What’s in a Name? All About Variable Names

Quantitative Results

In the research world, you may find that there are many ways to refer to the same thing—and that is certainly true when it comes to variable designations. Independent, dependent, predictor, criterion—it can be hard for the novice researcher to keep these terms straight! Here we will try to provide some clarity on variable names.

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The most common and general labels used to refer to variables in quantitative research are independent (IV) and dependent (DV). In a classic experimental sense, your IV is the variable you manipulate (think: new drug vs. placebo). It is called independent because, ideally, you want to determine the isolated or “unique” effect of this variable on your outcome. Your DV, on the other hand, is the outcome you want to measure (think: number of cancer cells present after treatment with new drug vs. placebo). It is dependent on your independent variable (if your experiment works). The amount of cancer cells present depends on what treatment (drug) is being administered.

Your IV might also be the variable you are trying to find differences between (think: gender differences), or relationships with your dependent variable. In a strict sense, independent and dependent variables are the correct nomenclature for a classic experimental study. But here is something to think about: if the independent variable is the one you manipulate, and you are not manipulating any variables in your research, can you still really call it an independent variable? Schools, advisors, and committees will all have different opinions on what terminology to use. Independent and dependent are the most commonly understood terms. However, here are some other common designations based on type of analysis and study: