Chapter 8: Complex Research Designs

Multiple Dependent Variables

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain why researchers often include multiple dependent variables in their studies.
  2. Explain what a manipulation check is and when it would be included in an experiment.

Imagine that you have made the effort to find a research topic, review the research literature, formulate a question, design an experiment, obtain research ethics board (REB) approval, recruit research participants, and manipulate an independent variable. It would seem almost wasteful to measure a single dependent variable. Even if you are primarily interested in the relationship between an independent variable and one primary dependent variable, there are usually several more questions that you can answer easily by including multiple dependent variables.

Measures of Different Constructs

Often a researcher wants to know how an independent variable affects several distinct dependent variables. For example, Schnall and her colleagues were interested in how feeling disgusted affects the harshness of people’s moral judgments, but they were also curious about how disgust affects other variables, such as people’s willingness to eat in a restaurant. As another example, researcher Susan Knasko was interested in how different odours affect people’s behaviour (Knasko, 1992)[1]. She conducted an experiment in which the independent variable was whether participants were tested in a room with no odour or in one scented with lemon, lavender, or dimethyl sulfide (which has a cabbage-like smell). Although she was primarily interested in how the odours affected people’s creativity, she was also curious about how they affected people’s moods and perceived health—and it was a simple enough matter to measure these dependent variables too. Although she found that creativity was unaffected by the ambient odour, she found that people’s moods were lower in the dimethyl sulfide condition, and that their perceived health was greater in the lemon condition.

When an experiment includes multiple dependent variables, there is again a possibility of carryover effects. For example, it is possible that measuring participants’ moods before measuring their perceived health could affect their perceived health or that measuring their perceived health before their moods could affect their moods. So the order in which multiple dependent variables are measured becomes an issue. One approach is to measure them in the same order for all participants—usually with the most important one first so that it cannot be affected by measuring the others. Another approach is to counterbalance, or systematically vary, the order in which the dependent variables are measured.

Manipulation Checks

When the independent variable is a construct that can only be manipulated indirectly—such as emotions and other internal states—an additional measure of that independent variable is often included as a manipulation check. This is done to confirm that the independent variable was, in fact, successfully manipulated. For example, Schnall and her colleagues had their participants rate their level of disgust to be sure that those in the messy room actually felt more disgusted than those in the clean room. Manipulation checks are usually done at the end of the procedure to be sure that the effect of the manipulation lasted throughout the entire procedure and to avoid calling unnecessary attention to the manipulation.

Manipulation checks become especially important when the manipulation of the independent variable turns out to have no effect on the dependent variable. Imagine, for example, that you exposed participants to happy or sad movie music—intending to put them in happy or sad moods—but you found that this had no effect on the number of happy or sad childhood events they recalled. This could be because being in a happy or sad mood has no effect on memories for childhood events. But it could also be that the music was ineffective at putting participants in happy or sad moods. A manipulation check—in this case, a measure of participants’ moods—would help resolve this uncertainty. If it showed that you had successfully manipulated participants’ moods, then it would appear that there is indeed no effect of mood on memory for childhood events. But if it showed that you did not successfully manipulate participants’ moods, then it would appear that you need a more effective manipulation to answer your research question.

Measures of the Same Construct

Another common approach to including multiple dependent variables is to operationally define and measure the same construct, or closely related ones, in different ways. Imagine, for example, that a researcher conducts an experiment on the effect of daily exercise on stress. The dependent variable, stress, is a construct that can be operationally defined in different ways. For this reason, the researcher might have participants complete the paper-and-pencil Perceived Stress Scale and measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This is an example of the use of converging operations. If the researcher finds that the different measures are affected by exercise in the same way, then he or she can be confident in the conclusion that exercise affects the more general construct of stress.

When multiple dependent variables are different measures of the same construct—especially if they are measured on the same scale—researchers have the option of combining them into a single measure of that construct. Recall that Schnall and her colleagues were interested in the harshness of people’s moral judgments. To measure this construct, they presented their participants with seven different scenarios describing morally questionable behaviours and asked them to rate the moral acceptability of each one. Although they could have treated each of the seven ratings as a separate dependent variable, these researchers combined them into a single dependent variable by computing their mean.

When researchers combine dependent variables in this way, they are treating them collectively as a multiple-response measure of a single construct. The advantage of this is that multiple-response measures are generally more reliable than single-response measures. However, it is important to make sure the individual dependent variables are correlated with each other by computing an internal consistency measure such as Cronbach’s α. If they are not correlated with each other, then it does not make sense to combine them into a measure of a single construct. If they have poor internal consistency, then they should be treated as separate dependent variables.

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers in psychology often include multiple dependent variables in their studies. The primary reason is that this easily allows them to answer more research questions with minimal additional effort.
  • When an independent variable is a construct that is manipulated indirectly, it is a good idea to include a manipulation check. This is a measure of the independent variable typically given at the end of the procedure to confirm that it was successfully manipulated.
  • Multiple measures of the same construct can be analyzed separately or combined to produce a single multiple-item measure of that construct. The latter approach requires that the measures taken together have good internal consistency.

Exercises

  1. Practice: List three independent variables for which it would be good to include a manipulation check. List three others for which a manipulation check would be unnecessary. Hint: Consider whether there is any ambiguity concerning whether the manipulation will have its intended effect.
  2. Practice: Imagine a study in which the independent variable is whether the room where participants are tested is warm (30°) or cool (12°). List three dependent variables that you might treat as measures of separate variables. List three more that you might combine and treat as measures of the same underlying construct.

  1. Knasko, S. C. (1992). Ambient odour’s effect on creativity, mood, and perceived health. Chemical Senses, 17, 27–35.