Positive Control vs Negative Control: Differences & Examples

positive control vs negative control, explained below

A positive control is designed to confirm a known response in an experimental design, while a negative control ensures there’s no effect, serving as a baseline for comparison.

The two terms are defined as below:

  • Positive control refers to a group in an experiment that receives a procedure or treatment known to produce a positive result. It serves the purpose of affirming the experiment’s capability to produce a positive outcome.
  • Negative control refers to a group that does not receive the procedure or treatment and is expected not to yield a positive result. Its role is to ensure that a positive result in the experiment is due to the treatment or procedure.

The experimental group is then compared to these control groups, which can help demonstrate efficacy of the experimental treatment in comparison to the positive and negative controls.

Positive Control vs Negative Control: Key Terms

Control Groups

A control group serves as a benchmark in an experiment. Typically, it is a subset of participants, subjects, or samples that do not receive the experimental treatment (as in negative control).

This could mean assigning a placebo to a human subject or leaving a sample unaltered in chemical experiments. By comparing the results obtained from the experimental group to the control, you can ascertain whether any differences are due to the treatment or random variability.

A well-configured experimental control is critical for drawing valid conclusions from an experiment. Correct use of control groups permits specificity of findings, ensuring the integrity of experimental data.

See More: Control Variables Examples

The Negative Control

Negative control is a group or condition in an experiment that ought to show no effect from the treatment.

It is useful in ensuring that the outcome isn’t accidental or influenced by an external cause. Imagine a medical test, for instance. You use distilled water, anticipating no reaction, as a negative control.

If a significant result occurs, it warns you of a possible contamination or malfunction during the testing. Failure of negative controls to stay ‘negative’ risks misinterpretation of the experiment’s result, and could undermine the validity of the findings.

The Positive Control

A positive control, on the other hand, affirms an experiment’s functionality by demonstrating a known reaction.

This might be a group or condition where the expected output is known to occur, which you include to ensure that the experiment can produce positive results when they are present. For instance, in testing an antibiotic, a well-known pathogen, susceptible to the medicine, could be the positive control.

Positive controls affirm that under appropriate conditions your experiment can produce a result. Without this reference, experiments could fail to detect true positive results, leading to false negatives. These two controls, used judiciously, are backbones of effective experimental practice.

Experimental Groups

Experimental groups are primarily characterized by their exposure to the examined variable.

That is, these are the test subjects that receive the treatment or intervention under investigation. The performance of the experimental group is then compared against the well-established markers – our positive and negative controls.

For example, an experimental group may consist of rats undergoing a pharmaceutical testing regime, or students learning under a new educational method. Fundamentally, this unit bears the brunt of the investigation and their response powers the outcomes.

However, without positive and negative controls, gauging the results of the experimental group could become erratic. Both control groups exist to highlight what outcomes are expected with and without the application of the variable in question. By comparing results, a clearer connection between the experiment variables and the observed changes surfaces, creating robust and indicative scientific conclusions.

Positive and Negative Control Examples

1. A Comparative Study of Old and New Pesticides’ Effectiveness

This hypothetical study aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a new pesticide by comparing its pest-killing potential with old pesticides and an untreated set. The investigation involves three groups: an untouched space (negative control), another treated with an established pesticide believed to kill pests (positive control), and a third area sprayed with the new pesticide (experimental group).

  • Negative Control: This group consists of a plot of land infested by pests and not subjected to any pesticide treatment. It acts as the negative control. You expect no decline in pest populations in this area. Any unexpected decrease could signal external influences (i.e. confounding variables) on the pests unrelated to pesticides, affecting the experiment’s validity.
  • Positive Control: Another similar plot, this time treated with a well-established pesticide known to reduce pest populations, constitutes the positive control. A significant reduction in pests in this area would affirm that the experimental conditions are conducive to detect pest-killing effects when a pesticide is applied.
  • Experimental Group: This group consists of the third plot impregnated with the new pesticide. Carefully monitoring the pest level in this research area against the backdrop of the control groups will reveal whether the new pesticide is effective or not. Through comparison with the other groups, any difference observed can be attributed to the new pesticide.

2. Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Newly Developed Weight Loss Pill

In this hypothetical study, the effectiveness of a newly formulated weight loss pill is scrutinized. The study involves three groups: a negative control group given a placebo with no weight-reducing effect, a positive control group provided with an approved weight loss pill known to cause a decrease in weight, and an experimental group given the newly developed pill.

