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Random Assignment in Experiments | Introduction & Examples

Published on March 8, 2021 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different treatment groups using randomization.

With simple random assignment, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group. Studies that use simple random assignment are also called completely randomized designs .

Random assignment is a key part of experimental design . It helps you ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study: any differences between them are due to random factors, not research biases like sampling bias or selection bias .

Table of contents

Why does random assignment matter, random sampling vs random assignment, how do you use random assignment, when is random assignment not used, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about random assignment.

Random assignment is an important part of control in experimental research, because it helps strengthen the internal validity of an experiment and avoid biases.

In experiments, researchers manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. To do so, they often use different levels of an independent variable for different groups of participants.

This is called a between-groups or independent measures design.

You use three groups of participants that are each given a different level of the independent variable:

  • a control group that’s given a placebo (no dosage, to control for a placebo effect ),
  • an experimental group that’s given a low dosage,
  • a second experimental group that’s given a high dosage.

Random assignment to helps you make sure that the treatment groups don’t differ in systematic ways at the start of the experiment, as this can seriously affect (and even invalidate) your work.

If you don’t use random assignment, you may not be able to rule out alternative explanations for your results.

  • participants recruited from cafes are placed in the control group ,
  • participants recruited from local community centers are placed in the low dosage experimental group,
  • participants recruited from gyms are placed in the high dosage group.

With this type of assignment, it’s hard to tell whether the participant characteristics are the same across all groups at the start of the study. Gym-users may tend to engage in more healthy behaviors than people who frequent cafes or community centers, and this would introduce a healthy user bias in your study.

Although random assignment helps even out baseline differences between groups, it doesn’t always make them completely equivalent. There may still be extraneous variables that differ between groups, and there will always be some group differences that arise from chance.

Most of the time, the random variation between groups is low, and, therefore, it’s acceptable for further analysis. This is especially true when you have a large sample. In general, you should always use random assignment in experiments when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.

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Random sampling and random assignment are both important concepts in research, but it’s important to understand the difference between them.

Random sampling (also called probability sampling or random selection) is a way of selecting members of a population to be included in your study. In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and experimental groups.

While random sampling is used in many types of studies, random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs.

Some studies use both random sampling and random assignment, while others use only one or the other.

Random sample vs random assignment

Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalizability of your results, because it helps ensure that your sample is unbiased and representative of the whole population. This allows you to make stronger statistical inferences .

You use a simple random sample to collect data. Because you have access to the whole population (all employees), you can assign all 8000 employees a number and use a random number generator to select 300 employees. These 300 employees are your full sample.

Random assignment enhances the internal validity of the study, because it ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group. This helps you conclude that the outcomes can be attributed to the independent variable .

  • a control group that receives no intervention.
  • an experimental group that has a remote team-building intervention every week for a month.

You use random assignment to place participants into the control or experimental group. To do so, you take your list of participants and assign each participant a number. Again, you use a random number generator to place each participant in one of the two groups.

To use simple random assignment, you start by giving every member of the sample a unique number. Then, you can use computer programs or manual methods to randomly assign each participant to a group.

  • Random number generator: Use a computer program to generate random numbers from the list for each group.
  • Lottery method: Place all numbers individually in a hat or a bucket, and draw numbers at random for each group.
  • Flip a coin: When you only have two groups, for each number on the list, flip a coin to decide if they’ll be in the control or the experimental group.
  • Use a dice: When you have three groups, for each number on the list, roll a dice to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1 or 2 lands them in a control group; 3 or 4 in an experimental group; and 5 or 6 in a second control or experimental group.

This type of random assignment is the most powerful method of placing participants in conditions, because each individual has an equal chance of being placed in any one of your treatment groups.

Random assignment in block designs

In more complicated experimental designs, random assignment is only used after participants are grouped into blocks based on some characteristic (e.g., test score or demographic variable). These groupings mean that you need a larger sample to achieve high statistical power .

For example, a randomized block design involves placing participants into blocks based on a shared characteristic (e.g., college students versus graduates), and then using random assignment within each block to assign participants to every treatment condition. This helps you assess whether the characteristic affects the outcomes of your treatment.

In an experimental matched design , you use blocking and then match up individual participants from each block based on specific characteristics. Within each matched pair or group, you randomly assign each participant to one of the conditions in the experiment and compare their outcomes.

Sometimes, it’s not relevant or ethical to use simple random assignment, so groups are assigned in a different way.

When comparing different groups

Sometimes, differences between participants are the main focus of a study, for example, when comparing men and women or people with and without health conditions. Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.

In this type of study, the characteristic of interest (e.g., gender) is an independent variable, and the groups differ based on the different levels (e.g., men, women, etc.). All participants are tested the same way, and then their group-level outcomes are compared.

When it’s not ethically permissible

When studying unhealthy or dangerous behaviors, it’s not possible to use random assignment. For example, if you’re studying heavy drinkers and social drinkers, it’s unethical to randomly assign participants to one of the two groups and ask them to drink large amounts of alcohol for your experiment.

When you can’t assign participants to groups, you can also conduct a quasi-experimental study . In a quasi-experiment, you study the outcomes of pre-existing groups who receive treatments that you may not have any control over (e.g., heavy drinkers and social drinkers). These groups aren’t randomly assigned, but may be considered comparable when some other variables (e.g., age or socioeconomic status) are controlled for.

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If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Student’s  t -distribution
  • Normal distribution
  • Null and Alternative Hypotheses
  • Chi square tests
  • Confidence interval
  • Quartiles & Quantiles
  • Cluster sampling
  • Stratified sampling
  • Data cleansing
  • Reproducibility vs Replicability
  • Peer review
  • Prospective cohort study

Research bias

  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Placebo effect
  • Hawthorne effect
  • Hindsight bias
  • Affect heuristic
  • Social desirability bias

In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different groups using randomization. With this method, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group.

Random selection, or random sampling , is a way of selecting members of a population for your study’s sample.

In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample into control and experimental groups.

Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalizability of your results, while random assignment improves the internal validity of your study.

Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design. In this research design, there’s usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable.

In general, you should always use random assignment in this type of experimental design when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.

To implement random assignment , assign a unique number to every member of your study’s sample .

Then, you can use a random number generator or a lottery method to randomly assign each number to a control or experimental group. You can also do so manually, by flipping a coin or rolling a dice to randomly assign participants to groups.

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The Definition of Random Assignment According to Psychology

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

the importance of random assignment

Emily is a board-certified science editor who has worked with top digital publishing brands like Voices for Biodiversity, Study.com, GoodTherapy, Vox, and Verywell.

the importance of random assignment

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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 in a study to eliminate any potential bias in the experiment at the outset. Participants are randomly assigned to different groups, such as the treatment group versus the control group. In clinical research, randomized clinical trials are known as the gold standard for meaningful results.

Simple random assignment techniques might involve tactics such as flipping a coin, drawing names out of a hat, rolling dice, or assigning random numbers to a list of participants. It is important to note that random assignment differs from random selection .

While random selection refers to how participants are randomly chosen from a target population as representatives of that population, random assignment refers to how those chosen participants are then assigned to experimental groups.

Random Assignment In Research

To determine if changes in one variable will cause changes in another variable, psychologists must perform an experiment. Random assignment is a critical part of the experimental design that helps ensure the reliability of the study outcomes.

Researchers often begin by forming a testable hypothesis predicting that one variable of interest will have some predictable 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 for different outcomes is known as the dependent variable. While there are different ways to look at relationships between variables, an 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.

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 60% female and 40% 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 an equal chance of being chosen to minimize any bias. Once a pool of participants has been selected, it is time to assign them to groups.

By randomly assigning the participants into groups, the experimenters can be fairly sure that each group will have the same characteristics before the independent variable is applied.

Participants might be randomly assigned to the control group , which does not receive the treatment in question. The control group may receive a placebo or receive the standard treatment. Participants may also be randomly assigned to the experimental group , which receives the treatment of interest. In larger studies, there can be multiple treatment groups for comparison.

There are simple methods of random assignment, like rolling the die. However, there are more complex techniques that involve random number generators to remove any human error.

There can also be random assignment to groups with pre-established rules or parameters. For example, if you want to have an equal number of men and women in each of your study groups, you might separate your sample into two groups (by sex) before randomly assigning each of those groups into the treatment group and control group.

Random assignment is essential because it increases the likelihood that the groups are the same at the outset. With all characteristics being equal between groups, other than the application of the independent variable, any differences found between group outcomes can be more confidently attributed to the effect of the intervention.

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, but it also makes it easier to generalize the results of a tested sample of participants 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 of interest. 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.

Lin Y, Zhu M, Su Z. The pursuit of balance: An overview of covariate-adaptive randomization techniques in clinical trials . Contemp Clin Trials. 2015;45(Pt A):21-25. doi:10.1016/j.cct.2015.07.011

Sullivan L. Random assignment versus random selection . In: The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2009. doi:10.4135/9781412972024.n2108

Alferes VR. Methods of Randomization in Experimental Design . SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2012. doi:10.4135/9781452270012

Nestor PG, Schutt RK. Research Methods in Psychology: Investigating Human Behavior. (2nd Ed.). SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2015.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

Random Assignment in Psychology: Definition & Examples

Julia Simkus

Editor at Simply Psychology

BA (Hons) Psychology, Princeton University

Julia Simkus is a graduate of Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is currently studying for a Master's Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness in September 2023. Julia's research has been published in peer reviewed journals.

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BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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In psychology, random assignment refers to the practice of allocating participants to different experimental groups in a study in a completely unbiased way, ensuring each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to any group.

In experimental research, random assignment, or random placement, organizes participants from your sample into different groups using randomization. 

Random assignment uses chance procedures to ensure that each participant has an equal opportunity of being assigned to either a control or experimental group.

The control group does not receive the treatment in question, whereas the experimental group does receive the treatment.

When using random assignment, neither the researcher nor the participant can choose the group to which the participant is assigned. This ensures that any differences between and within the groups are not systematic at the onset of the study. 

In a study to test the success of a weight-loss program, investigators randomly assigned a pool of participants to one of two groups.

Group A participants participated in the weight-loss program for 10 weeks and took a class where they learned about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.

Group B participants read a 200-page book that explains the benefits of weight loss. The investigator randomly assigned participants to one of the two groups.

The researchers found that those who participated in the program and took the class were more likely to lose weight than those in the other group that received only the book.

Importance 

Random assignment ensures that each group in the experiment is identical before applying the independent variable.

In experiments , researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the treatment groups are the same at the onset of a study.

Thus, any changes that result from the independent variable can be assumed to be a result of the treatment of interest. This is particularly important for eliminating sources of bias and strengthening the internal validity of an experiment.

Random assignment is the best method for inferring a causal relationship between a treatment and an outcome.

Random Selection vs. Random Assignment 

Random selection (also called probability sampling or random sampling) is a way of randomly selecting members of a population to be included in your study.

On the other hand, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and treatment groups. 

Random selection ensures that everyone in the population has an equal chance of being selected for the study. Once the pool of participants has been chosen, experimenters use random assignment to assign participants into groups. 

Random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs, while random selection can be used in a variety of study designs.

Random Assignment vs Random Sampling

Random sampling refers to selecting participants from a population so that each individual has an equal chance of being chosen. This method enhances the representativeness of the sample.

Random assignment, on the other hand, is used in experimental designs once participants are selected. It involves allocating these participants to different experimental groups or conditions randomly.

This helps ensure that any differences in results across groups are due to manipulating the independent variable, not preexisting differences among participants.

When to Use Random Assignment

Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design.

In these research designs, researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables.

There is usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable at the onset of the study.

How to Use Random Assignment

There are a variety of ways to assign participants into study groups randomly. Here are a handful of popular methods: 

  • Random Number Generator : Give each member of the sample a unique number; use a computer program to randomly generate a number from the list for each group.
  • Lottery : Give each member of the sample a unique number. Place all numbers in a hat or bucket and draw numbers at random for each group.
  • Flipping a Coin : Flip a coin for each participant to decide if they will be in the control group or experimental group (this method can only be used when you have just two groups) 
  • Roll a Die : For each number on the list, roll a dice to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1, 2, or 3 places them in a control group and rolling 3, 4, 5 lands them in an experimental group.

When is Random Assignment not used?

  • When it is not ethically permissible: Randomization is only ethical if the researcher has no evidence that one treatment is superior to the other or that one treatment might have harmful side effects. 
  • When answering non-causal questions : If the researcher is just interested in predicting the probability of an event, the causal relationship between the variables is not important and observational designs would be more suitable than random assignment. 
  • When studying the effect of variables that cannot be manipulated: Some risk factors cannot be manipulated and so it would not make any sense to study them in a randomized trial. For example, we cannot randomly assign participants into categories based on age, gender, or genetic factors.

Drawbacks of Random Assignment

While randomization assures an unbiased assignment of participants to groups, it does not guarantee the equality of these groups. There could still be extraneous variables that differ between groups or group differences that arise from chance. Additionally, there is still an element of luck with random assignments.

Thus, researchers can not produce perfectly equal groups for each specific study. Differences between the treatment group and control group might still exist, and the results of a randomized trial may sometimes be wrong, but this is absolutely okay.

Scientific evidence is a long and continuous process, and the groups will tend to be equal in the long run when data is aggregated in a meta-analysis.

Additionally, external validity (i.e., the extent to which the researcher can use the results of the study to generalize to the larger population) is compromised with random assignment.

Random assignment is challenging to implement outside of controlled laboratory conditions and might not represent what would happen in the real world at the population level. 

