What Is a Control Group?

Control Groups vs. Experimental Groups in Psychology Research

overhead view of students taking test

Doug Corrance/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In simple terms, the control group comprises participants who do not receive the experimental treatment. When conducting an experiment, these people are randomly assigned to this group. They also closely resemble the participants who are in the experimental group or the individuals who receive the treatment.

Experimenters utilize variables to make comparisons between an experimental group and a control group. A variable is something that researchers can manipulate, measure, and control in an experiment. The independent variable is the aspect of the experiment that the researchers manipulate (or the treatment). The dependent variable is what the researchers measure to see if the independent variable had an effect.

While they do not receive the treatment, the control group does play a vital role in the research process. Experimenters compare the experimental group to the control group to determine if the treatment had an effect.

By serving as a comparison group, researchers can isolate the independent variable and look at the impact it had.

Control Group vs. Experimental Group

The simplest way to determine the difference between a control group and an experimental group is to determine which group receives the treatment and which does not. To ensure that the results can then be compared accurately, the two groups should be otherwise identical.

Control Group
  • Not exposed to the treatment (the independent variable)

  • Used to provide a baseline to compare results against

  • May receive a placebo treatment

Experimental Group
  • Exposed to the treatment

  • Used to measure the effects of the independent variable

  • Identical to the control group aside from their exposure to the treatment

Why a Control Group Is Important

While the control group does not receive treatment, it does play a critical role in the experimental process. This group serves as a benchmark, allowing researchers to compare the experimental group to the control group to see what sort of impact changes to the independent variable produced.

Because participants have been randomly assigned to either the control group or the experimental group, it can be assumed that the groups are comparable.

Any differences between the two groups are, therefore, the result of the manipulations of the independent variable. The experimenters carry out the exact same procedures with both groups with the exception of the manipulation of the independent variable in the experimental group.

Types of Control Groups

There are a number of different types of control groups that might be utilized in psychology research. Some of these include:

  • Positive control groups: In this case, researchers already know that a treatment is effective but want to learn more about the impact of variations of the treatment. In this case, the control group receives the treatment that is known to work, while the experimental group receives the variation so that researchers can learn more about how it performs and compares to the control.
  • Negative control group: In this type of control group, the participants are not given a treatment. The experimental group can then be compared to the group that did not experience any change or results.
  • Placebo control group: This type of control group receives a placebo treatment that they believe will have an effect. This control group allows researchers to examine the impact of the placebo effect and how the experimental treatment compared to the placebo treatment.
  • Randomized control group: This type of control group involves using random selection to help ensure that the participants in the control group accurately reflect the demographics of the larger population.
  • Natural control group: This type of control group is naturally selected, often by situational factors. For example, researchers might compare people who have experienced trauma due to war to people who have not experienced war. The people who have not experienced war-related trauma would be the control group.

Examples of Control Groups

Control groups can be used in a variety of situations. For example, imagine a study in which researchers example how distractions during an exam influence test results. The control group would take an exam in a setting with no distractions, while the experimental groups would be exposed to different distractions. The results of the exam would then be compared to see the effects that distractions had on test scores.

Experiments that look at the effects of medications on certain conditions are also examples of how a control group can be used in research. For example, researchers looking at the effectiveness of a new antidepressant might use a control group that receives a placebo and an experimental group that receives the new medication. At the end of the study, researchers would compare measures of depression for both groups to determine what impact the new medication had.

After the experiment is complete, researchers can then look at the test results and start making comparisons between the control group and the experimental group.

Uses for Control Groups

Researchers utilize control groups to conduct research in a range of different fields. Some common uses include:

  • Psychology: Researchers utilize control groups to learn more about mental health, behaviors, and treatments.
  • Medicine: Control groups can be used to learn more about certain health conditions, assess how well medications work to treat these conditions, and assess potential side effects that may result.
  • Education: Educational researchers utilize control groups to learn more about how different curriculums, programs, or instructional methods impact student outcomes.
  • Marketing: Researchers utilize control groups to learn more about how consumers respond to advertising and marketing efforts.
4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Malay S, Chung KC. The choice of controls for providing validity and evidence in clinical research. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2012 Oct;130(4):959-965. doi:10.1097/PRS.0b013e318262f4c8

  2. National Cancer Institute. Control group.

  3. Pithon MM. Importance of the control group in scientific research. Dental Press J Orthod. 2013;18(6):13-14. doi:10.1590/s2176-94512013000600003

  4. Karlsson P, Bergmark A. Compared with what? An analysis of control-group types in Cochrane and Campbell reviews of psychosocial treatment efficacy with substance use disorders. Addiction. 2015;110(3):420-8. doi:10.1111/add.12799

Additional Reading
  • Myers A, Hansen C. Experimental Psychology. Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning; 2012.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."