man holding up hand to wave and sees his shadow. This represents a handwave experiment with independent and dependent variables

Psychology

What Are Independent and Dependent Variables?

03.17.2022 • 6 min read

Zuriel van Belle

Subject Matter Expert

This article describes what a variable is, what dependent and independent variables are, a list of examples, how they are used in psychology studies, and more.

Share

In This Article

  1. What is a Variable?

  2. Dependent Variables

  3. Independent Variables

  4. Examples of Experiments with Variables

  5. How Are Dependent and Independent Variables Used in Psychology Research?

  6. FAQs

What is a Variable?

In an experiment, researchers strive to understand if (and how) one thing affects another. The elements of an experiment that might affect one another are called variables. Variables are attributes that can change.

For example, imagine you design an experiment to test whether a self-reported mood is affected by ambient noise. Your hypothesis (i.e., testable prediction) is that nature sounds will improve a self-reported mood. Your research design is relatively simple: you survey people about their mood before the experiment, then you ask them to spend 30 minutes reading a psychology textbook in a room with no added noise (just the standard whirring of fans and background noises); or you ask them to spend 30 minutes reading a psychology textbook in a room with a bird song and a babbling brook (the experimental condition).

In this case, your variables are mood and ambient noise. Both factors can be changed. Mood can stay the same, be improved, or be worsened. While ambient noise could be altered in many ways (nature sounds, white noise, talking, etc.).

Understanding what the variables are in an experiment is critical to understanding how the experiment is designed. Broadly, there are two types of variables: independent variables and dependent variables.

Dependent Variables

The dependent variable is the variable that a researcher measures to determine the effect of the independent variable. The dependent variable depends on the independent variable. In our experiment, the dependent variable would be the change in self-reported mood.

Independent Variables

The independent variable is the variable that the researcher or experimenter manipulates to affect the dependent variable. It is independent of the other variables in an experiment. In other words, the independent variable causes some kind of change in the dependent variable. In our experiment, the independent variable would be the noise in the room (unaltered ambient noise, or nature sounds). If you know the independent variable definition and dependent variable definition, it’ll be easier to understand how experiments work. When designing an experiment, the goal is to ensure that the only difference between the two conditions is the independent variable.

Understanding what the variables are in an experiment is critical to understanding how the experiment is designed.

Examples of Experiments with Variables

Now that we understand that the dependent variable is the variable being measured to determine the effect of the independent variable (the variable causing the effect), let’s work through a few more examples.

Graphic showing Independent And Dependent Variables Definitions

Example 1

In this example, let’s consider the effect of an act of kindness on charitable donations. In this experiment, imagine you want to test whether being helped by someone else impacts how much money a person donates. You set up your experiment as follows: participants come to a lab. In the control condition (the baseline), the participant arrives at the lab, opens the door, and you give them $20. Then you ask them if they would like to donate any portion of their $20 before leaving the room. In the experimental condition, as the participant heads to the door of the lab, a person walking by (a confederate, or accomplice, in the experiment) goes out of their way to open the door for them. The experiment proceeds exactly as the control; the participant is given $20 and asked if they would like to donate any portion of the money.

Let’s pause for a moment. Can you identify the dependent and independent variables in this experiment?

We should begin by identifying the variables. In this experiment, the variables are:

  1. Being helped with the door or not

  2. How much money a participant allocates to charity

Since the dependent variable is the variable we measure, we know that, in this case, it is the amount of money allocated to charity. The dependent variable could be anywhere from $0 to $20. The independent variable, the variable that we manipulate, is whether or not we help the participant with the door.

Imagine that participants who are helped with the door, on average, donate $10 to charity, and participants who are not helped with the door on average donate $5 to charity. It might be the case that being helped with the door (the independent variable) increases the likelihood someone will donate to charity (the dependent variable). Of course, this is just an example.

To feel more confident about these results, we would need to know how many people were in the study (the sample size), and we would need to analyze the results for statistical significance.

Example 2

Let’s consider another example. Imagine you hypothesize that people will wave back more to you when you are wearing casual clothes than to when you are wearing ragged clothes. In this case, the variables are the number of hand waves and clothing type. Since we will be counting the number of waves, this gives us a clue that the number of waves is the dependent variable. Since we think the type of clothing will affect how many waves are given, we can determine that the type of clothing is the independent variable.

The number of waves depends on the type of clothing. If more people wave back to you when you are wearing casual clothes than when you are wearing ragged clothes, you have evidence that suggests that what you are wearing affects how people respond to you. Of course, as in the previous example, you will need to conduct a careful study with a large sample and statistical analysis to feel confident in your results.

How Are Dependent and Independent Variables Used in Psychology Research?

The examples above help us understand why independent and dependent variables are so important to psychological research. In psychology, researchers often want to understand how and why people think, feel, and behave in certain ways. In order to answer questions about people’s motivation, cognition, emotions, and behavior, we often use experiments.

Whether you’re doing qualitative or quantitative research, independent and dependent variables are critical to the experimental process. Independent and dependent variables help determine cause and effect. A good hypothesis asks what effect an independent variable has on a dependent variable. Without experimental research, we would not be able to determine (with any confidence) how one variable may or may not impact another; we would not be able to determine cause and effect.

A good hypothesis asks what effect an independent variable has on a dependent variable.

FAQs

Can a variable be both independent and dependent?

No, a variable cannot be both independent and dependent at the same time. You can think of the independent variable as the cause and the dependent variable as the effect. You cannot have something in an experiment that is both the cause and the effect. In other words, the independent variable must be independent of other variables and the dependent variable depends on the independent variable.

Can you include more than one independent or dependent variable in a study?

Yes, you can include more than one independent or dependent variable in a study. For example, you might have one independent variable that affects multiple dependent variables or a couple of independent variables that affect one dependent variable. Keep in mind that, generally, the more variables you have in a study, the more difficult it will be to determine cause and effect. It is generally better to have more dependent variables than independent variables in a study because, with many independent variables, it can be difficult to determine which one caused a particular effect.

What are other names for both independent and dependent variables?

We might also refer to an independent variable as a predictor variable, explanatory variable, control variable, manipulated variable, or regressor. Then we might also refer to a dependent variable as a predicted variable, response variable, responding variable, or outcome variable.

Explore Outlier's Award-Winning For-Credit Courses

Outlier (from the co-founder of MasterClass) has brought together some of the world's best instructors, game designers, and filmmakers to create the future of online college.

Check out these related courses:

Intro to Psychology

Intro to Psychology

Explore course

Intro to Philosophy

Intro to Philosophy

Explore course

Calculus I

Calculus I

Explore course