Random assignment can also be more costly than simple observational studies, where an investigator is just observing events without intervening with the population.

Randomization also can be time-consuming and challenging, especially when participants refuse to receive the assigned treatment or do not adhere to recommendations. 

What is the difference between random sampling and random assignment?

Random sampling refers to randomly selecting a sample of participants from a population. Random assignment refers to randomly assigning participants to treatment groups from the selected sample.

Does random assignment increase internal validity?

Yes, random assignment ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group, enhancing the study’s internal validity .

Does random assignment reduce sampling error?

Yes, with random assignment, participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either a control group or an experimental group, resulting in a sample that is, in theory, representative of the population.

Random assignment does not completely eliminate sampling error because a sample only approximates the population from which it is drawn. However, random sampling is a way to minimize sampling errors. 

When is random assignment not possible?

Random assignment is not possible when the experimenters cannot control the treatment or independent variable.

For example, if you want to compare how men and women perform on a test, you cannot randomly assign subjects to these groups.

Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups in this study, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.

Does random assignment eliminate confounding variables?

Yes, random assignment eliminates the influence of any confounding variables on the treatment because it distributes them at random among the study groups. Randomization invalidates any relationship between a confounding variable and the treatment.

Why is random assignment of participants to treatment conditions in an experiment used?

Random assignment is used to ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study. This allows researchers to conclude that the outcomes of the study can be attributed to the intervention at hand and to rule out alternative explanations for study results.

Further Reading

  • Bogomolnaia, A., & Moulin, H. (2001). A new solution to the random assignment problem .  Journal of Economic theory ,  100 (2), 295-328.
  • Krause, M. S., & Howard, K. I. (2003). What random assignment does and does not do .  Journal of Clinical Psychology ,  59 (7), 751-766.

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Statistics By Jim

Making statistics intuitive

Random Assignment in Experiments

By Jim Frost 4 Comments

Random assignment uses chance to assign subjects to the control and treatment groups in an experiment. This process helps ensure that the groups are equivalent at the beginning of the study, which makes it safer to assume the treatments caused any differences between groups that the experimenters observe at the end of the study.

photogram of tumbling dice to illustrate a process for random assignment.

Huh? That might be a big surprise! At this point, you might be wondering about all of those studies that use statistics to assess the effects of different treatments. There’s a critical separation between significance and causality:

  • Statistical procedures determine whether an effect is significant.
  • Experimental designs determine how confidently you can assume that a treatment causes the effect.

In this post, learn how using random assignment in experiments can help you identify causal relationships.

Correlation, Causation, and Confounding Variables

Random assignment helps you separate causation from correlation and rule out confounding variables. As a critical component of the scientific method , experiments typically set up contrasts between a control group and one or more treatment groups. The idea is to determine whether the effect, which is the difference between a treatment group and the control group, is statistically significant. If the effect is significant, group assignment correlates with different outcomes.

However, as you have no doubt heard, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. In other words, the experimental groups can have different mean outcomes, but the treatment might not be causing those differences even though the differences are statistically significant.

The difficulty in definitively stating that a treatment caused the difference is due to potential confounding variables or confounders. Confounders are alternative explanations for differences between the experimental groups. Confounding variables correlate with both the experimental groups and the outcome variable. In this situation, confounding variables can be the actual cause for the outcome differences rather than the treatments themselves. As you’ll see, if an experiment does not account for confounding variables, they can bias the results and make them untrustworthy.

Related posts : Understanding Correlation in Statistics , Causation versus Correlation , and Hill’s Criteria for Causation .

Example of Confounding in an Experiment

A photograph of vitamin capsules to represent our experiment.

  • Control group: Does not consume vitamin supplements
  • Treatment group: Regularly consumes vitamin supplements.

Imagine we measure a specific health outcome. After the experiment is complete, we perform a 2-sample t-test to determine whether the mean outcomes for these two groups are different. Assume the test results indicate that the mean health outcome in the treatment group is significantly better than the control group.

Why can’t we assume that the vitamins improved the health outcomes? After all, only the treatment group took the vitamins.

Related post : Confounding Variables in Regression Analysis

Alternative Explanations for Differences in Outcomes

The answer to that question depends on how we assigned the subjects to the experimental groups. If we let the subjects decide which group to join based on their existing vitamin habits, it opens the door to confounding variables. It’s reasonable to assume that people who take vitamins regularly also tend to have other healthy habits. These habits are confounders because they correlate with both vitamin consumption (experimental group) and the health outcome measure.

Random assignment prevents this self sorting of participants and reduces the likelihood that the groups start with systematic differences.

In fact, studies have found that supplement users are more physically active, have healthier diets, have lower blood pressure, and so on compared to those who don’t take supplements. If subjects who already take vitamins regularly join the treatment group voluntarily, they bring these healthy habits disproportionately to the treatment group. Consequently, these habits will be much more prevalent in the treatment group than the control group.

The healthy habits are the confounding variables—the potential alternative explanations for the difference in our study’s health outcome. It’s entirely possible that these systematic differences between groups at the start of the study might cause the difference in the health outcome at the end of the study—and not the vitamin consumption itself!

If our experiment doesn’t account for these confounding variables, we can’t trust the results. While we obtained statistically significant results with the 2-sample t-test for health outcomes, we don’t know for sure whether the vitamins, the systematic difference in habits, or some combination of the two caused the improvements.

Learn why many randomized clinical experiments use a placebo to control for the Placebo Effect .

Experiments Must Account for Confounding Variables

Your experimental design must account for confounding variables to avoid their problems. Scientific studies commonly use the following methods to handle confounders:

  • Use control variables to keep them constant throughout an experiment.
  • Statistically control for them in an observational study.
  • Use random assignment to reduce the likelihood that systematic differences exist between experimental groups when the study begins.

Let’s take a look at how random assignment works in an experimental design.

Random Assignment Can Reduce the Impact of Confounding Variables

Note that random assignment is different than random sampling. Random sampling is a process for obtaining a sample that accurately represents a population .

Photo of a coin toss to represent how we can incorporate random assignment in our experiment.

Random assignment uses a chance process to assign subjects to experimental groups. Using random assignment requires that the experimenters can control the group assignment for all study subjects. For our study, we must be able to assign our participants to either the control group or the supplement group. Clearly, if we don’t have the ability to assign subjects to the groups, we can’t use random assignment!

Additionally, the process must have an equal probability of assigning a subject to any of the groups. For example, in our vitamin supplement study, we can use a coin toss to assign each subject to either the control group or supplement group. For more complex experimental designs, we can use a random number generator or even draw names out of a hat.

Random Assignment Distributes Confounders Equally

The random assignment process distributes confounding properties amongst your experimental groups equally. In other words, randomness helps eliminate systematic differences between groups. For our study, flipping the coin tends to equalize the distribution of subjects with healthier habits between the control and treatment group. Consequently, these two groups should start roughly equal for all confounding variables, including healthy habits!

Random assignment is a simple, elegant solution to a complex problem. For any given study area, there can be a long list of confounding variables that you could worry about. However, using random assignment, you don’t need to know what they are, how to detect them, or even measure them. Instead, use random assignment to equalize them across your experimental groups so they’re not a problem.

Because random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable when the experiment begins, you can be more confident that the treatments caused the post-study differences. Random assignment helps increase the internal validity of your study.

Comparing the Vitamin Study With and Without Random Assignment

Let’s compare two scenarios involving our hypothetical vitamin study. We’ll assume that the study obtains statistically significant results in both cases.

Scenario 1: We don’t use random assignment and, unbeknownst to us, subjects with healthier habits disproportionately end up in the supplement treatment group. The experimental groups differ by both healthy habits and vitamin consumption. Consequently, we can’t determine whether it was the habits or vitamins that improved the outcomes.

Scenario 2: We use random assignment and, consequently, the treatment and control groups start with roughly equal levels of healthy habits. The intentional introduction of vitamin supplements in the treatment group is the primary difference between the groups. Consequently, we can more confidently assert that the supplements caused an improvement in health outcomes.

For both scenarios, the statistical results could be identical. However, the methodology behind the second scenario makes a stronger case for a causal relationship between vitamin supplement consumption and health outcomes.

How important is it to use the correct methodology? Well, if the relationship between vitamins and health outcomes is not causal, then consuming vitamins won’t cause your health outcomes to improve regardless of what the study indicates. Instead, it’s probably all the other healthy habits!

Learn more about Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) that are the gold standard for identifying causal relationships because they use random assignment.

Drawbacks of Random Assignment

Random assignment helps reduce the chances of systematic differences between the groups at the start of an experiment and, thereby, mitigates the threats of confounding variables and alternative explanations. However, the process does not always equalize all of the confounding variables. Its random nature tends to eliminate systematic differences, but it doesn’t always succeed.

Sometimes random assignment is impossible because the experimenters cannot control the treatment or independent variable. For example, if you want to determine how individuals with and without depression perform on a test, you cannot randomly assign subjects to these groups. The same difficulty occurs when you’re studying differences between genders.

In other cases, there might be ethical issues. For example, in a randomized experiment, the researchers would want to withhold treatment for the control group. However, if the treatments are vaccinations, it might be unethical to withhold the vaccinations.

Other times, random assignment might be possible, but it is very challenging. For example, with vitamin consumption, it’s generally thought that if vitamin supplements cause health improvements, it’s only after very long-term use. It’s hard to enforce random assignment with a strict regimen for usage in one group and non-usage in the other group over the long-run. Or imagine a study about smoking. The researchers would find it difficult to assign subjects to the smoking and non-smoking groups randomly!

Fortunately, if you can’t use random assignment to help reduce the problem of confounding variables, there are different methods available. The other primary approach is to perform an observational study and incorporate the confounders into the statistical model itself. For more information, read my post Observational Studies Explained .

Read About Real Experiments that Used Random Assignment

I’ve written several blog posts about studies that have used random assignment to make causal inferences. Read studies about the following:

  • Flu Vaccinations
  • COVID-19 Vaccinations

Sullivan L.  Random assignment versus random selection . SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2009.

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November 13, 2019 at 4:59 am

Hi Jim, I have a question of randomly assigning participants to one of two conditions when it is an ongoing study and you are not sure of how many participants there will be. I am using this random assignment tool for factorial experiments. http://methodologymedia.psu.edu/most/rannumgenerator It asks you for the total number of participants but at this point, I am not sure how many there will be. Thanks for any advice you can give me, Floyd

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May 28, 2019 at 11:34 am

Jim, can you comment on the validity of using the following approach when we can’t use random assignments. I’m in education, we have an ACT prep course that we offer. We can’t force students to take it and we can’t keep them from taking it either. But we want to know if it’s working. Let’s say that by senior year all students who are going to take the ACT have taken it. Let’s also say that I’m only including students who have taking it twice (so I can show growth between first and second time taking it). What I’ve done to address confounders is to go back to say 8th or 9th grade (prior to anyone taking the ACT or the ACT prep course) and run an analysis showing the two groups are not significantly different to start with. Is this valid? If the ACT prep students were higher achievers in 8th or 9th grade, I could not assume my prep course is effecting greater growth, but if they were not significantly different in 8th or 9th grade, I can assume the significant difference in ACT growth (from first to second testing) is due to the prep course. Yes or no?

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May 26, 2019 at 5:37 pm

Nice post! I think the key to understanding scientific research is to understand randomization. And most people don’t get it.

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May 27, 2019 at 9:48 pm

Thank you, Anoop!

I think randomness in an experiment is a funny thing. The issue of confounding factors is a serious problem. You might not even know what they are! But, use random assignment and, voila, the problem usually goes away! If you can’t use random assignment, suddenly you have a whole host of issues to worry about, which I’ll be writing about in more detail in my upcoming post about observational experiments!

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Random Assignment in Psychology (Definition + 40 Examples)

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Have you ever wondered how researchers discover new ways to help people learn, make decisions, or overcome challenges? A hidden hero in this adventure of discovery is a method called random assignment, a cornerstone in psychological research that helps scientists uncover the truths about the human mind and behavior.

Random Assignment is a process used in research where each participant has an equal chance of being placed in any group within the study. This technique is essential in experiments as it helps to eliminate biases, ensuring that the different groups being compared are similar in all important aspects.

By doing so, researchers can be confident that any differences observed are likely due to the variable being tested, rather than other factors.

In this article, we’ll explore the intriguing world of random assignment, diving into its history, principles, real-world examples, and the impact it has had on the field of psychology.

History of Random Assignment

two women in different conditions

Stepping back in time, we delve into the origins of random assignment, which finds its roots in the early 20th century.

The pioneering mind behind this innovative technique was Sir Ronald A. Fisher , a British statistician and biologist. Fisher introduced the concept of random assignment in the 1920s, aiming to improve the quality and reliability of experimental research .

His contributions laid the groundwork for the method's evolution and its widespread adoption in various fields, particularly in psychology.

Fisher’s groundbreaking work on random assignment was motivated by his desire to control for confounding variables – those pesky factors that could muddy the waters of research findings.

By assigning participants to different groups purely by chance, he realized that the influence of these confounding variables could be minimized, paving the way for more accurate and trustworthy results.

Early Studies Utilizing Random Assignment

Following Fisher's initial development, random assignment started to gain traction in the research community. Early studies adopting this methodology focused on a variety of topics, from agriculture (which was Fisher’s primary field of interest) to medicine and psychology.

The approach allowed researchers to draw stronger conclusions from their experiments, bolstering the development of new theories and practices.

