Statistics Dictionary

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Confounding occurs when the experimental controls do not allow the experimenter to reasonably eliminate plausible alternative explanations for an observed relationship between independent and dependent variables.

Consider this example. A drug manufacturer tests a new cold medicine with 200 volunteer subjects - 100 men and 100 women. The men receive the drug, and the women do not. At the end of the test period, the men report fewer colds.

This experiment implements no controls at all! As a result, many variables are confounded, and it is impossible to say whether the drug was effective. For example, gender is confounded with drug use. Perhaps, men are less vulnerable to the particular cold virus circulating during the experiment, and the new medicine had no effect at all. Or perhaps the men experienced a placebo effect.

This experiment could be strengthened with a few controls. Women and men could be randomly assigned to treatments. One treatment could receive a placebo, with blinding. Then, if the treatment group (i.e., the group getting the medicine) had sufficiently fewer colds than the control group, it would be reasonable to conclude that the medicine was effective in preventing colds.

See also:   Experiments