Survey Experiments With Truth: Learning From Survey Experiments

27 Aug

Tools define science. Not only do they determine how science is practiced but also what questions are asked. Take survey experiments, for example. Since the advent of online survey platforms, which made conducting survey experiments trivial, the lure of convenience and internal validity has persuaded legions of researchers to use survey experiments to understand the world.

Conventional survey experiments are modest tools. Paul Sniderman writes,

“These three limitations of survey experiments—modesty of treatment, modesty of scale, and modesty of measurement—need constantly to be borne in mind when brandishing term experiment as a prestige enhancer.” I think we can easily collapse these in two — treatment (which includes ‘scale’ as he defines it— the amount of time) and measurement.

Paul Sniderman

Note: We can collapse these three concerns into two— treatment (which includes ‘scale’ as Paul defines it— the amount of time) and measurement.

But skillful artisans have used this modest tool to great effect. Famously, Kahneman and Tversky used survey experiments, e.g., Asian Disease Problem, to shed light on how people decide. More recently, Paul Sniderman and Tom Piazza have used survey experiments to shed light on an unsavory aspect of human decision making: discrimination. Aside from shedding light on human decision making, researchers have also used survey experiments to understand what survey measures mean, e.g., Ahler and Sood

The good, however, has come with the bad; insight has often come with irreflection. In particular, Paul Sniderman implicitly points to two common mistakes that people make:

  1. Not Learning From the Control Group. The focus on differences in means means that we sometimes fail to reflect on what the data in the Control Group tells us about the world. Take the paper on partisan expressive responding, for instance. The topline from the paper is that expressive responding explains half of the partisan gap. But it misses the bigger story—the partisan differences in the Control Group are much smaller than what people expect, just about 6.5% (see here). (Here’s what I wrote in 2016.)
  2. Not Putting the Effect Size in Context. A focus on significance testing means that we sometimes fail to reflect on the modesty of effect sizes. For instance, providing people $1 for a correct answer within the context of an online survey interview is a large premium. And if providing a dollar each on 12 (included) questions nudges people from an average of 4.5 correct responses to 5, it suggests that people are resistant to learning or impressively confident that what they know is right. Leaving $7 on the table tells us more than the .5, around which the paper is written. 

    More broadly, researchers are obtuse to the point that sometimes what the results show is how impressively modest the movement is when you ratchet up the dosage. For instance, if an overwhelming number of African Americans favor Whites who have scored just a few points more than a Black student, it is a telling testament to their endorsement of meritocracy.