One notable early study utilizing random assignment was conducted in the field of educational psychology. Researchers were keen to understand the impact of different teaching methods on student outcomes.

By randomly assigning students to various instructional approaches, they were able to isolate the effects of the teaching methods, leading to valuable insights and recommendations for educators.

Evolution of the Methodology

As the decades rolled on, random assignment continued to evolve and adapt to the changing landscape of research.

Advances in technology introduced new tools and techniques for implementing randomization, such as computerized random number generators, which offered greater precision and ease of use.

The application of random assignment expanded beyond the confines of the laboratory, finding its way into field studies and large-scale surveys.

Researchers across diverse disciplines embraced the methodology, recognizing its potential to enhance the validity of their findings and contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

From its humble beginnings in the early 20th century to its widespread use today, random assignment has proven to be a cornerstone of scientific inquiry.

Its development and evolution have played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of psychological research, driving discoveries that have improved lives and deepened our understanding of the human experience.

Principles of Random Assignment

Delving into the heart of random assignment, we uncover the theories and principles that form its foundation.

The method is steeped in the basics of probability theory and statistical inference, ensuring that each participant has an equal chance of being placed in any group, thus fostering fair and unbiased results.

Basic Principles of Random Assignment

Understanding the core principles of random assignment is key to grasping its significance in research. There are three principles: equal probability of selection, reduction of bias, and ensuring representativeness.

The first principle, equal probability of selection , ensures that every participant has an identical chance of being assigned to any group in the study. This randomness is crucial as it mitigates the risk of bias and establishes a level playing field.

The second principle focuses on the reduction of bias . Random assignment acts as a safeguard, ensuring that the groups being compared are alike in all essential aspects before the experiment begins.

This similarity between groups allows researchers to attribute any differences observed in the outcomes directly to the independent variable being studied.

Lastly, ensuring representativeness is a vital principle. When participants are assigned randomly, the resulting groups are more likely to be representative of the larger population.

This characteristic is crucial for the generalizability of the study’s findings, allowing researchers to apply their insights broadly.

Theoretical Foundation

The theoretical foundation of random assignment lies in probability theory and statistical inference .

Probability theory deals with the likelihood of different outcomes, providing a mathematical framework for analyzing random phenomena. In the context of random assignment, it helps in ensuring that each participant has an equal chance of being placed in any group.

Statistical inference, on the other hand, allows researchers to draw conclusions about a population based on a sample of data drawn from that population. It is the mechanism through which the results of a study can be generalized to a broader context.

Random assignment enhances the reliability of statistical inferences by reducing biases and ensuring that the sample is representative.

Differentiating Random Assignment from Random Selection

It’s essential to distinguish between random assignment and random selection, as the two terms, while related, have distinct meanings in the realm of research.

Random assignment refers to how participants are placed into different groups in an experiment, aiming to control for confounding variables and help determine causes.

In contrast, random selection pertains to how individuals are chosen to participate in a study. This method is used to ensure that the sample of participants is representative of the larger population, which is vital for the external validity of the research.

While both methods are rooted in randomness and probability, they serve different purposes in the research process.

Understanding the theories, principles, and distinctions of random assignment illuminates its pivotal role in psychological research.

This method, anchored in probability theory and statistical inference, serves as a beacon of reliability, guiding researchers in their quest for knowledge and ensuring that their findings stand the test of validity and applicability.

Methodology of Random Assignment

woman sleeping with a brain monitor

Implementing random assignment in a study is a meticulous process that involves several crucial steps.

The initial step is participant selection, where individuals are chosen to partake in the study. This stage is critical to ensure that the pool of participants is diverse and representative of the population the study aims to generalize to.

Once the pool of participants has been established, the actual assignment process begins. In this step, each participant is allocated randomly to one of the groups in the study.

Researchers use various tools, such as random number generators or computerized methods, to ensure that this assignment is genuinely random and free from biases.

Monitoring and adjusting form the final step in the implementation of random assignment. Researchers need to continuously observe the groups to ensure that they remain comparable in all essential aspects throughout the study.

If any significant discrepancies arise, adjustments might be necessary to maintain the study’s integrity and validity.

Tools and Techniques Used

The evolution of technology has introduced a variety of tools and techniques to facilitate random assignment.

Random number generators, both manual and computerized, are commonly used to assign participants to different groups. These generators ensure that each individual has an equal chance of being placed in any group, upholding the principle of equal probability of selection.

In addition to random number generators, researchers often use specialized computer software designed for statistical analysis and experimental design.

These software programs offer advanced features that allow for precise and efficient random assignment, minimizing the risk of human error and enhancing the study’s reliability.

Ethical Considerations

The implementation of random assignment is not devoid of ethical considerations. Informed consent is a fundamental ethical principle that researchers must uphold.

Informed consent means that every participant should be fully informed about the nature of the study, the procedures involved, and any potential risks or benefits, ensuring that they voluntarily agree to participate.

Beyond informed consent, researchers must conduct a thorough risk and benefit analysis. The potential benefits of the study should outweigh any risks or harms to the participants.

Safeguarding the well-being of participants is paramount, and any study employing random assignment must adhere to established ethical guidelines and standards.

Conclusion of Methodology

The methodology of random assignment, while seemingly straightforward, is a multifaceted process that demands precision, fairness, and ethical integrity. From participant selection to assignment and monitoring, each step is crucial to ensure the validity of the study’s findings.

The tools and techniques employed, coupled with a steadfast commitment to ethical principles, underscore the significance of random assignment as a cornerstone of robust psychological research.

Benefits of Random Assignment in Psychological Research

The impact and importance of random assignment in psychological research cannot be overstated. It is fundamental for ensuring the study is accurate, allowing the researchers to determine if their study actually caused the results they saw, and making sure the findings can be applied to the real world.

Facilitating Causal Inferences

When participants are randomly assigned to different groups, researchers can be more confident that the observed effects are due to the independent variable being changed, and not other factors.

This ability to determine the cause is called causal inference .

This confidence allows for the drawing of causal relationships, which are foundational for theory development and application in psychology.

Ensuring Internal Validity

One of the foremost impacts of random assignment is its ability to enhance the internal validity of an experiment.

Internal validity refers to the extent to which a researcher can assert that changes in the dependent variable are solely due to manipulations of the independent variable , and not due to confounding variables.

By ensuring that each participant has an equal chance of being in any condition of the experiment, random assignment helps control for participant characteristics that could otherwise complicate the results.

Enhancing Generalizability

Beyond internal validity, random assignment also plays a crucial role in enhancing the generalizability of research findings.

When done correctly, it ensures that the sample groups are representative of the larger population, so can allow researchers to apply their findings more broadly.

This representative nature is essential for the practical application of research, impacting policy, interventions, and psychological therapies.

Limitations of Random Assignment

Potential for implementation issues.

While the principles of random assignment are robust, the method can face implementation issues.

One of the most common problems is logistical constraints. Some studies, due to their nature or the specific population being studied, find it challenging to implement random assignment effectively.

For instance, in educational settings, logistical issues such as class schedules and school policies might stop the random allocation of students to different teaching methods .

Ethical Dilemmas

Random assignment, while methodologically sound, can also present ethical dilemmas.

In some cases, withholding a potentially beneficial treatment from one of the groups of participants can raise serious ethical questions, especially in medical or clinical research where participants' well-being might be directly affected.

Researchers must navigate these ethical waters carefully, balancing the pursuit of knowledge with the well-being of participants.

Generalizability Concerns

Even when implemented correctly, random assignment does not always guarantee generalizable results.

The types of people in the participant pool, the specific context of the study, and the nature of the variables being studied can all influence the extent to which the findings can be applied to the broader population.

Researchers must be cautious in making broad generalizations from studies, even those employing strict random assignment.

Practical and Real-World Limitations

In the real world, many variables cannot be manipulated for ethical or practical reasons, limiting the applicability of random assignment.

For instance, researchers cannot randomly assign individuals to different levels of intelligence, socioeconomic status, or cultural backgrounds.

This limitation necessitates the use of other research designs, such as correlational or observational studies , when exploring relationships involving such variables.

Response to Critiques

In response to these critiques, people in favor of random assignment argue that the method, despite its limitations, remains one of the most reliable ways to establish cause and effect in experimental research.

They acknowledge the challenges and ethical considerations but emphasize the rigorous frameworks in place to address them.

The ongoing discussion around the limitations and critiques of random assignment contributes to the evolution of the method, making sure it is continuously relevant and applicable in psychological research.

While random assignment is a powerful tool in experimental research, it is not without its critiques and limitations. Implementation issues, ethical dilemmas, generalizability concerns, and real-world limitations can pose significant challenges.

However, the continued discourse and refinement around these issues underline the method's enduring significance in the pursuit of knowledge in psychology.

By being careful with how we do things and doing what's right, random assignment stays a really important part of studying how people act and think.

Real-World Applications and Examples

man on a treadmill

Random assignment has been employed in many studies across various fields of psychology, leading to significant discoveries and advancements.

Here are some real-world applications and examples illustrating the diversity and impact of this method:

  • Medicine and Health Psychology: Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are the gold standard in medical research. In these studies, participants are randomly assigned to either the treatment or control group to test the efficacy of new medications or interventions.
  • Educational Psychology: Studies in this field have used random assignment to explore the effects of different teaching methods, classroom environments, and educational technologies on student learning and outcomes.
  • Cognitive Psychology: Researchers have employed random assignment to investigate various aspects of human cognition, including memory, attention, and problem-solving, leading to a deeper understanding of how the mind works.
  • Social Psychology: Random assignment has been instrumental in studying social phenomena, such as conformity, aggression, and prosocial behavior, shedding light on the intricate dynamics of human interaction.

Let's get into some specific examples. You'll need to know one term though, and that is "control group." A control group is a set of participants in a study who do not receive the treatment or intervention being tested , serving as a baseline to compare with the group that does, in order to assess the effectiveness of the treatment.

  • Smoking Cessation Study: Researchers used random assignment to put participants into two groups. One group received a new anti-smoking program, while the other did not. This helped determine if the program was effective in helping people quit smoking.
  • Math Tutoring Program: A study on students used random assignment to place them into two groups. One group received additional math tutoring, while the other continued with regular classes, to see if the extra help improved their grades.
  • Exercise and Mental Health: Adults were randomly assigned to either an exercise group or a control group to study the impact of physical activity on mental health and mood.
  • Diet and Weight Loss: A study randomly assigned participants to different diet plans to compare their effectiveness in promoting weight loss and improving health markers.
  • Sleep and Learning: Researchers randomly assigned students to either a sleep extension group or a regular sleep group to study the impact of sleep on learning and memory.
  • Classroom Seating Arrangement: Teachers used random assignment to place students in different seating arrangements to examine the effect on focus and academic performance.
  • Music and Productivity: Employees were randomly assigned to listen to music or work in silence to investigate the effect of music on workplace productivity.
  • Medication for ADHD: Children with ADHD were randomly assigned to receive either medication, behavioral therapy, or a placebo to compare treatment effectiveness.
  • Mindfulness Meditation for Stress: Adults were randomly assigned to a mindfulness meditation group or a waitlist control group to study the impact on stress levels.
  • Video Games and Aggression: A study randomly assigned participants to play either violent or non-violent video games and then measured their aggression levels.
  • Online Learning Platforms: Students were randomly assigned to use different online learning platforms to evaluate their effectiveness in enhancing learning outcomes.
  • Hand Sanitizers in Schools: Schools were randomly assigned to use hand sanitizers or not to study the impact on student illness and absenteeism.
  • Caffeine and Alertness: Participants were randomly assigned to consume caffeinated or decaffeinated beverages to measure the effects on alertness and cognitive performance.
  • Green Spaces and Well-being: Neighborhoods were randomly assigned to receive green space interventions to study the impact on residents’ well-being and community connections.
  • Pet Therapy for Hospital Patients: Patients were randomly assigned to receive pet therapy or standard care to assess the impact on recovery and mood.
  • Yoga for Chronic Pain: Individuals with chronic pain were randomly assigned to a yoga intervention group or a control group to study the effect on pain levels and quality of life.
  • Flu Vaccines Effectiveness: Different groups of people were randomly assigned to receive either the flu vaccine or a placebo to determine the vaccine’s effectiveness.
  • Reading Strategies for Dyslexia: Children with dyslexia were randomly assigned to different reading intervention strategies to compare their effectiveness.
  • Physical Environment and Creativity: Participants were randomly assigned to different room setups to study the impact of physical environment on creative thinking.
  • Laughter Therapy for Depression: Individuals with depression were randomly assigned to laughter therapy sessions or control groups to assess the impact on mood.
  • Financial Incentives for Exercise: Participants were randomly assigned to receive financial incentives for exercising to study the impact on physical activity levels.
  • Art Therapy for Anxiety: Individuals with anxiety were randomly assigned to art therapy sessions or a waitlist control group to measure the effect on anxiety levels.
  • Natural Light in Offices: Employees were randomly assigned to workspaces with natural or artificial light to study the impact on productivity and job satisfaction.
  • School Start Times and Academic Performance: Schools were randomly assigned different start times to study the effect on student academic performance and well-being.
  • Horticulture Therapy for Seniors: Older adults were randomly assigned to participate in horticulture therapy or traditional activities to study the impact on cognitive function and life satisfaction.
  • Hydration and Cognitive Function: Participants were randomly assigned to different hydration levels to measure the impact on cognitive function and alertness.
  • Intergenerational Programs: Seniors and young people were randomly assigned to intergenerational programs to study the effects on well-being and cross-generational understanding.
  • Therapeutic Horseback Riding for Autism: Children with autism were randomly assigned to therapeutic horseback riding or traditional therapy to study the impact on social communication skills.
  • Active Commuting and Health: Employees were randomly assigned to active commuting (cycling, walking) or passive commuting to study the effect on physical health.
  • Mindful Eating for Weight Management: Individuals were randomly assigned to mindful eating workshops or control groups to study the impact on weight management and eating habits.
  • Noise Levels and Learning: Students were randomly assigned to classrooms with different noise levels to study the effect on learning and concentration.
  • Bilingual Education Methods: Schools were randomly assigned different bilingual education methods to compare their effectiveness in language acquisition.
  • Outdoor Play and Child Development: Children were randomly assigned to different amounts of outdoor playtime to study the impact on physical and cognitive development.
  • Social Media Detox: Participants were randomly assigned to a social media detox or regular usage to study the impact on mental health and well-being.
  • Therapeutic Writing for Trauma Survivors: Individuals who experienced trauma were randomly assigned to therapeutic writing sessions or control groups to study the impact on psychological well-being.
  • Mentoring Programs for At-risk Youth: At-risk youth were randomly assigned to mentoring programs or control groups to assess the impact on academic achievement and behavior.
  • Dance Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease: Individuals with Parkinson’s disease were randomly assigned to dance therapy or traditional exercise to study the effect on motor function and quality of life.
  • Aquaponics in Schools: Schools were randomly assigned to implement aquaponics programs to study the impact on student engagement and environmental awareness.
  • Virtual Reality for Phobia Treatment: Individuals with phobias were randomly assigned to virtual reality exposure therapy or traditional therapy to compare effectiveness.
  • Gardening and Mental Health: Participants were randomly assigned to engage in gardening or other leisure activities to study the impact on mental health and stress reduction.

