We stated earlier that psychologists prefer the experimental method. It should be obvious by now that they agree that this method can be usefully applied to the whole range of phenomena with which they are concerned. The basic features of the experimental method are identical, regardless of the subject matter to which it is applied. Two terms that are very useful in understanding the structure of any experiment are independent variable and dependent variable.
The independent variable is something that there is reason to suppose might affect the dependent variable and that can be manipulated by the experimenter. Thus the makeup of the models dropped into the fish tank and the number of bystanders in the experimental group are both independent variables. In each of these experiments two or more values of each independent variable were subjected to deliberate study by the experimenter. The goal in each case was to observe whether different values of the independent variable produced different effects on the behavior of subjects.
The dependent variable is always some measurable aspect of the behavior of a subject, be it fish or human. Thus whether the stickleback attacks a model and whether the subject emerges from the booth to get help are dependent variables. The dependent variable cannot be manipulated by the experimenter in the same direct fashion as the independent variable can. The value of the dependent variable, however may be determined by the value of the independent variable that the experimenter has arbitrarily chosen for a given subject.
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