Controlling Variables

by Anthony Carpi, Ph.D., Anne E. Egger, Ph.D.

This material is excerpted from a teaching module on the Visionlearning website, to view this material in context, please visit Research Methods: Experimentation.

Controlling variables is an important part of experimental design. Controlled variables refer to variables or contributing factors that are fixed or eliminated in order to clearly identify the relationship between an independent variable and a dependent variable. For example, in an experiment designed to quantify the effect of vitamin A dose on the metabolism of beta-carotene in humans, Shawna Lemke and colleagues had to precisely control the diet of their human volunteers (Lemke, Dueker et al. 2003). They asked their participants to limit their intake of foods rich in vitamin A and further asked that they maintain a precise log of all foods eaten for 1 week prior to their study. At the time of their study, they controlled their participants’ diet by feeding them all the same meals, described in the methods section of their research article in this way, “Meals were controlled for time and content on the dose administration day. Lunch was served at 5.5 h postdosing and consisted of a frozen dinner (Enchiladas, Amy's Kitchen, Petaluma, CA), a blueberry bagel with jelly, 1 apple and 1 banana, and a large chocolate chunk cookie (Pepperidge Farm). Dinner was served 10.5 h post dose and consisted of a frozen dinner (Chinese Stir Fry, Amy's Kitchen) plus the bagel and fruit taken for lunch.”

Controlling variables is important because slight variations in the experimental set-up could strongly affect the outcome being measured. For example, during the 1950s, a number of experiments were conducted to evaluate the toxicity in mammals of the metal molybdenum, using rats as experimental subjects. Unexpectedly, these experiments seemed to indicate that the type of cage the rats were housed in affected the toxicity of molybdenum. In response, G. Brinkman and Russell Miller set up an experiment to investigate this observation (Brinkman & Miller, 1961). Brinkman and Miller fed two groups of rats a normal diet that was supplemented with 200 parts per million (ppm) of molybdenum. One group of rats was housed in galvanized steel (steel coated with zinc to reduce corrosion) cages and the second group was housed in stainless steel cages. Rats housed in the galvanized steel cages suffered more from molybdenum toxicity than the other group: they had higher concentrations of molybdenum in their livers and lower blood hemoglobin levels. It was then shown that when the rats chewed on their cages, those housed in the galvanized metal cages absorbed zinc plated onto the metal bars and zinc is now known to affect the toxicity of molybdenum. In order to control for zinc exposure, then, stainless steel cages needed to be used for all rats.

While controlling variables is an important aspect of making an experiment manageable and informative, it is often not representative of the real world, in which many variables may change at once, including the foods you eat. Still, experimental research is an excellent way of determining relationships between variables that can be later validated in real world settings through descriptive or comparative studies.