Each of these studies exemplifies how random assignment is utilized in various fields and settings, shedding light on the multitude of ways it can be applied to glean valuable insights and knowledge.

Real-world Impact of Random Assignment

old lady gardening

Random assignment is like a key tool in the world of learning about people's minds and behaviors. It’s super important and helps in many different areas of our everyday lives. It helps make better rules, creates new ways to help people, and is used in lots of different fields.

Health and Medicine

In health and medicine, random assignment has helped doctors and scientists make lots of discoveries. It’s a big part of tests that help create new medicines and treatments.

By putting people into different groups by chance, scientists can really see if a medicine works.

This has led to new ways to help people with all sorts of health problems, like diabetes, heart disease, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Schools and education have also learned a lot from random assignment. Researchers have used it to look at different ways of teaching, what kind of classrooms are best, and how technology can help learning.

This knowledge has helped make better school rules, develop what we learn in school, and find the best ways to teach students of all ages and backgrounds.

Workplace and Organizational Behavior

Random assignment helps us understand how people act at work and what makes a workplace good or bad.

Studies have looked at different kinds of workplaces, how bosses should act, and how teams should be put together. This has helped companies make better rules and create places to work that are helpful and make people happy.

Environmental and Social Changes

Random assignment is also used to see how changes in the community and environment affect people. Studies have looked at community projects, changes to the environment, and social programs to see how they help or hurt people’s well-being.

This has led to better community projects, efforts to protect the environment, and programs to help people in society.

Technology and Human Interaction

In our world where technology is always changing, studies with random assignment help us see how tech like social media, virtual reality, and online stuff affect how we act and feel.

This has helped make better and safer technology and rules about using it so that everyone can benefit.

The effects of random assignment go far and wide, way beyond just a science lab. It helps us understand lots of different things, leads to new and improved ways to do things, and really makes a difference in the world around us.

From making healthcare and schools better to creating positive changes in communities and the environment, the real-world impact of random assignment shows just how important it is in helping us learn and make the world a better place.

So, what have we learned? Random assignment is like a super tool in learning about how people think and act. It's like a detective helping us find clues and solve mysteries in many parts of our lives.

From creating new medicines to helping kids learn better in school, and from making workplaces happier to protecting the environment, it’s got a big job!

This method isn’t just something scientists use in labs; it reaches out and touches our everyday lives. It helps make positive changes and teaches us valuable lessons.

Whether we are talking about technology, health, education, or the environment, random assignment is there, working behind the scenes, making things better and safer for all of us.

In the end, the simple act of putting people into groups by chance helps us make big discoveries and improvements. It’s like throwing a small stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread out far and wide.

Thanks to random assignment, we are always learning, growing, and finding new ways to make our world a happier and healthier place for everyone!

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Elements of Research

                                                                                   

Random assignment is a procedure used in experiments to create multiple study groups that include participants with similar characteristics so that the groups are equivalent at the beginning of the study. The procedure involves assigning individuals to an experimental treatment or program at random, or by chance (like the flip of a coin). This means that each individual has an equal chance of being assigned to either group. Usually in studies that involve random assignment, participants will receive a new treatment or program, will receive nothing at all or will receive an existing treatment. When using random assignment, neither the researcher nor the participant can choose the group to which the participant is assigned.

The benefit of using random assignment is that it “evens the playing field.” This means that the groups will differ only in the program or treatment to which they are assigned. If both groups are equivalent except for the program or treatment that they receive, then any change that is observed after comparing information collected about individuals at the beginning of the study and again at the end of the study can be attributed to the program or treatment. This way, the researcher has more confidence that any changes that might have occurred are due to the treatment under study and not to the characteristics of the group.

A potential problem with random assignment is the temptation to ignore the random assignment procedures. For example, it may be tempting to assign an overweight participant to the treatment group that includes participation in a weight-loss program. Ignoring random assignment procedures in this study limits the ability to determine whether or not the weight loss program is effective because the groups will not be randomized. Research staff must follow random assignment protocol, if that is part of the study design, to maintain the integrity of the research. Failure to follow procedures used for random assignment prevents the study outcomes from being meaningful and applicable to the groups represented.

                                

                                                                                                          

 

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Institution for Social and Policy Studies

Advancing research • shaping policy • developing leaders, why randomize.

About Randomized Field Experiments Randomized field experiments allow researchers to scientifically measure the impact of an intervention on a particular outcome of interest.

What is a randomized field experiment? In a randomized experiment, a study sample is divided into one group that will receive the intervention being studied (the treatment group) and another group that will not receive the intervention (the control group). For instance, a study sample might consist of all registered voters in a particular city. This sample will then be randomly divided into treatment and control groups. Perhaps 40% of the sample will be on a campaign’s Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) mailing list and the other 60% of the sample will not receive the GOTV mailings. The outcome measured –voter turnout– can then be compared in the two groups. The difference in turnout will reflect the effectiveness of the intervention.

What does random assignment mean? The key to randomized experimental research design is in the random assignment of study subjects – for example, individual voters, precincts, media markets or some other group – into treatment or control groups. Randomization has a very specific meaning in this context. It does not refer to haphazard or casual choosing of some and not others. Randomization in this context means that care is taken to ensure that no pattern exists between the assignment of subjects into groups and any characteristics of those subjects. Every subject is as likely as any other to be assigned to the treatment (or control) group. Randomization is generally achieved by employing a computer program containing a random number generator. Randomization procedures differ based upon the research design of the experiment. Individuals or groups may be randomly assigned to treatment or control groups. Some research designs stratify subjects by geographic, demographic or other factors prior to random assignment in order to maximize the statistical power of the estimated effect of the treatment (e.g., GOTV intervention). Information about the randomization procedure is included in each experiment summary on the site.

What are the advantages of randomized experimental designs? Randomized experimental design yields the most accurate analysis of the effect of an intervention (e.g., a voter mobilization phone drive or a visit from a GOTV canvasser, on voter behavior). By randomly assigning subjects to be in the group that receives the treatment or to be in the control group, researchers can measure the effect of the mobilization method regardless of other factors that may make some people or groups more likely to participate in the political process. To provide a simple example, say we are testing the effectiveness of a voter education program on high school seniors. If we allow students from the class to volunteer to participate in the program, and we then compare the volunteers’ voting behavior against those who did not participate, our results will reflect something other than the effects of the voter education intervention. This is because there are, no doubt, qualities about those volunteers that make them different from students who do not volunteer. And, most important for our work, those differences may very well correlate with propensity to vote. Instead of letting students self-select, or even letting teachers select students (as teachers may have biases in who they choose), we could randomly assign all students in a given class to be in either a treatment or control group. This would ensure that those in the treatment and control groups differ solely due to chance. The value of randomization may also be seen in the use of walk lists for door-to-door canvassers. If canvassers choose which houses they will go to and which they will skip, they may choose houses that seem more inviting or they may choose houses that are placed closely together rather than those that are more spread out. These differences could conceivably correlate with voter turnout. Or if house numbers are chosen by selecting those on the first half of a ten page list, they may be clustered in neighborhoods that differ in important ways from neighborhoods in the second half of the list. Random assignment controls for both known and unknown variables that can creep in with other selection processes to confound analyses. Randomized experimental design is a powerful tool for drawing valid inferences about cause and effect. The use of randomized experimental design should allow a degree of certainty that the research findings cited in studies that employ this methodology reflect the effects of the interventions being measured and not some other underlying variable or variables.

Random Assignment

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  • First Online: 01 January 2020
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the importance of random assignment

  • Sven Hilbert 3 , 4 , 5  

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Random assignment defines the assignment of participants of a study to their respective group strictly by chance.

Introduction

Statistical inference is based on the theory of probability, and effects investigated in psychological studies are defined by measures that are treated as random variables. The inference about the probability of a given result with regard to an assumed population and the popular term “significance” are only meaningful and without bias if the measure of interest is really a random variable. To achieve the creation of a random variable in form of a measure derived from a sample of participants, these participants have to be randomly drawn. In an experimental study involving different groups of participants, these participants have to additionally be randomly assigned to one of the groups.

Why Is Random Assignment Crucial for Statistical Inference?

Many psychological investigations, such as clinical treatment studies or neuropsychological training...

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Gigerenzer, G., Swijtink, Z., Porter, T., Daston, L., Beatty, J., & Kruger, L. (1989). The empire of chance: How probability changed science and everyday-life . Cambridge: New York.

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Department of Psychology, Psychological Methods and Assessment, Münich, Germany

Sven Hilbert

Faculty of Psychology, Educational Science, and Sport Science, University of Regensburg, Regensburg, Germany

Psychological Methods and Assessment, LMU Munich, Munich, Germany

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Correspondence to Sven Hilbert .

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Hilbert, S. (2020). Random Assignment. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_1343

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Random Assignment in Psychology (Intro for Students)

Random Assignment in Psychology (Intro for Students)

Dave Cornell (PhD)

Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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Random Assignment in Psychology (Intro for Students)

Chris Drew (PhD)

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

the importance of random assignment

Random assignment is a research procedure used to randomly assign participants to different experimental conditions (or ‘groups’). This introduces the element of chance, ensuring that each participant has an equal likelihood of being placed in any condition group for the study.

It is absolutely essential that the treatment condition and the control condition are the same in all ways except for the variable being manipulated.

Using random assignment to place participants in different conditions helps to achieve this.

It ensures that those conditions are the same in regards to all potential confounding variables and extraneous factors .

Why Researchers Use Random Assignment

Researchers use random assignment to control for confounds in research.

Confounds refer to unwanted and often unaccounted-for variables that might affect the outcome of a study. These confounding variables can skew the results, rendering the experiment unreliable.

For example, below is a study with two groups. Note how there are more ‘red’ individuals in the first group than the second:

a representation of a treatment condition showing 12 red people in the cohort

There is likely a confounding variable in this experiment explaining why more red people ended up in the treatment condition and less in the control condition. The red people might have self-selected, for example, leading to a skew of them in one group over the other.

Ideally, we’d want a more even distribution, like below:

a representation of a treatment condition showing 4 red people in the cohort

To achieve better balance in our two conditions, we use randomized sampling.

Fact File: Experiments 101

Random assignment is used in the type of research called the experiment.

An experiment involves manipulating the level of one variable and examining how it affects another variable. These are the independent and dependent variables :

  • Independent Variable: The variable manipulated is called the independent variable (IV)
  • Dependent Variable: The variable that it is expected to affect is called the dependent variable (DV).

The most basic form of the experiment involves two conditions: the treatment and the control .

  • The Treatment Condition: The treatment condition involves the participants being exposed to the IV.
  • The Control Condition: The control condition involves the absence of the IV. Therefore, the IV has two levels: zero and some quantity.

Researchers utilize random assignment to determine which participants go into which conditions.

Methods of Random Assignment

There are several procedures that researchers can use to randomly assign participants to different conditions.

1. Random number generator

There are several websites that offer computer-generated random numbers. Simply indicate how many conditions are in the experiment and then click. If there are 4 conditions, the program will randomly generate a number between 1 and 4 each time it is clicked.

2. Flipping a coin

If there are two conditions in an experiment, then the simplest way to implement random assignment is to flip a coin for each participant. Heads means being assigned to the treatment and tails means being assigned to the control (or vice versa).

3. Rolling a die

Rolling a single die is another way to randomly assign participants. If the experiment has three conditions, then numbers 1 and 2 mean being assigned to the control; numbers 3 and 4 mean treatment condition one; and numbers 5 and 6 mean treatment condition two.

4. Condition names in a hat

In some studies, the researcher will write the name of the treatment condition(s) or control on slips of paper and place them in a hat. If there are 4 conditions and 1 control, then there are 5 slips of paper.

