Independent and Dependent Variables

This guide discusses how to identify independent and dependent variables effectively and incorporate their description within the body of a research paper.

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A variable can be anything you might aim to measure in your study, whether in the form of numerical data or reflecting complex phenomena such as feelings or reactions. Dependent variables change due to the other factors measured, especially if a study employs an experimental or semi-experimental design. Independent variables are stable: they are both presumed causes and conditions in the environment or milieu being manipulated.

Identifying Independent and Dependent Variables

Even though the definitions of the terms independent and dependent variables may appear to be clear, in the process of analyzing data resulting from actual research, identifying the variables properly might be challenging. Here is a simple rule that you can apply at all times: the independent variable is what a researcher changes, whereas the dependent variable is affected by these changes. To illustrate the difference, a number of examples are provided below.

  1. The purpose of Study 1 is to measure the impact of different plant fertilizers on how many fruits apple trees bear.
    Independent variable: plant fertilizers (chosen by researchers)
    Dependent variable: fruits that the trees bear (affected by choice of fertilizers)
  2. The purpose of Study 2 is to find an association between living in close vicinity to hydraulic fracturing sites and respiratory diseases.
    Independent variable: proximity to hydraulic fracturing sites (a presumed cause and a condition of the environment)
    Dependent variable: the percentage/ likelihood of suffering from respiratory diseases

Confusion is possible in identifying independent and dependent variables in the social sciences. When considering psychological phenomena and human behavior, it can be difficult to distinguish between cause and effect. For example, the purpose of Study 3 is to establish how tactics for coping with stress are linked to the level of stress-resilience in college students. Even though it is feasible to speculate that these variables are interdependent, the following factors should be taken into account in order to clearly define which variable is dependent and which is interdependent.

  • The dependent variable is usually the objective of the research. In the study under examination, the levels of stress resilience are being investigated.
  • The independent variable precedes the dependent variable. The chosen stress-related coping techniques help to build resilience; thus, they occur earlier.

Writing Style and Structure

Usually, the variables are first described in the introduction of a research paper and then in the method section. No strict guidelines for approaching the subject exist; however, academic writing demands that the researcher make clear and concise statements. It is only reasonable not to leave readers guessing which of the variables is dependent and which is independent. The description should reflect the literature review, where both types of variables are identified in the context of the previous research. For instance, in the case of Study 3, a researcher would have to provide an explanation as to the meaning of stress resilience and coping tactics.


In properly organizing a research paper, it is essential to outline and operationalize the appropriate independent and dependent variables. Moreover, the paper should differentiate clearly between independent and dependent variables. Finding the dependent variable is typically the objective of a study, whereas independent variables reflect influencing factors that can be manipulated. Distinguishing between the two types of variables in social sciences may be somewhat challenging as it can be easy to confuse cause with effect. Academic format calls for the author to mention the variables in the introduction and then provide a detailed description in the method section.

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