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Causal Thinking & Design of Research

Causal Relationship
What is a causal relationship? The values of one variable produce the values of the other variable. A --------- > B Social class & party vote
(Middle/Upper class --------- > Voting Republican ????)

Missing Variables

How about missing variables? How do they impact inference?

Elimination of alternative Causal Interpretations

Why is research design important?
Because research design the way in which we structure the gathering of data- strongly affects the confidence with which we can put a causal interpretation on the results of the research. What to do with a third variable? Holding variables constant (=Controlling) What if we dont know what the third variable is?



True Experiment
Assign at random some subjects to the test group & some to the control group
Measure the dependent variable for both groups Administer the independent variable to the test group Measure the dependent variable again for both groups

If the test group has changed b/w the first & second measurements in a way that is different from the control group, ascribe this difference to the presence of the independent variable.

Oxytocin infusion increases charitable donations regardless of monetary resources

Puzzle: Social scientists have struggled to explain the frequency and extent of charitable giving. Theories: 1. Evolutionary explanations for giving include status signaling, 2. Reputation, 3. warm-glow (neurologic evidence) fMRI studies have shown that giving to a charity whose cause one cares about is associated with activation in dopaminergic midbrain regions, the same brain regions that activate for the acquisition of primary rewards Charitable donations have also been associated with differential activity in the subgenual cortex (Moll et al., 2006), a region dense with oxytocin receptors that modulate ventromedial dopamine release. OT is associated with prosocial behavior (trust, generosity)

They hypothesized that manipulating OT would increase both the likelihood and size of charitable donations relative to those on placebo.
They examined whether an OT effect on donations may be contextually dependent by presenting participants with either one of 2 different charitable organizations: the American Red Cross & the Palestinian Red Crescent Society). A recent study has found that OT infusion increases behaviors benefiting in-group members but not members of an out-group (De Dreu et al., 2010).

Sample population

Random assignment
Double-blind design Procedure (IRB, Participants medical screening, Exclusion criteria (participant on meds that would interact with OT), OT/placebo administration, participants completed questionnaires (controlling for age, education, income, gender,.), dictator game & trust game, finally presented with the option of donating to charities mentioned)

Results Discussion Finding: Oxytocin influences prosocial behaviors that have delayed and distant effects. Although the decision to donate itself was statistically unaffected by OT, they found that OT increased donations by 48% relative to placebo among those who made donations. These findings suggest that OT can promote acts of giving that indirectly benefit others.

Causality and Causal Inference


Causal Inference
Many social scientists are uncomfortable with causal inference. They are wary of the warning that correlation is not causation, that they will not state causal hypotheses or draw causal inferences, referring to their research as studying association & not causation.

Others make apparent causal statements with ease

It is appropriate to be bold in drawing causal inferences as long as we are cautious in detailing the uncertainty of the inference. Counterfactual condition

Political scientists would learn a lot if they could rerun history with everything constant save for one investigator-controlled explanatory variable. Of course, we cannot do this! Identifying causal mechanisms in qualitative research : We use process tracing . Many of the details of welldone case studies involve identifying these causal mechanisms.

In situations of multiple causation, Ragin argues that the same outcome can be caused by combinations of different independent (=equifinality).

Under conditions in which different explanatory variables can account for the same outcome on a dependent variable, according to Ragin, some statistical methods will falsely reject the hypothesis that these variables have causal status.
KKV disagree. For example, consider the hypothesis that a persons level of income depends both on high educational attainment and highly educated parents. Having one but not both is insufficient. In this case, we need to compare categories of our causal variable: respondents who have high educational attainment and highly educated parents, the two groups who have one but not the other, and the group with neither. Thus, the concept of multiple causation puts greater demands on our data since we now have four categories of our causal variables, but it does not require a modification of our definition of causality.

What happens if different causal explanations generate the same values of the dependent variable?

For example, suppose we consider whether or not one graduated from college as our (dichotomous) causal variable in a population of factory workers. In this situation, both groups could quite reasonably earn the same income (our dependent variable).
One reason might be that this explanatory variable (college attendance) has no causal effect on income among factory workers, perhaps because a college education does not help one perform better.

Alternatively, different explanations might lead to the same level of income for those educated and those not educated. College graduates might earn a particular level of income because of their education, whereas those who had no college education might earn the same level of income because of their four years of additional seniority on the job.

