In experimental research, random assignment, or random placement, organizes participants from your sample into different groups using randomization.
Random assignment uses chance procedures to ensure that each participant has an equal opportunity of being assigned to either a control or experimental group.
The control group does not receive the treatment in question, whereas the experimental group does receive the treatment.
When using random assignment, neither the researcher nor the participant can choose the group to which the participant is assigned. This ensures that any differences between and within the groups are not systematic at the onset of the study.
In This Article
In a study to test the success of a weight-loss program, investigators randomly assigned a pool of participants to one of two groups.
Group A participants participated in the weight-loss program for 10 weeks and took a class where they learned about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.
Group B participants read a 200-page book that explains the benefits of weight loss. The investigator randomly assigned participants to one of the two groups.
The researchers found that those who participated in the program and took the class were more likely to lose weight than those in the other group that received only the book.
Random assignment ensures that each group in the experiment is identical before applying the independent variable.
In experiments, researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables. Random assignment increases the likelihood that the treatment groups are the same at the onset of a study.
Thus, any changes that result from the independent variable can be assumed to be a result of the treatment of interest. This is particularly important for eliminating sources of bias and strengthening the internal validity of an experiment.
Random assignment is the best method for inferring a causal relationship between a treatment and an outcome.
Random Selection vs. Random Assignment
Random selection (also called probability sampling or random sampling) is a way of randomly selecting members of a population to be included in your study.
On the other hand, random assignment is a way of sorting the sample participants into control and treatment groups.
Random selection ensures that everyone in the population has an equal chance of being selected for the study. Once the pool of participants has been chosen, experimenters use random assignment to assign participants into groups.
Random assignment is only used in between-subjects experimental designs, while random selection can be used in a variety of study designs.
When to Use Random Assignment
Random assignment is used in experiments with a between-groups or independent measures design.
In these research designs, researchers will manipulate an independent variable to assess its effect on a dependent variable, while controlling for other variables.
There is usually a control group and one or more experimental groups. Random assignment helps ensure that the groups are comparable at the onset of the study.
How to Use Random Assignment
There are a variety of ways to assign participants into study groups randomly. Here are a handful of popular methods:
- Random Number Generator: Give each member of the sample a unique number; use a computer program to randomly generate a number from the list for each group.
- Lottery: Give each member of the sample a unique number. Place all numbers in a hat or bucket and draw numbers at random for each group.
- Flipping a Coin: Flip a coin for each participant to decide if they will be in the control group or experimental group (this method can only be used when you have just two groups)
- Roll a Die: For each number on the list, roll a dice to decide which of the groups they will be in. For example, assume that rolling 1, 2, or 3 places them in a control group and rolling 3, 4, 5 lands them in an experimental group.
When is Random Assignment not used?
- When it is not ethically permissible: Randomization is only ethical if the researcher has no evidence that one treatment is superior to the other or that one treatment might have harmful side effects.
- When answering non-causal questions: If the researcher is just interested in predicting the probability of an event, the causal relationship between the variables is not important and observational designs would be more suitable than random assignment.
- When studying the effect of variables that cannot be manipulated: Some risk factors cannot be manipulated and so it would not make any sense to study them in a randomized trial. For example, we cannot randomly assign participants into categories based on age, gender, or genetic factors.
Drawbacks of Random Assignment
While randomization assures an unbiased assignment of participants to groups, it does not guarantee the equality of these groups. There could still be extraneous variables that differ between groups or group differences that arise from chance. Additionally, there is still an element of luck with random assignments.
Thus, researchers can not produce perfectly equal groups for each specific study. Differences between the treatment group and control group might still exist and the results of a randomized trial may sometimes be wrong, but this is absolutely okay.
Scientific evidence is a long and continuous process, and the groups will tend to be equal in the long run when data is aggregated in a meta-analysis.
Additionally, external validity (i.e., the extent to which the researcher can use the results of the study to generalize to the larger population) is compromised with random assignment.
Random assignment is challenging to implement outside of controlled laboratory conditions and might not represent what would happen in the real world at the population level.
Random assignment also can be more costly than simple observational studies where an investigator is just observing events without intervening with the population.
Randomization also can be time-consuming and challenging, especially when participants refuse to receive the assigned treatment or do not adhere to recommendations.
What is the difference between random sampling and random assignment?
Random sampling refers to randomly selecting a sample of participants from a population. Random assignment refers to randomly assigning participants to treatment groups from the selected sample.
Does random assignment increase internal validity?
Yes, random assignment ensures that there are no systematic differences between the participants in each group, enhancing the internal validity of the study.
Does random assignment reduce sampling error?
Yes, with random assignment, participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either a control group or an experimental group, resulting in a sample that is, in theory, representative of the population.
Random assignment does not completely eliminate sampling error because a sample is only an approximation of the population from which it is drawn. However, random sampling is a way to minimize sampling errors.
When is random assignment not possible?
Random assignment is not possible when the experimenters cannot control the treatment or independent variable.
For example, if you want to compare how men and women perform on a test, you cannot randomly assign subjects to these groups.
Participants are not randomly assigned to different groups in this study, but instead assigned based on their characteristics.
Does random assignment eliminate confounding variables?
Yes, random assignment eliminates the influence of any confounding variables on the treatment because it distributes them at random among the study groups. Randomization invalidates any relationship between a confounding variable and the treatment.
Why is random assignment of participants to treatment conditions in an experiment used?
Random assignment is used to ensure that all groups are comparable at the start of a study. This allows researchers to conclude that the outcomes of the study can be attributed to the intervention at hand and to rule out alternative explanations for study results.
Bogomolnaia, A., & Moulin, H. (2001). A new solution to the random assignment problem. Journal of Economic theory, 100(2), 295-328.
Krause, M. S., & Howard, K. I. (2003). What random assignment does and does not do. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 59(7), 751-766.