study can include three groups of patients. One group receives the new treatment, another gets a different treatment, and the last gets no treatment. The type of treatment is the independent variable.

  • Workplace context: In this case, you may want to know if giving employees greater control over how they perform their duties results in increased job satisfaction. Your study will involve two groups of employees, one with a lot of say over how they do their jobs and the other without. In this scenario, the independent variable is the amount of control the employees have over their job.

  • Educational context: You can conduct a study to see if after-school math tutoring improves student performance on standardized math tests. In this example, one group of students will attend an after-school tutoring session three times a week, whereas another group will not receive this extra help. The independent variable is the involvement in after-school math tutoring sessions.

  • Organization context: You may want to know if the color of an office affects work efficiency. Your research will consider a group of employees working in white or yellow rooms. The independent variable is the color of the office.

What is a dependent variable?

A dependent variable changes as a result of the manipulation of the independent variable. In a nutshell, it is what you test or measure in an experiment. It is also known as a response variable since it responds to changes in another variable, or known as an outcome variable because it represents the outcome you want to measure.

Statisticians also denote these as left-hand side variables because they are typically found on the left-hand side of a regression model. Typically, dependent variables are plotted on the y-axis of graphs. 

For instance, in a study designed to evaluate how a certain treatment affects the symptoms of psychological disorders, the dependent variable might be identified as the severity of the symptoms a patient experiences. The treatment used would be the independent variable.

The results of an experiment are important because they can assist you in determining the extent to which changes in your independent variable cause variations in your dependent variable. They can also help forecast the degree to which your dependent variable will vary due to changes in the independent variable.

Identifying independent vs. dependent variables

It can be challenging to differentiate between independent and dependent variables, especially when designing comprehensive research. In some circumstances, a dependent variable from one research study will be used as an independent variable in another. The key is to pay close attention to the study design.

Recognizing independent variables

To recognize independent variables in research, focus on determining whether the variable causes variation in another variable. Independent variables are also manipulated variables whose values are determined by the researchers. In certain experiments, notably in medicine, they are described as risk factors; whereas in others, they are referred to as experimental factors.

Keep in mind that control groups and treatments are often independent variables. And studies that use this approach tend to classify independent variables as categorical grouping variables that establish the experimental groups.

The approaches used to identify independent variables in observational research differ slightly. In these studies, independent variables explain, predict, or correlate with variation in the dependent variable. The study results are also changed or regulated by a variable. If you see an estimated impact size, it is an independent variable, irrespective of the type of study you are reading or designing.

Recognizing dependent variables

To identify dependent variables, you must first determine if the variable is measurable within the research. Also, determine whether the variable relies on another variable in the experiment. If you discover that a variable is only subject to change or variability after other variables have been changed, it may be a dependent variable.

Independent and dependent variables in research

Both independent and dependent variables are mainly used in quasi-experimental and experimental studies. When conducting research, you can generate descriptive statistics to illustrate results. Following that, you would choose a suitable statistical test to validate your hypothesis. 

The kind of variable, measurement level, and several independent variable levels will significantly influence your chosen test. Many studies use either the ANOVA or the t-test for data analysis and to obtain answers to research questions.

Other key variables

Other variables, in addition to independent and dependent variables, may have a major impact on a research outcome. Thus, it is vital to identify and take control of extraneous variables since they can cause variation in the relationship between the independent and dependent variables.

Some examples of extraneous variables include demand characteristics and experimenter effects. When these variables cannot be controlled in an experiment, they are usually called confounding variables.

Visualizing independent and dependent variables

You can use either a chart or a graph to visualize quantitative research results. Graphs have a typical display in which the independent variables lie on the horizontal x-axis and the dependent variables on the vertical y-axis. The presentation of data will depend on the nature of the variables in your research questions.

The lowdown

Having a working knowledge of independent and dependent variables is key to understanding how research projects work. There are various ways to think of independent variables. However, the best approach is to picture the independent variable as what you change and the dependent variable as what is influenced due to the variation. 

In other words, consider the independent variable the cause and the dependent variable the effect. When visualizing these variables in a graph, place the independent variable on the x-axis and the dependent variable on the y-axis.

It is also essential to remember that there are other variables aside from the independent and dependent variables that might impact the outcome of an experiment. As a result, you should identify and control extraneous variables as much as possible to make a valid conclusion about the study findings.


What are the dependent and independent variables in research?

An independent variable in research or an experiment is what the researcher manipulates or changes. The dependent variable, on the other hand, is what is measured. In general, the independent variable is in charge of influencing the dependent variable.

What are the variables in research examples?

In research or an experiment, a variable refers to something that can be tested. You can use independent and dependent variables to design research.

Can a variable be both independent and dependent at the same time?

No, because a dependent variable is reliant on the independent variable. Thus, a variable in a study can only be the cause (independent) or the effect (dependent). However, there are also cases in which a dependent variable from one study is used as an independent variable in another.

Can a study have more than one independent or dependent variable?

Yes, however, a study must include various research questions for multiple independent and dependent variables to be effective.

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