The researcher closes their eyes and selects one slip for each participant. That person is then assigned to one of the conditions in the study and that slip of paper is placed back in the hat. Repeat as necessary.

There are other ways of trying to ensure that the groups of participants are equal in all ways with the exception of the IV. However, random assignment is the most often used because it is so effective at reducing confounds.

Read About More Methods and Examples of Random Assignment Here

Potential Confounding Effects

Random assignment is all about minimizing confounding effects.

Here are six types of confounds that can be controlled for using random assignment:

  • Individual Differences: Participants in a study will naturally vary in terms of personality, intelligence, mood, prior knowledge, and many other characteristics. If one group happens to have more people with a particular characteristic, this could affect the results. Random assignment ensures that these individual differences are spread out equally among the experimental groups, making it less likely that they will unduly influence the outcome.
  • Temporal or Time-Related Confounds: Events or situations that occur at a particular time can influence the outcome of an experiment. For example, a participant might be tested after a stressful event, while another might be tested after a relaxing weekend. Random assignment ensures that such effects are equally distributed among groups, thus controlling for their potential influence.
  • Order Effects: If participants are exposed to multiple treatments or tests, the order in which they experience them can influence their responses. Randomly assigning the order of treatments for different participants helps control for this.
  • Location or Environmental Confounds: The environment in which the study is conducted can influence the results. One group might be tested in a noisy room, while another might be in a quiet room. Randomly assigning participants to different locations can control for these effects.
  • Instrumentation Confounds: These occur when there are variations in the calibration or functioning of measurement instruments across conditions. If one group’s responses are being measured using a slightly different tool or scale, it can introduce a confound. Random assignment can ensure that any such potential inconsistencies in instrumentation are equally distributed among groups.
  • Experimenter Effects: Sometimes, the behavior or expectations of the person administering the experiment can unintentionally influence the participants’ behavior or responses. For instance, if an experimenter believes one treatment is superior, they might unconsciously communicate this belief to participants. Randomly assigning experimenters or using a double-blind procedure (where neither the participant nor the experimenter knows the treatment being given) can help control for this.

Random assignment helps balance out these and other potential confounds across groups, ensuring that any observed differences are more likely due to the manipulated independent variable rather than some extraneous factor.

Limitations of the Random Assignment Procedure

Although random assignment is extremely effective at eliminating the presence of participant-related confounds, there are several scenarios in which it cannot be used.

  • Ethics: The most obvious scenario is when it would be unethical. For example, if wanting to investigate the effects of emotional abuse on children, it would be unethical to randomly assign children to either received abuse or not.  Even if a researcher were to propose such a study, it would not receive approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) which oversees research by university faculty.
  • Practicality: Other scenarios involve matters of practicality. For example, randomly assigning people to specific types of diet over a 10-year period would be interesting, but it would be highly unlikely that participants would be diligent enough to make the study valid. This is why examining these types of subjects has to be carried out through observational studies . The data is correlational, which is informative, but falls short of the scientist’s ultimate goal of identifying causality.
  • Small Sample Size: The smaller the sample size being assigned to conditions, the more likely it is that the two groups will be unequal. For example, if you flip a coin many times in a row then you will notice that sometimes there will be a string of heads or tails that come up consecutively. This means that one condition may have a build-up of participants that share the same characteristics. However, if you continue flipping the coin, over the long-term, there will be a balance of heads and tails. Unfortunately, how large a sample size is necessary has been the subject of considerable debate (Bloom, 2006; Shadish et al., 2002).

“It is well known that larger sample sizes reduce the probability that random assignment will result in conditions that are unequal” (Goldberg, 2019, p. 2).

Applications of Random Assignment

The importance of random assignment has been recognized in a wide range of scientific and applied disciplines (Bloom, 2006).

Random assignment began as a tool in agricultural research by Fisher (1925, 1935). After WWII, it became extensively used in medical research to test the effectiveness of new treatments and pharmaceuticals (Marks, 1997).

Today it is widely used in industrial engineering (Box, Hunter, and Hunter, 2005), educational research (Lindquist, 1953; Ong-Dean et al., 2011)), psychology (Myers, 1972), and social policy studies (Boruch, 1998; Orr, 1999).

One of the biggest obstacles to the validity of an experiment is the confound. If the group of participants in the treatment condition are substantially different from the group in the control condition, then it is impossible to determine if the IV has an affect or if the confound has an effect.

Thankfully, random assignment is highly effective at eliminating confounds that are known and unknown. Because each participant has an equal chance of being placed in each condition, they are equally distributed.

There are several ways of implementing random assignment, including flipping a coin or using a random number generator.

Random assignment has become an essential procedure in research in a wide range of subjects such as psychology, education, and social policy.

Alferes, V. R. (2012). Methods of randomization in experimental design . Sage Publications.

Bloom, H. S. (2008). The core analytics of randomized experiments for social research. The SAGE Handbook of Social Research Methods , 115-133.

Boruch, R. F. (1998). Randomized controlled experiments for evaluation and planning. Handbook of applied social research methods , 161-191.

Box, G. E., Hunter, W. G., & Hunter, J. S. (2005). Design of experiments: Statistics for Experimenters: Design, Innovation and Discovery.

Dehue, T. (1997). Deception, efficiency, and random groups: Psychology and the gradual origination of the random group design. Isis , 88 (4), 653-673.

Fisher, R.A. (1925). Statistical methods for research workers (11th ed. rev.). Oliver and Boyd: Edinburgh.

Fisher, R. A. (1935). The Design of Experiments. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd.

Goldberg, M. H. (2019). How often does random assignment fail? Estimates and recommendations. Journal of Environmental Psychology , 66 , 101351.

Jamison, J. C. (2019). The entry of randomized assignment into the social sciences. Journal of Causal Inference , 7 (1), 20170025.

Lindquist, E. F. (1953). Design and analysis of experiments in psychology and education . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Marks, H. M. (1997). The progress of experiment: Science and therapeutic reform in the United States, 1900-1990 . Cambridge University Press.

Myers, J. L. (1972). Fundamentals of experimental design (2nd ed.). Allyn & Bacon.

Ong-Dean, C., Huie Hofstetter, C., & Strick, B. R. (2011). Challenges and dilemmas in implementing random assignment in educational research. American Journal of Evaluation , 32 (1), 29-49.

Orr, L. L. (1999). Social experiments: Evaluating public programs with experimental methods . Sage.

Shadish, W. R., Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (2002). Quasi-experiments: interrupted time-series designs. Experimental and quasi-experimental designs for generalized causal inference , 171-205.

Stigler, S. M. (1992). A historical view of statistical concepts in psychology and educational research. American Journal of Education , 101 (1), 60-70.

Dave

  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 23 Achieved Status Examples
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 25 Defense Mechanisms Examples
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 15 Theory of Planned Behavior Examples
  • Dave Cornell (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/dave-cornell-phd/ 18 Adaptive Behavior Examples

Chris

  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 23 Achieved Status Examples
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 15 Ableism Examples
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 25 Defense Mechanisms Examples
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd/ 15 Theory of Planned Behavior Examples

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As previously mentioned, one of the characteristics of a true experiment is that researchers use a random process to decide which participants are tested under which conditions. Random assignation is a powerful research technique that addresses the assumption of pre-test equivalence – that the experimental and control group are equal in all respects before the administration of the independent variable (Palys & Atchison, 2014).

Random assignation is the primary way that researchers attempt to control extraneous variables across conditions. Random assignation is associated with experimental research methods. In its strictest sense, random assignment should meet two criteria.  One is that each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to each condition (e.g., a 50% chance of being assigned to each of two conditions). The second is that each participant is assigned to a condition independently of other participants. Thus, one way to assign participants to two conditions would be to flip a coin for each one. If the coin lands on the heads side, the participant is assigned to Condition A, and if it lands on the tails side, the participant is assigned to Condition B. For three conditions, one could use a computer to generate a random integer from 1 to 3 for each participant. If the integer is 1, the participant is assigned to Condition A; if it is 2, the participant is assigned to Condition B; and, if it is 3, the participant is assigned to Condition C. In practice, a full sequence of conditions—one for each participant expected to be in the experiment—is usually created ahead of time, and each new participant is assigned to the next condition in the sequence as he or she is tested.

However, one problem with coin flipping and other strict procedures for random assignment is that they are likely to result in unequal sample sizes in the different conditions. Unequal sample sizes are generally not a serious problem, and you should never throw away data you have already collected to achieve equal sample sizes. However, for a fixed number of participants, it is statistically most efficient to divide them into equal-sized groups. It is standard practice, therefore, to use a kind of modified random assignment that keeps the number of participants in each group as similar as possible.

One approach is block randomization. In block randomization, all the conditions occur once in the sequence before any of them is repeated. Then they all occur again before any of them is repeated again. Within each of these “blocks,” the conditions occur in a random order. Again, the sequence of conditions is usually generated before any participants are tested, and each new participant is assigned to the next condition in the sequence. When the procedure is computerized, the computer program often handles the random assignment, which is obviously much easier. You can also find programs online to help you randomize your random assignation. For example, the Research Randomizer website will generate block randomization sequences for any number of participants and conditions ( Research Randomizer ).

Random assignation is not guaranteed to control all extraneous variables across conditions. It is always possible that, just by chance, the participants in one condition might turn out to be substantially older, less tired, more motivated, or less depressed on average than the participants in another condition. However, there are some reasons that this may not be a major concern. One is that random assignment works better than one might expect, especially for large samples. Another is that the inferential statistics that researchers use to decide whether a difference between groups reflects a difference in the population take the “fallibility” of random assignment into account. Yet another reason is that even if random assignment does result in a confounding variable and therefore produces misleading results, this confound is likely to be detected when the experiment is replicated. The upshot is that random assignment to conditions—although not infallible in terms of controlling extraneous variables—is always considered a strength of a research design. Note: Do not confuse random assignation with random sampling. Random sampling is a method for selecting a sample from a population; we will talk about this in Chapter 7.

Research Methods, Data Collection and Ethics Copyright © 2020 by Valerie Sheppard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Explore Psychology

What Is Random Assignment in Psychology?

Categories Research Methods

Random assignment means that every participant has the same chance of being chosen for the experimental or control group. It involves using procedures that rely on chance to assign participants to groups. Doing this means that every participant in a study has an equal opportunity to be assigned to any group.

For example, in a psychology experiment, participants might be assigned to either a control or experimental group. Some experiments might only have one experimental group, while others may have several treatment variations.

Using random assignment means that each participant has the same chance of being assigned to any of these groups.

Table of Contents

How to Use Random Assignment

So what type of procedures might psychologists utilize for random assignment? Strategies can include:

  • Flipping a coin
  • Assigning random numbers
  • Rolling dice
  • Drawing names out of a hat

How Does Random Assignment Work?

A psychology experiment aims to determine if changes in one variable lead to changes in another variable. Researchers will first begin by coming up with a hypothesis. Once researchers have an idea of what they think they might find in a population, they will come up with an experimental design and then recruit participants for their study.

Once they have a pool of participants representative of the population they are interested in looking at, they will randomly assign the participants to their groups.

  • Control group : Some participants will end up in the control group, which serves as a baseline and does not receive the independent variables.
  • Experimental group : Other participants will end up in the experimental groups that receive some form of the independent variables.

By using random assignment, the researchers make it more likely that the groups are equal at the start of the experiment. Since the groups are the same on other variables, it can be assumed that any changes that occur are the result of varying the independent variables.

After a treatment has been administered, the researchers will then collect data in order to determine if the independent variable had any impact on the dependent variable.

Random Assignment vs. Random Selection

It is important to remember that random assignment is not the same thing as random selection , also known as random sampling.

Random selection instead involves how people are chosen to be in a study. Using random selection, every member of a population stands an equal chance of being chosen for a study or experiment.

So random sampling affects how participants are chosen for a study, while random assignment affects how participants are then assigned to groups.

Examples of Random Assignment

Imagine that a psychology researcher is conducting an experiment to determine if getting adequate sleep the night before an exam results in better test scores.

Forming a Hypothesis

They hypothesize that participants who get 8 hours of sleep will do better on a math exam than participants who only get 4 hours of sleep.

Obtaining Participants

The researcher starts by obtaining a pool of participants. They find 100 participants from a local university. Half of the participants are female, and half are male.

Randomly Assign Participants to Groups

The researcher then assigns random numbers to each participant and uses a random number generator to randomly assign each number to either the 4-hour or 8-hour sleep groups.

Conduct the Experiment

Those in the 8-hour sleep group agree to sleep for 8 hours that night, while those in the 4-hour group agree to wake up after only 4 hours. The following day, all of the participants meet in a classroom.

Collect and Analyze Data

Everyone takes the same math test. The test scores are then compared to see if the amount of sleep the night before had any impact on test scores.

Why Is Random Assignment Important in Psychology Research?

Random assignment is important in psychology research because it helps improve a study’s internal validity. This means that the researchers are sure that the study demonstrates a cause-and-effect relationship between an independent and dependent variable.

Random assignment improves the internal validity by minimizing the risk that there are systematic differences in the participants who are in each group.

Key Points to Remember About Random Assignment

  • Random assignment in psychology involves each participant having an equal chance of being chosen for any of the groups, including the control and experimental groups.
  • It helps control for potential confounding variables, reducing the likelihood of pre-existing differences between groups.
  • This method enhances the internal validity of experiments, allowing researchers to draw more reliable conclusions about cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Random assignment is crucial for creating comparable groups and increasing the scientific rigor of psychological studies.

