Understanding confounding variables
In research that investigates a potential cause-and-effect relationship, a confounding variable is an unmeasured third variable that influences both the supposed cause and the supposed effect.
What is a confounding variable?
Confounding variables (a.k.a. confounders or confounding factors) are a type of extraneous variable that are related to a study’s independent and dependent variables. A variable must meet two conditions to be a confounder:
- It must be correlated with the independent variable. This may be a causal relationship, but it does not have to be.
- It must be causally related to the dependent variable.
Why confounding variables matter
To ensure the internal validity of your research, you must account for confounding variables. If you fail to do so, your results may not reflect the actual relationship between the variables that you are interested in..
For instance, you may find a cause-and-effect relationship that does not actually exist, because the effect you measure is caused by the confounding variable (and not by your independent variable).
Even if you correctly identify a cause-and-effect relationship, confounding variables can result in over- or underestimating the impact of your independent variable on your dependent variable.
How to reduce the impact of confounding variables
There are several methods of accounting for confounding variables. You can use the following methods when studying any type of subjects—humans, animals, plants, chemicals, etc. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages.
In this method, you restrict your treatment group by only including subjects with the same values of potential confounding factors.
Since these values do not differ among the subjects of your study, they cannot correlate with your independent variable and thus cannot confound the cause-and-effect relationship you are studying.
- Relatively easy to implement
- Restricts your sample a great deal
- You might fail to consider other potential confounders
In this method, you select a comparison group that matches with the treatment group. Each member of the comparison group should have a counterpart in the treatment group with the same values of potential confounders, but different independent variable values.
This allows you to eliminate the possibility that differences in confounding variables cause the variation in outcomes between the treatment and comparison group. If you have accounted for any potential confounders, you can thus conclude that the difference in the independent variable must be the cause of the variation in the dependent variable.
- Allows you to include more subjects than restriction
- Can prove difficult to implement since you need pairs of subjects that match on every potential confounding variable
- Other variables that you cannot match on might also be confounding variables
If you have already collected the data, you can include the possible confounders as control variables in your regression models; in this way, you will control for the impact of the confounding variable.
Any effect that the potential confounding variable has on the dependent variable will show up in the results of the regression and allow you to separate the impact of the independent variable.
- Easy to implement
- Can be performed after data collection
- You can only control for variables that you observe directly, but other confounding variables you have not accounted for might remain
Another way to minimize the impact of confounding variables is to randomize the values of your independent variable. For instance, if some of your participants are assigned to a treatment group while others are in a control group, you can randomly assign participants to each group.
Randomization ensures that with a sufficiently large sample, all potential confounding variables—even those you cannot directly observe in your study—will have the same average value between different groups. Since these variables do not differ by group assignment, they cannot correlate with your independent variable and thus cannot confound your study.
Since this method allows you to account for all potential confounding variables, which is nearly impossible to do otherwise, it is often considered to be the best way to reduce the impact of confounding variables.
- Allows you to account for all possible confounding variables, including ones that you may not observe directly
- Considered the best method for minimizing the impact of confounding variables
- Most difficult to carry out
- Must be implemented prior to beginning data collection
- You must ensure that only those in the treatment (and not control) group receive the treatment
Frequently asked questions about confounding variables
- What is a confounding variable?
A confounding variable is related to both the supposed cause and the supposed effect of the study. It can be difficult to separate the true effect of the independent variable from the effect of the confounding variable.
In your research design, it’s important to identify potential confounding variables and plan how you will reduce their impact.
- What is the difference between confounding variables, independent variables and dependent variables?
A confounding variable is closely related to both the independent and dependent variables in a study. An independent variable represents the supposed cause, while the dependent variable is the supposed effect. A confounding variable is a third variable that influences both the independent and dependent variables.
Failing to account for confounding variables can cause you to wrongly estimate the relationship between your independent and dependent variables.
- What’s the difference between extraneous and confounding variables?
- Why do confounding variables matter for my research?
- How do I prevent confounding variables from interfering with my research?
There are several methods you can use to decrease the impact of confounding variables on your research: restriction, matching, statistical control and randomization.
In restriction, you restrict your sample by only including certain subjects that have the same values of potential confounding variables.
In matching, you match each of the subjects in your treatment group with a counterpart in the comparison group. The matched subjects have the same values on any potential confounding variables, and only differ in the independent variable.
In statistical control, you include potential confounders as variables in your regression.
In randomization, you randomly assign the treatment (or independent variable) in your study to a sufficiently large number of subjects, which allows you to control for all potential confounding variables.