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Experimental designs for identifying causal mechanisms

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Summary.  Experimentation is a powerful methodology that enables scientists to establish causal claims empirically. However, one important criticism is that experiments merely provide a black box view of causality and fail to identify causal mechanisms. Specifically, critics argue that, although experiments can identify average causal effects, they cannot explain the process through which such effects come about. If true, this represents a serious limitation of experimentation, especially for social and medical science research that strives to identify causal mechanisms. We consider several experimental designs that help to identify average natural indirect effects. Some of these designs require the perfect manipulation of an intermediate variable, whereas others can be used even when only imperfect manipulation is possible. We use recent social science experiments to illustrate the key ideas that underlie each of the designs proposed.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Princeton University, USA 2: Harvard University, Cambridge, USA 3: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA

Publication date: 2013-01-01

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