  • Negative Control: The negative control is comprised of participants who receive a placebo with no known weight loss effect. A significant reduction in weight in this group would indicate confounding factors such as dietary changes or increased physical activity, which may invalidate the study’s results.
  • Positive Control: Participants in the positive control group receive an FDA-approved weight loss pill, anticipated to induce weight loss. The success of this control would prove that the experiment conditions are apt to detect the effects of weight loss pills.
  • Experimental Group: This group contains individuals receiving the newly developed weight loss pill. Comparing the weight change in this group against both the positive and negative control, any difference observed would offer evidence about the effectiveness of the new pill.

3. Testing the Efficiency of a New Solar Panel Design

This hypothetical study focuses on assessing the efficiency of a new solar panel design. The study involves three sets of panels: a set that is shaded to yield no solar energy (negative control), a set with traditional solar panels that are known to produce an expected level of solar energy (positive control), and a set fitted with the new solar panel design (experimental group).

  • Negative Control: The negative control involves a set of solar panels that are deliberately shaded, thus expecting no solar energy output. Any unexpected energy output from this group could point towards measurement errors, needed to be rectified for a valid experiment.
  • Positive Control: The positive control set up involves traditional solar panels known to produce a specific amount of energy. If these panels produce the expected energy, it validates that the experiment conditions are capable of measuring solar energy effectively.
  • Experimental Group: The experimental group features the new solar panel design. By comparing the energy output from this group against both the controls, any significant output variation would indicate the efficiency of the new design.

4. Investigating the Efficacy of a New Fertilizer on Plant Growth

This hypothetical study investigates the efficacy of a newly formulated fertilizer on plant growth. The study involves three sets of plants: a set without any fertilizer (negative control), a set treated with an established fertilizer known to promote plant growth (positive control), and a third set fed with the new fertilizer (experimental group).

  • Negative Control: The negative control involves a set of plants not receiving any fertilizer. Lack of significant growth in this group will confirm that any observed growth in other groups is due to the applied fertilizer rather than other uncontrolled factors.
  • Positive Control: The positive control involves another set of plants treated with a well-known fertilizer, expected to promote plant growth. Adequate growth in these plants will validate that the experimental conditions are suitable to detect the influence of a good fertilizer on plant growth.
  • Experimental Group: The experimental group consists of the plants subjected to the newly formulated fertilizer. Investigating the growth in this group against the growth in the control groups will provide ascertained evidence whether the new fertilizer is efficient or not.

5. Evaluating the Impact of a New Teaching Method on Student Performance

This hypothetical study aims to evaluate the impact of a new teaching method on students’ performance. This study involves three groups, a group of students taught through traditional methods (negative control), another group taught through an established effective teaching strategy (positive control), and one more group of students taught through the new teaching method (experimental group).

  • Negative Control: The negative control comprises students taught by standard teaching methods, where you expect satisfactory but not top-performing results. Any unexpected high results in this group could signal external factors such as private tutoring or independent study, which in turn may distort the experimental outcome.
  • Positive Control: The positive control consists of students taught by a known efficient teaching strategy. High performance in this group would prove that the experimental conditions are competent to detect the efficiency of a teaching method.
  • Experimental Group: This group consists of students receiving instruction via the new teaching method. By analyzing their performance against both control groups, any difference in results could be attributed to the new teaching method, determining its efficacy.

Table Summary

AspectPositive ControlNegative Control
PurposeTo confirm that the experiment is working properly and that results can be detected.To ensure that there is no effect when there shouldn’t be, and to provide a baseline for comparison.
Outcome ExpectedA known effect or change.No effect or change.
UsageUsed to demonstrate that the experimental setup can produce a positive result.Used to demonstrate that any observed effects are due to the experimental treatment and not other factors.
Example in Plant GrowthPlants given known amounts of sunlight to ensure they grow.Plants given no sunlight to ensure they don’t grow.
Example in Enzyme ActivityA substrate known to be acted upon by the enzyme.A substrate that the enzyme doesn’t act upon.
Example in Bacterial GrowthA medium known to support bacterial growth.A medium that doesn’t support bacterial growth (sterile medium).
ImportanceValidates that the experimental system is sensitive and can detect changes if they occur.Validates that observed effects are due to the variable being tested and not due to external or unknown factors.
Potential IssuesIf the positive control doesn’t produce the expected result, the experimental setup or procedure may be flawed.If the negative control shows an effect, there may be contamination or other unexpected variables influencing the results.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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