Purpose and Limitations of Random Assignment

In an experimental study, random assignment is a process by which participants are assigned, with the same chance, to either a treatment or a control group. The goal is to assure an unbiased assignment of participants to treatment options.

Random assignment is considered the gold standard for achieving comparability across study groups, and therefore is the best method for inferring a causal relationship between a treatment (or intervention or risk factor) and an outcome.

Representation of random assignment in an experimental study

Random assignment of participants produces comparable groups regarding the participants’ initial characteristics, thereby any difference detected in the end between the treatment and the control group will be due to the effect of the treatment alone.

How does random assignment produce comparable groups?

1. random assignment prevents selection bias.

Randomization works by removing the researcher’s and the participant’s influence on the treatment allocation. So the allocation can no longer be biased since it is done at random, i.e. in a non-predictable way.

This is in contrast with the real world, where for example, the sickest people are more likely to receive the treatment.

2. Random assignment prevents confounding

A confounding variable is one that is associated with both the intervention and the outcome, and thus can affect the outcome in 2 ways:

Causal diagram representing how confounding works

Either directly:

Direct influence of confounding on the outcome

Or indirectly through the treatment:

Indirect influence of confounding on the outcome

This indirect relationship between the confounding variable and the outcome can cause the treatment to appear to have an influence on the outcome while in reality the treatment is just a mediator of that effect (as it happens to be on the causal pathway between the confounder and the outcome).

Random assignment eliminates the influence of the confounding variables on the treatment since it distributes them at random between the study groups, therefore, ruling out this alternative path or explanation of the outcome.

How random assignment protects from confounding

3. Random assignment also eliminates other threats to internal validity

By distributing all threats (known and unknown) at random between study groups, participants in both the treatment and the control group become equally subject to the effect of any threat to validity. Therefore, comparing the outcome between the 2 groups will bypass the effect of these threats and will only reflect the effect of the treatment on the outcome.

These threats include:

  • History: This is any event that co-occurs with the treatment and can affect the outcome.
  • Maturation: This is the effect of time on the study participants (e.g. participants becoming wiser, hungrier, or more stressed with time) which might influence the outcome.
  • Regression to the mean: This happens when the participants’ outcome score is exceptionally good on a pre-treatment measurement, so the post-treatment measurement scores will naturally regress toward the mean — in simple terms, regression happens since an exceptional performance is hard to maintain. This effect can bias the study since it represents an alternative explanation of the outcome.

Note that randomization does not prevent these effects from happening, it just allows us to control them by reducing their risk of being associated with the treatment.

What if random assignment produced unequal groups?

Question: What should you do if after randomly assigning participants, it turned out that the 2 groups still differ in participants’ characteristics? More precisely, what if randomization accidentally did not balance risk factors that can be alternative explanations between the 2 groups? (For example, if one group includes more male participants, or sicker, or older people than the other group).

Short answer: This is perfectly normal, since randomization only assures an unbiased assignment of participants to groups, i.e. it produces comparable groups, but it does not guarantee the equality of these groups.

A more complete answer: Randomization will not and cannot create 2 equal groups regarding each and every characteristic. This is because when dealing with randomization there is still an element of luck. If you want 2 perfectly equal groups, you better match them manually as is done in a matched pairs design (for more information see my article on matched pairs design ).

This is similar to throwing a die: If you throw it 10 times, the chance of getting a specific outcome will not be 1/6. But it will approach 1/6 if you repeat the experiment a very large number of times and calculate the average number of times the specific outcome turned up.

So randomization will not produce perfectly equal groups for each specific study, especially if the study has a small sample size. But do not forget that scientific evidence is a long and continuous process, and the groups will tend to be equal in the long run when a meta-analysis aggregates the results of a large number of randomized studies.

So for each individual study, differences between the treatment and control group will exist and will influence the study results. This means that the results of a randomized trial will sometimes be wrong, and this is absolutely okay.

BOTTOM LINE:

Although the results of a particular randomized study are unbiased, they will still be affected by a sampling error due to chance. But the real benefit of random assignment will be when data is aggregated in a meta-analysis.

Limitations of random assignment

Randomized designs can suffer from:

1. Ethical issues:

Randomization is ethical only if the researcher has no evidence that one treatment is superior to the other.

Also, it would be unethical to randomly assign participants to harmful exposures such as smoking or dangerous chemicals.

2. Low external validity:

With random assignment, external validity (i.e. the generalizability of the study results) is compromised because the results of a study that uses random assignment represent what would happen under “ideal” experimental conditions, which is in general very different from what happens at the population level.

In the real world, people who take the treatment might be very different from those who don’t – so the assignment of participants is not a random event, but rather under the influence of all sort of external factors.

External validity can be also jeopardized in cases where not all participants are eligible or willing to accept the terms of the study.

3. Higher cost of implementation:

An experimental design with random assignment is typically more expensive than observational studies where the investigator’s role is just to observe events without intervening.

Experimental designs also typically take a lot of time to implement, and therefore are less practical when a quick answer is needed.

4. Impracticality when answering non-causal questions:

A randomized trial is our best bet when the question is to find the causal effect of a treatment or a risk factor.

Sometimes however, the researcher is just interested in predicting the probability of an event or a disease given some risk factors. In this case, the causal relationship between these variables is not important, making observational designs more suitable for such problems.

5. Impracticality when studying the effect of variables that cannot be manipulated:

The usual objective of studying the effects of risk factors is to propose recommendations that involve changing the level of exposure to these factors.

However, some risk factors cannot be manipulated, and so it does not make any sense to study them in a randomized trial. For example it would be impossible to randomly assign participants to age categories, gender, or genetic factors.

6. Difficulty to control participants:

These difficulties include:

  • Participants refusing to receive the assigned treatment.
  • Participants not adhering to recommendations.
  • Differential loss to follow-up between those who receive the treatment and those who don’t.

All of these issues might occur in a randomized trial, but might not affect an observational study.

  • Shadish WR, Cook TD, Campbell DT. Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference . 2nd edition. Cengage Learning; 2001.
  • Friedman LM, Furberg CD, DeMets DL, Reboussin DM, Granger CB. Fundamentals of Clinical Trials . 5th ed. 2015 edition. Springer; 2015.

Further reading

  • Posttest-Only Control Group Design
  • Pretest-Posttest Control Group Design
  • Randomized Block Design

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An overview of randomization techniques: an unbiased assessment of outcome in clinical research.

Department of Biostatics, National Institute of Animal Nutrition & Physiology (NIANP), Adugodi, Bangalore, India

Randomization as a method of experimental control has been extensively used in human clinical trials and other biological experiments. It prevents the selection bias and insures against the accidental bias. It produces the comparable groups and eliminates the source of bias in treatment assignments. Finally, it permits the use of probability theory to express the likelihood of chance as a source for the difference of end outcome. This paper discusses the different methods of randomization and use of online statistical computing web programming ( www.graphpad.com /quickcalcs or www.randomization.com ) to generate the randomization schedule. Issues related to randomization are also discussed in this paper.

INTRODUCTION

A good experiment or trial minimizes the variability of the evaluation and provides unbiased evaluation of the intervention by avoiding confounding from other factors, which are known and unknown. Randomization ensures that each patient has an equal chance of receiving any of the treatments under study, generate comparable intervention groups, which are alike in all the important aspects except for the intervention each groups receives. It also provides a basis for the statistical methods used in analyzing the data. The basic benefits of randomization are as follows: it eliminates the selection bias, balances the groups with respect to many known and unknown confounding or prognostic variables, and forms the basis for statistical tests, a basis for an assumption of free statistical test of the equality of treatments. In general, a randomized experiment is an essential tool for testing the efficacy of the treatment.

In practice, randomization requires generating randomization schedules, which should be reproducible. Generation of a randomization schedule usually includes obtaining the random numbers and assigning random numbers to each subject or treatment conditions. Random numbers can be generated by computers or can come from random number tables found in the most statistical text books. For simple experiments with small number of subjects, randomization can be performed easily by assigning the random numbers from random number tables to the treatment conditions. However, in the large sample size situation or if restricted randomization or stratified randomization to be performed for an experiment or if an unbalanced allocation ratio will be used, it is better to use the computer programming to do the randomization such as SAS, R environment etc.[ 1 – 6 ]

REASON FOR RANDOMIZATION

Researchers in life science research demand randomization for several reasons. First, subjects in various groups should not differ in any systematic way. In a clinical research, if treatment groups are systematically different, research results will be biased. Suppose that subjects are assigned to control and treatment groups in a study examining the efficacy of a surgical intervention. If a greater proportion of older subjects are assigned to the treatment group, then the outcome of the surgical intervention may be influenced by this imbalance. The effects of the treatment would be indistinguishable from the influence of the imbalance of covariates, thereby requiring the researcher to control for the covariates in the analysis to obtain an unbiased result.[ 7 , 8 ]

Second, proper randomization ensures no a priori knowledge of group assignment (i.e., allocation concealment). That is, researchers, subject or patients or participants, and others should not know to which group the subject will be assigned. Knowledge of group assignment creates a layer of potential selection bias that may taint the data.[ 9 ] Schul and Grimes stated that trials with inadequate or unclear randomization tended to overestimate treatment effects up to 40% compared with those that used proper randomization. The outcome of the research can be negatively influenced by this inadequate randomization.

Statistical techniques such as analysis of covariance (ANCOVA), multivariate ANCOVA, or both, are often used to adjust for covariate imbalance in the analysis stage of the clinical research. However, the interpretation of this post adjustment approach is often difficult because imbalance of covariates frequently leads to unanticipated interaction effects, such as unequal slopes among subgroups of covariates.[ 1 ] One of the critical assumptions in ANCOVA is that the slopes of regression lines are the same for each group of covariates. The adjustment needed for each covariate group may vary, which is problematic because ANCOVA uses the average slope across the groups to adjust the outcome variable. Thus, the ideal way of balancing covariates among groups is to apply sound randomization in the design stage of a clinical research (before the adjustment procedure) instead of post data collection. In such instances, random assignment is necessary and guarantees validity for statistical tests of significance that are used to compare treatments.

TYPES OF RANDOMIZATION

Many procedures have been proposed for the random assignment of participants to treatment groups in clinical trials. In this article, common randomization techniques, including simple randomization, block randomization, stratified randomization, and covariate adaptive randomization, are reviewed. Each method is described along with its advantages and disadvantages. It is very important to select a method that will produce interpretable and valid results for your study. Use of online software to generate randomization code using block randomization procedure will be presented.

Simple randomization

Randomization based on a single sequence of random assignments is known as simple randomization.[ 3 ] This technique maintains complete randomness of the assignment of a subject to a particular group. The most common and basic method of simple randomization is flipping a coin. For example, with two treatment groups (control versus treatment), the side of the coin (i.e., heads - control, tails - treatment) determines the assignment of each subject. Other methods include using a shuffled deck of cards (e.g., even - control, odd - treatment) or throwing a dice (e.g., below and equal to 3 - control, over 3 - treatment). A random number table found in a statistics book or computer-generated random numbers can also be used for simple randomization of subjects.

This randomization approach is simple and easy to implement in a clinical research. In large clinical research, simple randomization can be trusted to generate similar numbers of subjects among groups. However, randomization results could be problematic in relatively small sample size clinical research, resulting in an unequal number of participants among groups.

Block randomization

The block randomization method is designed to randomize subjects into groups that result in equal sample sizes. This method is used to ensure a balance in sample size across groups over time. Blocks are small and balanced with predetermined group assignments, which keeps the numbers of subjects in each group similar at all times.[ 1 , 2 ] The block size is determined by the researcher and should be a multiple of the number of groups (i.e., with two treatment groups, block size of either 4, 6, or 8). Blocks are best used in smaller increments as researchers can more easily control balance.[ 10 ]

After block size has been determined, all possible balanced combinations of assignment within the block (i.e., equal number for all groups within the block) must be calculated. Blocks are then randomly chosen to determine the patients’ assignment into the groups.

Although balance in sample size may be achieved with this method, groups may be generated that are rarely comparable in terms of certain covariates. For example, one group may have more participants with secondary diseases (e.g., diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, hypertension, etc.) that could confound the data and may negatively influence the results of the clinical trial.[ 11 ] Pocock and Simon stressed the importance of controlling for these covariates because of serious consequences to the interpretation of the results. Such an imbalance could introduce bias in the statistical analysis and reduce the power of the study. Hence, sample size and covariates must be balanced in clinical research.

Stratified randomization

The stratified randomization method addresses the need to control and balance the influence of covariates. This method can be used to achieve balance among groups in terms of subjects’ baseline characteristics (covariates). Specific covariates must be identified by the researcher who understands the potential influence each covariate has on the dependent variable. Stratified randomization is achieved by generating a separate block for each combination of covariates, and subjects are assigned to the appropriate block of covariates. After all subjects have been identified and assigned into blocks, simple randomization is performed within each block to assign subjects to one of the groups.