In the present example, the values of the key causal variable to be varied are (1) college education, as compared to (2) no college education but four additional years of job seniority. The dependent variable is starting annual income. Our causal effect is then defined as follows: we record the income of a person graduating from college who goes to work in a factory. Then, we go back in time four years, put this same person to work in the same factory instead of in college and, at the end of four years, measure his or her income again.

The expected difference between these two levels of income for this one individual is our definition of the mean causal effect. In the present situation, we have imagined that this causal effect is zero.

An alternative pair of causal conditions is to compare a college graduate with someone without a college degree but with the same level of job seniority as the college graduate. In one sense, this is unrealistic, since the non-college graduate would have to do something for the four years while not attending college, but perhaps we would be willing to imagine that this person had a different, irrelevant job for those four years.

If we posit that an explanatory variable causes a dependent variable, a causal mechanisms approach would require us to identify a list of causal links between the two variables.

Unit Homogeneity
If we cannot rerun history at the same time and the same place with different values of our explanatory variable each timeas a true solution to the Fundamental Problem of Causal Inference would requirewe can attempt to make a second-best assumption: we can rerun our experiment in two different units that are homogeneous.
Two units are homogeneous when the expected values of the dependent variables from each unit are the same when our explanatory variable takes on a particular value. Of course, this is only an assumption and it can be wrong: the two units might differ in some unknown way that would bias our causal inference.

Conditional Independence
Conditional independence is the assumption that values are assigned to explanatory variables independently of the values taken by the dependent variables. The values that explanatory variables take may be assigned by nature or the environment.

What is crucial in these cases is that the values of the explanatory variables are not caused by the dependent variables. (otherwise we will have the endogeneity problem)

Large-n analyses that involve the procedures of random selection and assignment constitute the most reliable way to assure conditional independence and do not require the unit homogeneity assumption. Random selection and assignment help us to make causal inferences because they automatically satisfy three assumptions that underlie the concept of conditional independence: (1) that the process of assigning values to the explanatory variables is independent of the dependent variables (that is, there is no endogeneity problem); (2) that selection bias is absent; and (3) that omitted variable bias is also absent. If we are able to meet these conditions in any way, either through random selection and assignment we can avoid the Fundamental Problem of Causal Inference.


Causal theories are designed to show the causes of a phenomenon or set of phenomena.

Whether originally conceived as deductive or inductive, any theory includes an interrelated set of causal hypotheses.
Each hypothesis specifies a posited relationship between variables that creates observable implications. The overall theory, of which the hypotheses are parts should be internally consistent, or else hypotheses can be generated that contradict one another. Theories and hypotheses that fit these definitions have an enormous range=> 5 rules that will help in formulating good theories:

5 rules that will help in formulating good theories

1. Construct Falsifiable Theories (Democratic peace theory) Design theories so that they can be shown to be wrong as easily and quickly as possible. We treat theories as tentative and not let them become dogma. We should always be prepared to reject theories in the face of sufficient scientific evidence against them. One question that should be asked about any theory (or of any hypothesis derived from the theory) is simply: what evidence would falsify it? On the other hand, if even a single hypothesis is shown to be wrong, and thus inconsistent with the theory, the theory is falsified, and it is removed from our collection of scientific knowledge.

2. Build Theories That Are Internally Consistent

if two or more parts of a theory generate hypotheses that contradict one another, then no evidence from the empirical world can uphold the theory.
One method of producing internally consistent theories is with formal, mathematical modeling. Formal models do not constitute verified explanations without empirical evaluation of their predictions.

Formality does help us reason more clearly, and it certainly ensures that our ideas are internally consistent, but it does not resolve issues of empirical evaluation of social science theories. An assumption in a formal model in the social sciences is generally a convenience for mathematical simplicity or for ensuring that an equilibrium can be found. How to test?

3. Select Dependent Variables Carefully

Dependent variables should be dependent. A very common mistake is to choose a dependent variable which in fact causes changes in our explanatory variables. Do not select observations based on the dependent variable so that the dependent variable is constant.

4. Maximize Concreteness We should choose observable, rather than unobservable, concepts wherever possible. Abstract, unobserved concepts such as utility, culture, intentions, motivations, identification, intelligence, or the national interest are often used in social science theories. They can play a useful role in theory formulation; but they can be a hindrance to empirical evaluation of theories and hypotheses unless they can be defined in a way such that they, or at least their implications, can be observed and measured.

5. State Theories in as Encompassing Ways as Feasible Within the constraints of guaranteeing that the theory will be falsifiable and that we maximize concreteness, the theory should be formulated so that it explains as much of the world as possible.