Experimental Research

If somebody gave you $20 that absolutely had to be spent today, how would you choose to spend it? Would you spend it on an item you’ve been eyeing for weeks, or would you donate the money to charity? Which option do you think would bring you the most happiness? If you’re like most people, you’d choose to spend the money on yourself (duh, right?). Our intuition is that we’d be happier if we spent the money on ourselves.

Knowing that our intuition can sometimes be wrong, Professor Elizabeth Dunn (2008) at the University of British Columbia set out to conduct an experiment on spending and happiness. She gave each of the participants in her experiment $20 and then told them they had to spend the money by the end of the day. Some of the participants were told they must spend the money on themselves, and some were told they must spend the money on others (either charity or a gift for someone). At the end of the day she measured participants’ levels of happiness using a self-report questionnaire. (But wait, how do you measure something like happiness when you can’t really see it? Psychologists measure many abstract concepts, such as happiness and intelligence, by beginning with operational definitions of the concepts. See the Noba modules on Intelligence [http://noba.to/ncb2h79v] and Happiness [http­://noba.to/qnw7g32t], respectively, for more information on specific measurement strategies.)


At the Corner Perk Cafe customers routinely pay for the drinks of strangers. Is this the way to get the most happiness out of a cup of coffee? Elizabeth Dunn’s research shows that spending money on others may affect our happiness differently than spending money on ourselves. [Image: The Island Packet, https://goo.gl/DMxA5n]

In an experiment, researchers manipulate, or cause changes, in the independent variable, and observe or measure any impact of those changes in the dependent variable. The independent variable is the one under the experimenter’s control, or the variable that is intentionally altered between groups. In the case of Dunn’s experiment, the independent variable was whether participants spent the money on themselves or on others. The dependent variable is the variable that is not manipulated at all, or the one where the effect happens. One way to help remember this is that the dependent variable “depends” on what happens to the independent variable. In our example, the participants’ happiness (the dependent variable in this experiment) depends on how the participants spend their money (the independent variable). Thus, any observed changes or group differences in happiness can be attributed to whom the money was spent on. What Dunn and her colleagues found was that, after all the spending had been done, the people who had spent the money on others were happier than those who had spent the money on themselves. In other words, spending on others causes us to be happier than spending on ourselves. Do you find this surprising?

But wait! Doesn’t happiness depend on a lot of different factors—for instance, a person’s upbringing or life circumstances? What if some people had happy childhoods and that’s why they’re happier? Or what if some people dropped their toast that morning and it fell jam-side down and ruined their whole day? It is correct to recognize that these factors and many more can easily affect a person’s level of happiness. So how can we accurately conclude that spending money on others causes happiness, as in the case of Dunn’s experiment?

The most important thing about experiments is random assignment. Participants don’t get to pick which condition they are in (e.g., participants didn’t choose whether they were supposed to spend the money on themselves versus others). The experimenter assigns them to a particular condition based on the flip of a coin or the roll of a die or any other random method. Why do researchers do this? With Dunn’s study, there is the obvious reason: you can imagine which condition most people would choose to be in, if given the choice. But another equally important reason is that random assignment makes it so the groups, on average, are similar on all characteristics except what the experimenter manipulates.

By randomly assigning people to conditions (self-spending versus other-spending), some people with happy childhoods should end up in each condition. Likewise, some people who had dropped their toast that morning (or experienced some other disappointment) should end up in each condition. As a result, the distribution of all these factors will generally be consistent across the two groups, and this means that on average the two groups will be relatively equivalent on all these factors. Random assignment is critical to experimentation because if the only difference between the two groups is the independent variable, we can infer that the independent variable is the cause of any observable difference (e.g., in the amount of happiness they feel at the end of the day).

Here’s another example of the importance of random assignment: Let’s say your class is going to form two basketball teams, and you get to be the captain of one team. The class is to be divided evenly between the two teams. If you get to pick the players for your team first, whom will you pick? You’ll probably pick the tallest members of the class or the most athletic. You probably won’t pick the short, uncoordinated people, unless there are no other options. As a result, your team will be taller and more athletic than the other team. But what if we want the teams to be fair? How can we do this when we have people of varying height and ability? All we have to do is randomly assign players to the two teams. Most likely, some tall and some short people will end up on your team, and some tall and some short people will end up on the other team. The average height of the teams will be approximately the same. That is the power of random assignment!

Other considerations

In addition to using random assignment, you should avoid introducing confounds into your experiments. Confounds are things that could undermine your ability to draw causal inferences. For example, if you wanted to test if a new happy pill will make people happier, you could randomly assign participants to take the happy pill or not (the independent variable) and compare these two groups on their self-reported happiness (the dependent variable). However, if some participants know they are getting the happy pill, they might develop expectations that influence their self-reported happiness. This is sometimes known as a placebo effect. Sometimes a person just knowing that he or she is receiving special treatment or something new is enough to actually cause changes in behavior or perception: In other words, even if the participants in the happy pill condition were to report being happier, we wouldn’t know if the pill was actually making them happier or if it was the placebo effect—an example of a confound.

A related idea is participant demand. This occurs when participants try to behave in a way they think the experimenter wants them to behave. Placebo effects and participant demand often occur unintentionally. Even experimenter expectations can influence the outcome of a study. For example, if the experimenter knows who took the happy pill and who did not, and the dependent variable is the experimenter’s observations of people’s happiness, then the experimenter might perceive improvements in the happy pill group that are not really there.

One way to prevent these confounds from affecting the results of a study is to use a double- blind procedure. In a double-blind procedure, neither the participant nor the experimenter knows which condition the participant is in. For example, when participants are given the happy pill or the fake pill, they don’t know which one they are receiving. This way the participants shouldn’t experience the placebo effect, and will be unable to behave as the researcher expects (participant demand). Likewise, the researcher doesn’t know which pill each participant is taking (at least in the beginning—later, the researcher will get the results for data-analysis purposes), which means the researcher’s expectations can’t influence his or her observations. Therefore, because both parties are “blind” to the condition, neither will be able to behave in a way that introduces a confound. At the end of the day, the only difference between groups will be which pills the participants received, allowing the researcher to determine if the happy pill actually caused people to be happier.


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UPEI Introduction to Psychology 1 Copyright © by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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