Random assignment refers to the use of chance procedures in psychology experiments to ensure that each participant has the same opportunity to be assigned to any given group.
Study participants are randomly assigned to different groups, such as the experimental group, or treatment group. Random assignment might involve such tactics as flipping a coin, drawing names out of a hat, rolling dice, or assigning random numbers to participants.
It is important to note that random assignment differs from random selection. While random selection refers to how participants are randomly chosen to represent the larger population, random assignment refers to how those chosen participants are then assigned to experimental groups.
How Does Random Assignment Work in a Psychology Experiment?
To determine if changes in one variable lead to changes in another variable, psychologists must perform an experiment. Researchers often begin by forming a testable hypothesis predicting that one variable of interest will have some impact on another variable.
The variable that the experimenters will manipulate in the experiment is known as the independent variable while the variable that they will then measure is known as the dependent variable. While there are different ways to look at relationships between variables, and experiment is the best way to get a clear idea if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two or more variables.
Once researchers have formulated a hypothesis, conducted background research, and chosen an experimental design, it is time to find participants for their experiment. How exactly do researchers decide who will be part of an experiment? As mentioned previously, this is often accomplished through something known as random selection.
In order to generalize the results of an experiment to a larger group, it is important to choose a sample that is representative of the qualities found in that population. For example, if the total population is 51 percent female and 49 percent male, then the sample should reflect those same percentages. Choosing a representative sample is often accomplished by randomly picking people from the population to be participants in a study. Random selection means that everyone in the group stands and equal chance of being chosen.
Once a pool of participants has been selected, it is time to assign them into groups. By randomly assigning the participants into groups, the experimenters can be sure that each group will be the same before the independent variable is applied.
Participants might be randomly assigned to the control group, which does not receive the treatment in question. Or they might be randomly assigned to the experimental group, which does receive the treatment. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the two groups are the same at the outset, that way any changes that result from the application of the independent variable can be assumed to be the result of the treatment of interest.
An Example of Random Assignment
Imagine that a researcher is interested in learning whether or not drinking caffeinated beverages prior to an exam will improve test performance. After randomly selecting a pool of participants, each person is randomly assigned to either the control group or the experimental group. The participants in the control group consume a placebo drink prior to the exam that does not contain any caffeine. Those in the experimental group, on the other hand, consume a caffeinated beverage before taking the test. Participants in both groups then take the test and the researcher compares the results to determine if the caffeinated beverage had any impact on test performance.
A Word From Verywell
Random assignment plays an important role in the psychology research process. Not only does this process help eliminate possible sources of bias, it also makes it easier to generalize the results of a population to a larger population.
Random assignment helps ensure that members of each group in the experiment are the same, which means that the groups are also likely more representative of what is present in the larger population. Through the use of this technique, psychology researchers are able to study complex phenomena and contribute to our understanding of the human mind and behavior.
Alferes, VR. Methods of Randomization in Experimental Design. Los Angeles: SAGE; 2012.
Nestor, PG & Schutt, RK. Research Methods in Psychology: Investigating Human Behavior. Los Angeles: SAGE; 2015.
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Random selection is how you draw the sample of people for your study from a population. Random assignment is how you assign the sample that you draw to different groups or treatments in your study.
It is possible to have both random selection and assignment in a study. Let's say you drew a random sample of 100 clients from a population list of 1000 current clients of your organization. That is random sampling. Now, let's say you randomly assign 50 of these clients to get some new additional treatment and the other 50 to be controls. That's random assignment.
It is also possible to have only one of these (random selection or random assignment) but not the other in a study. For instance, if you do not randomly draw the 100 cases from your list of 1000 but instead just take the first 100 on the list, you do not have random selection. But you could still randomly assign this nonrandom sample to treatment versus control. Or, you could randomly select 100 from your list of 1000 and then nonrandomly (haphazardly) assign them to treatment or control.
And, it's possible to have neither random selection nor random assignment. In a typical nonequivalent groups design in education you might nonrandomly choose two 5th grade classes to be in your study. This is nonrandom selection. Then, you could arbitrarily assign one to get the new educational program and the other to be the control. This is nonrandom (or nonequivalent) assignment.
Random selection is related to sampling. Therefore it is most related to the external validity (or generalizability) of your results. After all, we would randomly sample so that our research participants better represent the larger group from which they're drawn. Random assignment is most related to design. In fact, when we randomly assign participants to treatments we have, by definition, an experimental design. Therefore, random assignment is most related to internal validity. After all, we randomly assign in order to help assure that our treatment groups are similar to each other (i.e., equivalent) prior to the treatment.
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Last Revised: 10/20/2006