The stratified randomization method controls for the possible influence of covariates that would jeopardize the conclusions of the clinical research. For example, a clinical research of different rehabilitation techniques after a surgical procedure will have a number of covariates. It is well known that the age of the subject affects the rate of prognosis. Thus, age could be a confounding variable and influence the outcome of the clinical research. Stratified randomization can balance the control and treatment groups for age or other identified covariates. Although stratified randomization is a relatively simple and useful technique, especially for smaller clinical trials, it becomes complicated to implement if many covariates must be controlled.[ 12 ] Stratified randomization has another limitation; it works only when all subjects have been identified before group assignment. However, this method is rarely applicable because clinical research subjects are often enrolled one at a time on a continuous basis. When baseline characteristics of all subjects are not available before assignment, using stratified randomization is difficult.[ 10 ]

Covariate adaptive randomization

One potential problem with small to moderate size clinical research is that simple randomization (with or without taking stratification of prognostic variables into account) may result in imbalance of important covariates among treatment groups. Imbalance of covariates is important because of its potential to influence the interpretation of a research results. Covariate adaptive randomization has been recommended by many researchers as a valid alternative randomization method for clinical research.[ 8 , 13 ] In covariate adaptive randomization, a new participant is sequentially assigned to a particular treatment group by taking into account the specific covariates and previous assignments of participants.[ 7 ] Covariate adaptive randomization uses the method of minimization by assessing the imbalance of sample size among several covariates.

Using the online randomization http://www.graphpad.com/quickcalcs/index.cfm , researcher can generate randomization plan for treatment assignment to patients. This online software is very simple and easy to implement. Up to 10 treatments can be allocated to patients and the replication of treatment can also be performed up to 9 times. The major limitations of this software is that once the randomization plan is generated, same randomization plan cannot be generated as this uses the seed point of local computer clock and is not displayed for further use. Other limitation of this online software Maximum of only 10 treatments can be assigned to patients. Entering the web address http://www.graphpad.com/quickcalcs/index.cfm on address bar of any browser, the page of graphpad appears with number of options. Select the option of “Random Numbers” and then press continue, Random Number Calculator with three options appears. Select the tab “Randomly assign subjects to groups” and press continue. In the next page, enter the number of subjects in each group in the tab “Assign” and select the number of groups from the tab “Subjects to each group” and keep number 1 in repeat tab if there is no replication in the study. For example, the total number of patients in a three group experimental study is 30 and each group will assigned to 10 patients. Type 10 in the “Assign” tab and select 3 in the tab “Subjects to each group” and then press “do it” button. The results is obtained as shown as below (partial output is presented)

Another randomization online software, which can be used to generate randomization plan is http://www.randomization.com . The seed for the random number generator[ 14 , 15 ] (Wichmann and Hill, 1982, as modified by McLeod, 1985) is obtained from the clock of the local computer and is printed at the bottom of the randomization plan. If a seed is included in the request, it overrides the value obtained from the clock and can be used to reproduce or verify a particular plan. Up to 20 treatments can be specified. The randomization plan is not affected by the order in which the treatments are entered or the particular boxes left blank if not all are needed. The program begins by sorting treatment names internally. The sorting is case sensitive, however, so the same capitalization should be used when recreating an earlier plan. Example of 10 patients allocating to two groups (each with 5 patients), first the enter the treatment labels in the boxes, and enter the total number of patients that is 10 in the tab “Number of subjects per block” and enter the 1 in the tab “Number of blocks” for simple randomization or more than one for Block randomization. The output of this online software is presented as follows.

The benefits of randomization are numerous. It ensures against the accidental bias in the experiment and produces comparable groups in all the respect except the intervention each group received. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the randomization, including concept and significance and to review several randomization techniques to guide the researchers and practitioners to better design their randomized clinical trials. Use of online randomization was effectively demonstrated in this article for benefit of researchers. Simple randomization works well for the large clinical trails ( n >100) and for small to moderate clinical trials ( n <100) without covariates, use of block randomization helps to achieve the balance. For small to moderate size clinical trials with several prognostic factors or covariates, the adaptive randomization method could be more useful in providing a means to achieve treatment balance.

Source of Support: Nil

Conflict of Interest: None declared.

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Random Sampling vs. Random Assignment

Random sampling and random assignment are fundamental concepts in the realm of research methods and statistics. However, many students struggle to differentiate between these two concepts, and very often use these terms interchangeably. Here we will explain the distinction between random sampling and random assignment.

Random sampling refers to the method you use to select individuals from the population to participate in your study. In other words, random sampling means that you are randomly selecting individuals from the population to participate in your study. This type of sampling is typically done to help ensure the representativeness of the sample (i.e., external validity). It is worth noting that a sample is only truly random if all individuals in the population have an equal probability of being selected to participate in the study. In practice, very few research studies use “true” random sampling because it is usually not feasible to ensure that all individuals in the population have an equal chance of being selected. For this reason, it is especially important to avoid using the term “random sample” if your study uses a nonprobability sampling method (such as convenience sampling).

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Random assignment refers to the method you use to place participants into groups in an experimental study. For example, say you are conducting a study comparing the blood pressure of patients after taking aspirin or a placebo. You have two groups of patients to compare: patients who will take aspirin (the experimental group) and patients who will take the placebo (the control group). Ideally, you would want to randomly assign the participants to be in the experimental group or the control group, meaning that each participant has an equal probability of being placed in the experimental or control group. This helps ensure that there are no systematic differences between the groups before the treatment (e.g., the aspirin or placebo) is given to the participants. Random assignment is a fundamental part of a “true” experiment because it helps ensure that any differences found between the groups are attributable to the treatment, rather than a confounding variable.

So, to summarize, random sampling refers to how you select individuals from the population to participate in your study. Random assignment refers to how you place those participants into groups (such as experimental vs. control). Knowing this distinction will help you clearly and accurately describe the methods you use to collect your data and conduct your study.

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  • Random Assignment in Experiments | Introduction & Examples

Random Assignment in Experiments | Introduction & Examples

Published on 6 May 2022 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on 13 February 2023.

In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different treatment groups using randomisation.

With simple random assignment, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group. Studies that use simple random assignment are also called completely randomised designs .

Random assignment is a key part of experimental design . It helps you ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study: any differences between them are due to random factors.

Table of contents

Why does random assignment matter, random sampling vs random assignment, how do you use random assignment, when is random assignment not used, frequently asked questions about random assignment.

Random assignment is an important part of control in experimental research, because it helps strengthen the internal validity of an experiment.

In experiments, researchers manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. To do so, they often use different levels of an independent variable for different groups of participants.

This is called a between-groups or independent measures design.

You use three groups of participants that are each given a different level of the independent variable:

  • A control group that’s given a placebo (no dosage)
  • An experimental group that’s given a low dosage
  • A second experimental group that’s given a high dosage

Random assignment to helps you make sure that the treatment groups don’t differ in systematic or biased ways at the start of the experiment.

If you don’t use random assignment, you may not be able to rule out alternative explanations for your results.

  • Participants recruited from pubs are placed in the control group
  • Participants recruited from local community centres are placed in the low-dosage experimental group
  • Participants recruited from gyms are placed in the high-dosage group

With this type of assignment, it’s hard to tell whether the participant characteristics are the same across all groups at the start of the study. Gym users may tend to engage in more healthy behaviours than people who frequent pubs or community centres, and this would introduce a healthy user bias in your study.

Although random assignment helps even out baseline differences between groups, it doesn’t always make them completely equivalent. There may still be extraneous variables that differ between groups, and there will always be some group differences that arise from chance.

Most of the time, the random variation between groups is low, and, therefore, it’s acceptable for further analysis. This is especially true when you have a large sample. In general, you should always use random assignment in experiments when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.

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Random sampling and random assignment are both important concepts in research, but it’s important to understand the difference between them.

Random sampling (also called probability sampling or random selection) is a way of selecting members of a population to be included in your study. In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and experimental groups.

While random sampling is used in many types of studies, random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs.

Some studies use both random sampling and random assignment, while others use only one or the other.

Random sample vs random assignment

Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalisability of your results, because it helps to ensure that your sample is unbiased and representative of the whole population. This allows you to make stronger statistical inferences .

You use a simple random sample to collect data. Because you have access to the whole population (all employees), you can assign all 8,000 employees a number and use a random number generator to select 300 employees. These 300 employees are your full sample.

Random assignment enhances the internal validity of the study, because it ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group. This helps you conclude that the outcomes can be attributed to the independent variable .

  • A control group that receives no intervention
  • An experimental group that has a remote team-building intervention every week for a month

You use random assignment to place participants into the control or experimental group. To do so, you take your list of participants and assign each participant a number. Again, you use a random number generator to place each participant in one of the two groups.

To use simple random assignment, you start by giving every member of the sample a unique number. Then, you can use computer programs or manual methods to randomly assign each participant to a group.

  • Random number generator: Use a computer program to generate random numbers from the list for each group.
  • Lottery method: Place all numbers individually into a hat or a bucket, and draw numbers at random for each group.
  • Flip a coin: When you only have two groups, for each number on the list, flip a coin to decide if they’ll be in the control or the experimental group.
  • Use a dice: When you have three groups, for each number on the list, roll a die to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1 or 2 lands them in a control group; 3 or 4 in an experimental group; and 5 or 6 in a second control or experimental group.

This type of random assignment is the most powerful method of placing participants in conditions, because each individual has an equal chance of being placed in any one of your treatment groups.

Random assignment in block designs

In more complicated experimental designs, random assignment is only used after participants are grouped into blocks based on some characteristic (e.g., test score or demographic variable). These groupings mean that you need a larger sample to achieve high statistical power .

For example, a randomised block design involves placing participants into blocks based on a shared characteristic (e.g., college students vs graduates), and then using random assignment within each block to assign participants to every treatment condition. This helps you assess whether the characteristic affects the outcomes of your treatment.

In an experimental matched design , you use blocking and then match up individual participants from each block based on specific characteristics. Within each matched pair or group, you randomly assign each participant to one of the conditions in the experiment and compare their outcomes.

Sometimes, it’s not relevant or ethical to use simple random assignment, so groups are assigned in a different way.

When comparing different groups

Sometimes, differences between participants are the main focus of a study, for example, when comparing children and adults or people with and without health conditions. Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.

In this type of study, the characteristic of interest (e.g., gender) is an independent variable, and the groups differ based on the different levels (e.g., men, women). All participants are tested the same way, and then their group-level outcomes are compared.

When it’s not ethically permissible

When studying unhealthy or dangerous behaviours, it’s not possible to use random assignment. For example, if you’re studying heavy drinkers and social drinkers, it’s unethical to randomly assign participants to one of the two groups and ask them to drink large amounts of alcohol for your experiment.

When you can’t assign participants to groups, you can also conduct a quasi-experimental study . In a quasi-experiment, you study the outcomes of pre-existing groups who receive treatments that you may not have any control over (e.g., heavy drinkers and social drinkers).

These groups aren’t randomly assigned, but may be considered comparable when some other variables (e.g., age or socioeconomic status) are controlled for.

In experimental research, random assignment is a way of placing participants from your sample into different groups using randomisation. With this method, every member of the sample has a known or equal chance of being placed in a control group or an experimental group.

Random selection, or random sampling , is a way of selecting members of a population for your study’s sample.

In contrast, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample into control and experimental groups.

Random sampling enhances the external validity or generalisability of your results, while random assignment improves the internal validity of your study.

Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design. In this research design, there’s usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable.

In general, you should always use random assignment in this type of experimental design when it is ethically possible and makes sense for your study topic.

To implement random assignment , assign a unique number to every member of your study’s sample .

Then, you can use a random number generator or a lottery method to randomly assign each number to a control or experimental group. You can also do so manually, by flipping a coin or rolling a die to randomly assign participants to groups.

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Essay on the Importance of Random Assignment

Psychology experiments involve making a comparison of scores derived under distinct conditions. The approaches used in assigning participants to conditions may control various extraneous variables. These approaches fall under three classifications. The first classification entails the creation of groups through random assignment. This approach creates what is commonly referred to as independent samples and it is the best approach to creating groups’ equality on all unknown and known attributes (Festing, 2020).

Random Assignment

Creating equivalent groups

Random assignment directly relates to internal validity and is interested in the manner in which participants are assigned to experimental conditions. It is an important attribute of experimentation. The aim of random assignment entails avoiding bias in the constitution of the distinct groups (Onghena, 2020). A psychological researcher interested in conducting a true scientific experiment should concentrate on creating groups that are equal so that any differences in the participants under the distinct conditions derived can be confidently attributed to the impacts of the treatments themselves, presuming that all other things are held constant (Gueron, 2021). The researcher would like to be rationally certain that the independent variable and not the approach of assigning participants to groups triggered the differences obtained. Random assignment is the best approach to attaining this. Additionally, randomly assigning participants to experimental conditions is a fundamental presumption of various statistical tactics that we utilize in making inferences from populations to samples (Festing, 2020). Satisfying this presumption is important for utilizing these statistical processes.

Therefore, random assignment helps in creating randomly indistinguishable study samples. This shows that random assignment is very important. Through the random assignment of participants (or groups of respondents) to either the control or experimental group, every respondent (or group of respondents) has a probability of being assigned to the control or the experimental group (Jamison, 2017). To put it in another way, by giving every respondent an equal chance of being a member of every group, random assignment manages to control all factors in the participants in both groups except for the independent variable being tested (Hilgers et al., 2017). By doing this, the researcher ensures that the experiment generates approximates of the mean treatment impact. However, for clarity, the unbiased approximate concept defines the fact that any observed effect distinctions between the survey outcomes and the true population are because of chance.

This assertion on equality in groups is grounded on the establishment of an infinite number of random assignments of respondents (or groups of respondents) to treatment groups in the survey and not to a single random assignment of one survey. However, scholars are not expected to take part in an infinite number of random assignments in a limitless number of surveys for this presumption to hold (Goldberg, 2019). The groups’ assignment equality is bolstered in surveys with large samples but not in those with small sample sizes because the extraneous variables in the large sample sizes are evened out. Therefore, even when using random samples to reduce the effect of extraneous variables in determining the cause and effect of a situation, the researcher must pick a large sample but there is still no specification on how large the sample should be (Goldberg, 2019).

