Treatment and control groups
In the design of experiments, treatments are applied to experimental units in a treatment group. In comparative experiments, members of a control group receive a standard treatment, a placebo, or no treatment at all. There may be more than one treatment group, more than one control group, or both.
A placebo control group can be used to support a double-blind study, in which some subjects are given an ineffective treatment (in medical studies typically a sugar pill) to minimize differences in the experiences of subjects in the different groups; this is done in a way that ensures no participant in the experiment (subject or experimenter) knows to which group each subject belongs. In such cases, a third, non-treatment control group can be used to measure the placebo effect directly, as the difference between the responses of placebo subjects and untreated subjects, perhaps paired by age group or other factors (such as being twins).
For the conclusions drawn from the results of an experiment to have validity, it is essential that the items or patients assigned to treatment and control groups be representative of the same population. In some experiments, such as many in agriculture or psychology, this can be achieved by randomly assigning items from a common population to one of the treatment and control groups. In studies of twins involving just one treatment group and a control group, it is statistically efficient to do this random assignment separately for each pair of twins, so that one is in the treatment group and one in the control group.
In some medical studies, where it may be unethical not to treat patients who present with symptoms, controls may be given a standard treatment, rather than no treatment at all. An alternative is to select controls from a wider population, provided that this population is well-defined and that those presenting with symptoms at the clinic are representative of those in the wider population. Another method to reduce ethical concerns would be to test early-onset symptoms, with enough time later to offer real treatments to the control subjects, and let those subjects know the first treatments are "experimental" and might not be as effective as later treatments, again with the understanding there would be ample time to try other remedies.
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