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Researchers investigating causal mechanisms in survey experiments often rely on nonrandomized quantities to isolate the indirect effect of treatment through these variables. Such an approach, however, requires a “selection-on-observables” assumption, which undermines the advantages of a randomized experiment. In this paper, we show what can be learned about casual mechanisms through experimental design alone. We propose a factorial design that provides or withholds information on mediating variables and allows for the identification of the overall average treatment effect and the controlled direct effect of treatment fixing a potential mediator. While this design cannot identify indirect effects on its own, it avoids making the selection-on-observable assumption of the standard mediation approach while providing evidence for a broader understanding of causal mechanisms that encompasses both indirect effects and interactions. We illustrate these approaches via two examples: one on evaluations of US Supreme Court nominees and the other on perceptions of the democratic peace.


Acharya, Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. "Analyzing Causal Mechanisms in Survey Experiments." Political Analysis 26.4 (October 2018): 357-378.