It is the only way to be certain about cause and effect

For instance, if psychological scholars are interested in determining whether a psychological intervention effectively helps to manage psychological symptoms of a certain condition, they will engage in a random assignment survey whereby the experimental group receives the psychological intervention and the control does not. The patients are picked randomly and assigned randomly into the experimental conditions to determine who fall in the control and the experimental group. Ascertaining that the two groups are equivalent on all attributes except that one group fails to receive the psychological intervention helps the doctors in making a comparison of the results for the experimental and control groups. Psychologists can conclude whether or not the psychological intervention led to a cure. This significant benefit has resulted in scholars describing random assignment studies as the standard approach to true scientific experiments (Allen, 2017). Therefore, how are samples randomly assigned to both experimental and control groups?

Randomization

Many methods have been proposed for participants’ random assignment in clinical trials. In this exploration, the common randomization approaches analyzed include block randomization, simple randomization, and stratified randomization. Every approach is defined together with its benefits and disadvantages. It is very important to pick an approach that will generate valid and interpretable outcomes for the survey.

Simple random allocation

Random allocation on grounds of one sequence of random assignments is referred to as simple randomization (McCall, 2019). This approach maintains the complete randomness of a subject to a certain group (McCall, 2019). The most fundamental and common approach of simple randomization entails flipping a coin. For instance, with two study groups (experimental and control), the side that coin lands on determines the assignment of every participant. For instance, the head can mean the control group while the tail can mean the experimental group. Other approaches that can be utilized with simple random allocation encompass the use of a shuffled deck of cards (like odd – control, even – experimental) or throwing a dice (like over – experimental and below and even – control). A random number table that can be found in statistics books or random numbers that are generated by the computer can equally be utilized for the simple allocation of participants.

This approach is simple and can be easily implemented in a psychological study. Moreover, in large clinical surveys, simple random allocation can be trusted to bring about simple numbers of participants among groups. Nonetheless, randomization outcomes could be an issue in relatively small sample size clinical studies, leading to an unequal number of respondents in every group (McCall, 2019).

Block random allocation

The method of block random allocation is modeled to randomly allocate participants into groups that lead to equal sample sizes (Festing, 2020). This approach is utilized to ascertain a sample size balance across groups over time. Blocks are balanced and small with fixed group assignments that mains the participants’ numbers in every group similar at all instances (McCall, 2019). The size of the block is determined by the scholar and ought to be a multiple of the sum of groups (that is, with two treatment groups, the size of the block is 4, 6, or 8). Blocks are best utilized in smaller increases as scholars can control the balance in the groups with ease.

After determining the size of the block, all likely balanced combinations of assignments within the block (that is equal sum for all groups in the block) have to be computed (Festing, 2020). Blocks are later selected randomly to determine the assignment of participants into either of the two groups (McCall, 2019). However, despite being able to make the two groups’ sample size equal, groups can be generated that are rarely comparable on grounds of specific covariates. For instance, one group may possess more respondents with extraneous variables (like suffering from other psychological disorders like substance abuse and anxiety while the participants in the other group do not have such variables) that may confound the information and may negatively affect the outcomes of the clinical experiment. Scholars insist that controlling these covariates is important because of the severe outcomes of the interpretations of the findings. An imbalance of this nature could introduce a statistical analysis bias and lower the strength of the survey (McCall, 2019). Therefore, covariates and sample sizes have to be balanced in clinical surveys.

Stratified random allocation

A stratified random allocation is an approach that responds to the need to balance and control the impact of covariates (McCall, 2019). This approach can be utilized in attaining a balance among groups on grounds of the covariates of the participants. Certain covariates have to be determined by the scholar who comprehends the probable impact that every covariate has on the dependent variables (McCall, 2019). Stratified random allocation is attained by generating a distinct block for every combination of base characteristics and the respondents are assigned to the appropriate block of base characteristics. After the identification of all the subjects and they are assigned to blocks, simple random allocation is performed with all the blocks to assign the participants to the two groups.

The stratified random allocation approach controls for the likely impact of the covariates that may jeopardize the clinical study conclusions (McCall, 2019). For instance, a clinical study of distinct psychological intervention methods after the administration of medication will have several base characteristics. There is a common frame of knowledge that the participant’s age influences the prognosis rate. Therefore, age may be a confounding variable and impact the result of the clinical study. The stratified random allocation may balance the control and psychological intervention for age or additional confounding base characteristics (McCall, 2019). Therefore, despite this approach being significantly simple and useful, particularly for smaller clinical studies, it gets complicated to implement if several basic characteristics have to be controlled. Moreover, a stratified random assignment has a second limitation; it only works when all the participants are identified before group assignments. Nonetheless, this approach is rarely applicable since clinical study subjects are frequently enrolled one at a time continuingly. When the covariates of all the participants are not available before allocation to groups, it is hard to use stratified random allocation (McCall, 2019).

How are results drawn in groups that are not randomly assigned?

When respondents are not assigned randomly to conditions, the groups that result have a high probability of being dissimilar in several ways. Therefore, scholars perceive them as not being equivalent and this significantly affects the study’s internal validity (Price et al., 2017). Take, for instance, a scholar who would like to test a new method of teaching multiplication to students. One approach would be to survey with the experimental group encompassing one class of two graders and another class of two graders. This design results in a non-equivalent groups design since the learners are not assigned randomly to conditions by scholars, which means there could be significant distinctions between them. Therefore, at the end of the study, if differences between the groups are arrived at, it might be because of the different teaching approaches – which was the independent variable being tested or might have been the result of other confounding variables (Price et al., 2017). Therefore, random assignment is the only approach to ascertain that indeed there is a cause-effect relationship between the independent and dependent variable.

Random assignment is very important in psychological clinical trials in determining the cause-effect between the dependent and the independent variables. The approach increases the internal validity of the study by ensuring that both groups are equal. It also helps to significantly control the confounding variables that may influence the results generated. There are various approaches for randomization like simple, stratified, and blocking randomization. Hence, to increase the reliability of the findings generate, random assignment is encouraged.

Allen, M. (2017). Random Assignment of Participants.  The Sage Encyclopedia of Communications Research Methods .

Festing, M. F. (2020). The “completely randomized” and the “randomized block” are the only experimental designs suitable for widespread use in pre-clinical research.  Scientific Reports .

Goldberg, M. H. (2019). How often do random assignments fail? Estimates and recommendations.  Journal of Environmental Psychology , 1 – 40.

Gueron, J. M. (2021). The Politics of Random Assignment: Implementing Studies and Impacting Policy.  Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation , 1 – 31.

Hilgers, R.-D., Uschner, D., Rosenberger, W. F., & Heussen, N. (2017). ERDO – a framework to select an appropriate randomization procedure for clinical trials.  BMC Medical Research Methodology , 1 – 12.

Jamison, J. C. (2017). The Entry of Randomized Assignment into the Social Sciences.  Policy Research Working Paper , 1 – 27.

McCall, W. (2019). Random Assignment.  Sage Publications , 173 – 209.

Onghena, P. (2020). Randomization.  Sage Research Methods Foundation , 1 – 13.

Price, P. C., Jhangiani, R., & Chiang, I. -C. (2017). Quasi-Experimental Research.  Research Methods in Psychology , 1- 20.

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  1. Random Assignment in Experiments

    Random assignment is an important part of control in experimental research, because it helps strengthen the internal validity of an experiment and avoid biases. In experiments, researchers manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables.

  2. The Definition of Random Assignment In Psychology

    The Definition of Random Assignment According to Psychology. 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 in a study to eliminate any potential bias in the experiment at the outset. Participants are randomly assigned ...

  3. Random Assignment in Psychology: Definition & Examples

    Importance . Random assignment ensures that each group in the experiment is identical before applying the independent variable. In experiments, researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the treatment ...

  4. Random Assignment in Experiments

    Correlation, Causation, and Confounding Variables. Random assignment helps you separate causation from correlation and rule out confounding variables. As a critical component of the scientific method, experiments typically set up contrasts between a control group and one or more treatment groups. The idea is to determine whether the effect, which is the difference between a treatment group and ...

  5. Random Assignment in Psychology (Definition + 40 Examples)

    Random Assignment is a process used in research where each participant has an equal chance of being placed in any group within the study. This technique is essential in experiments as it helps to eliminate biases, ensuring that the different groups being compared are similar in all important aspects.

  6. Elements of Research : Random Assignment

    Random assignment is a procedure used in experiments to create multiple study groups that include participants with similar characteristics so that the groups are equivalent at the beginning of the study. The procedure involves assigning individuals to an experimental treatment or program at random, or by chance (like the flip of a coin).

  7. Why randomize?

    What does random assignment mean? The key to randomized experimental research design is in the random assignment of study subjects - for example, individual voters, precincts, media markets or some other group - into treatment or control groups. ... they may be clustered in neighborhoods that differ in important ways from neighborhoods in ...

  8. Random assignment

    Random assignment or random placement is an experimental technique for assigning human participants or animal subjects to different groups in an experiment (e.g., a treatment group versus a control group) using randomization, such as by a chance procedure (e.g., flipping a coin) or a random number generator. This ensures that each participant or subject has an equal chance of being placed in ...

  9. Random Assignment

    The Importance of Random Assignment. ... Importantly, random assignment cannot ensure that the distributions of gender, age, and other potential confounds are the same across all groups. It can only make it possible that the deviation is at random, which is what the distribution of the random variables account for and what is ultimately the ...

  10. Random Assignment in Psychology (Intro for Students)

    The importance of random assignment has been recognized in a wide range of scientific and applied disciplines (Bloom, 2006). Random assignment began as a tool in agricultural research by Fisher (1925, 1935). After WWII, it became extensively used in medical research to test the effectiveness of new treatments and pharmaceuticals (Marks, 1997).

  11. 6.1.1 Random Assignation

    Random assignation is associated with experimental research methods. In its strictest sense, random assignment should meet two criteria. One is that each participant has an equal chance of being assigned to each condition (e.g., a 50% chance of being assigned to each of two conditions). The second is that each participant is assigned to a ...

  12. Random Assignment in Psychology

    The important thing is that a random assignment method must allow every subject an equal chance of being in either the experimental group or the control group. Key Takeaways.

  13. What Is Random Assignment in Psychology?

    It is important to remember that random assignment is not the same thing as random selection, also known as random sampling. Random selection instead involves how people are chosen to be in a study. Using random selection, every member of a population stands an equal chance of being chosen for a study or experiment.

  14. Purpose and Limitations of Random Assignment

    1. Random assignment prevents selection bias. Randomization works by removing the researcher's and the participant's influence on the treatment allocation. So the allocation can no longer be biased since it is done at random, i.e. in a non-predictable way. This is in contrast with the real world, where for example, the sickest people are ...

  15. An overview of randomization techniques: An unbiased assessment of

    TYPES OF RANDOMIZATION. Many procedures have been proposed for the random assignment of participants to treatment groups in clinical trials. In this article, common randomization techniques, including simple randomization, block randomization, stratified randomization, and covariate adaptive randomization, are reviewed.

  16. Random Assignment in Research: Definition and Importance

    Researchers rely on random assignment--a type of randomization--to get the most accurate results. Learn the definition of random assignment in research, and explore the process and importance of ...

  17. 5-1 Short Paper- The Importance of Random Assignment

    And hopefully provide some clarification regarding the importance of random assignment as well as, methods of randomization that will be useful to you moving forward in your courses. Importance of Randomization When conducting a research study, random assignment is important for a number of reasons. The textbook lists three key reasons why.

  18. Difference between Random Selection and Random Assignment

    Random selection is thus essential to external validity, or the extent to which the researcher can use the results of the study to generalize to the larger population. Random assignment is central to internal validity, which allows the researcher to make causal claims about the effect of the treatment. Nonrandom assignment often leads to non ...

  19. Random Sampling vs. Random Assignment

    So, to summarize, random sampling refers to how you select individuals from the population to participate in your study. Random assignment refers to how you place those participants into groups (such as experimental vs. control). Knowing this distinction will help you clearly and accurately describe the methods you use to collect your data and ...

  20. Random Assignment in Experiments

    Random assignment is an important part of control in experimental research, because it helps strengthen the internal validity of an experiment. In experiments, researchers manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. To do so, they often use different levels of an ...

  21. The Importance of Random Assignment

    The Importance of Random Assignment Benjamin Green Department of Psychology, Southern New Hampshire University PSYC: 510 Research Methods in Psychology I Dr. Emily Sweitzer, Ed. 05/21/ 2 Dear student, Random assignments are important because they will strengthen the validity of your study.

  22. Essay on the Importance of Random Assignment

    Therefore, random assignment helps in creating randomly indistinguishable study samples. This shows that random assignment is very important. Through the random assignment of participants (or groups of respondents) to either the control or experimental group, every respondent (or group of respondents) has a probability of being assigned to the control or the experimental group (Jamison, 2017).

  23. The Importance of Random Assignment in Research: Eliminating

    The Importance of Random Assignment 2 Dear student, Thank you for reaching out to me and explaining your concern about the importance of randomly assigning participants in studies. This might seem like it is a step that can be ignored or skipped in the research, however, it actually causes less bias in the study and gives more accurate results due to this.