Observational study

A study in which a researcher attempts to understand the effect that a variable (an explanatory variable) may have on some phenomenon (the response), but the researcher is not able to control some important conditions of the study.

In an observational study the researcher has no control over the value of the explanatory variable; the researcher can only observe the value of the explanatory variable for each individual and, if necessary, allocate individuals to groups based on the observed values.

Because the groups in the study are formed by values of an explanatory variable that individuals happened to receive, and not by randomisation, the groups may not be similar in all ways apart from the value of the explanatory variable.

Any observed differences in the response (if large enough) between the groups, on average, cannot be said to be caused by any differences in the values of the explanatory variable. The differences in the response could be due to the differences in the groups that are not related to the explanatory variable.


A study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health, published in 2009, investigated the relationship between low childhood IQ and adult mental health disorders. The study participants were a group of children born in 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin. Their IQs were assessed at ages 7, 9 and 11 and mental health disorders were assessed at ages 18 through to 32 in interviews by health professionals who had no knowledge of the individuals’ IQ or mental health history.

This is an observational study because the researchers had no control over the explanatory variable, childhood IQ. The researchers could only record the assessed childhood IQ. The response was whether or not the individual had suffered from a mental disorder during adulthood.

Curriculum achievement objectives reference
Statistical literacy: Level 8