Random assignment refers to the use of chance procedures in psychology experiments to ensure that each participant has the same opportunity to be assigned to any given group.
Study participants are randomly assigned to different groups, such as the experimental group, or treatment group. Random assignment might involve such tactics as flipping a coin, drawing names out of a hat, rolling dice, or assigning random numbers to participants.
It is important to note that random assignment differs from random selection. While random selection refers to how participants are randomly chosen to represent the larger population, random assignment refers to how those chosen participants are then assigned to experimental groups.
How Does Random Assignment Work in a Psychology Experiment?
To determine if changes in one variable lead to changes in another variable, psychologists must perform an experiment. Researchers often begin by forming a testable hypothesis predicting that one variable of interest will have some impact on another variable.
The variable that the experimenters will manipulate in the experiment is known as the independent variable while the variable that they will then measure is known as the dependent variable. While there are different ways to look at relationships between variables, and experiment is the best way to get a clear idea if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two or more variables.
Once researchers have formulated a hypothesis, conducted background research, and chosen an experimental design, it is time to find participants for their experiment. How exactly do researchers decide who will be part of an experiment? As mentioned previously, this is often accomplished through something known as random selection.
In order to generalize the results of an experiment to a larger group, it is important to choose a sample that is representative of the qualities found in that population. For example, if the total population is 51 percent female and 49 percent male, then the sample should reflect those same percentages. Choosing a representative sample is often accomplished by randomly picking people from the population to be participants in a study. Random selection means that everyone in the group stands and equal chance of being chosen.
Once a pool of participants has been selected, it is time to assign them into groups. By randomly assigning the participants into groups, the experimenters can be sure that each group will be the same before the independent variable is applied.
Participants might be randomly assigned to the control group, which does not receive the treatment in question. Or they might be randomly assigned to the experimental group, which does receive the treatment. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the two groups are the same at the outset, that way any changes that result from the application of the independent variable can be assumed to be the result of the treatment of interest.
An Example of Random Assignment
Imagine that a researcher is interested in learning whether or not drinking caffeinated beverages prior to an exam will improve test performance. After randomly selecting a pool of participants, each person is randomly assigned to either the control group or the experimental group. The participants in the control group consume a placebo drink prior to the exam that does not contain any caffeine. Those in the experimental group, on the other hand, consume a caffeinated beverage before taking the test. Participants in both groups then take the test and the researcher compares the results to determine if the caffeinated beverage had any impact on test performance.
A Word From Verywell
Random assignment plays an important role in the psychology research process. Not only does this process help eliminate possible sources of bias, it also makes it easier to generalize the results of a population to a larger population.
Random assignment helps ensure that members of each group in the experiment are the same, which means that the groups are also likely more representative of what is present in the larger population. Through the use of this technique, psychology researchers are able to study complex phenomena and contribute to our understanding of the human mind and behavior.
Alferes, VR. Methods of Randomization in Experimental Design. Los Angeles: SAGE; 2012.
Nestor, PG & Schutt, RK. Research Methods in Psychology: Investigating Human Behavior. Los Angeles: SAGE; 2015.
Design of Experiments > Random Selection and Assignment
What is Random Selection?
The word “random” has a precise meaning in statistics. Random selection doesn’t just mean you can just randomly pick a few items to make up a sample. That method is actually something called haphazard sampling, where you try to create a random sample by haphazardly choosing items in order to try and recreate true randomness. That doesn’t usually work (because of something called selection bias). In order to create a true random selection, you need to use one of the tried and testing random selection methods, like simple random sampling.
Example of random selection: You are studying test taking behaviors at a college of 5,000 students. You choose every 50th student from a list (a random selection method called systematic sampling) to create a sample of 50 students to study.
Example of non random selection:
From the same list of 5,000 students, you randomly circle 50 names. This isn’t truly random as your biases (known or unknown) could affect who you circle. For example, you might unknowingly circle boys names over girls, or American-sounding names over foreign-sounding names.
What is Random Assignment?
Random assignment is where study participants are randomly assigned to a study group (i.e. an experimental group or a control group). In a single blind study, the participant does not know whether they are in the experimental group or the control group. In a double blind study, neither the participant nor the researcher knows.
Example of random assignment: you have a study group of 50 people and you write their names on equal size balls. You then place the balls into an urn and mix them well (this is a classic ball and urn experiment). The first 25 balls you draw go into the experimental group. The rest go into the control group.
Example of non-random assignment: you have a list of 50 people to assign to control groups and experimental groups. You use your knowledge and experience to choose 25 people who you think would be better suited to the experimental group (a method called purposive sampling).------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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