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Information Equivalence in Survey Experiments

  • Allan Dafoe (a1) (a2), Baobao Zhang (a1) and Devin Caughey (a3)

Survey experiments often manipulate the description of attributes in a hypothetical scenario, with the goal of learning about those attributes’ real-world effects. Such inferences rely on an underappreciated assumption: experimental conditions must be information equivalent (IE) with respect to background features of the scenario. IE is often violated because subjects, when presented with information about one attribute, update their beliefs about others too. Labeling a country “a democracy,” for example, affects subjects’ beliefs about the country’s geographic location. When IE is violated, the effect of the manipulation need not correspond to the quantity of interest (the effect of beliefs about the focal attribute). We formally define the IE assumption, relating it to the exclusion restriction in instrumental-variable analysis. We show how to predict IE violations ex ante and diagnose them ex post with placebo tests. We evaluate three strategies for achieving IE. Abstract encouragement is ineffective. Specifying background details reduces imbalance on the specified details and highly correlated details, but not others. Embedding a natural experiment in the scenario can reduce imbalance on all background beliefs, but raises other issues. We illustrate with four survey experiments, focusing on an extension of a prominent study of the democratic peace.

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Authors’ note: Replication files for this paper can be downloaded from Dafoe, Zhang, and Caughey (2017). Further materials can be found at The main studies reported in this paper have been preregistered and preanalysis plans have been posted. Superscripted capital letters indicate relevant portions of the Supplementary Information (see Section A, available at For helpful comments, we would like to thank Peter Aronow, Cameron Ballard-Rosa, Adam Berinsky, Matthew Blackwell, David Broockman, Alex Debs, Chris Fariss, Alan Gerber, Donald Green, Sophia Hatz, Dan Hopkins, Susan Hyde, Josh Kalla, Gary King, Audrey Latura, Jason Lyall, Neil Malhotra, Elizabeth Menninga, Nuno Monteiro, Brendan Nyhan, Jonathan Renshon, Bruce Russett, Cyrus Samii, Jas Sekhon, Maya Sen, Robert Trager, Mike Tomz, Jessica Weeks, Teppei Yamamoto, Sean Zeigler, Thomas Zeitzoff, and participants of the University of North Carolina Research Series, the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies Experiments Workshop, the Yale International Relations Workshop, the University of Konstanz Communication, Networks and Contention Workshop, the Polmeth 2014 and 2015 Summer Methods Meetings, the Survey Experiments in Peace Science Workshop, the West Coast Experiments Conference, and the Comparative Political Economy and Conjoint Analysis workshop at the University of Zurich. For support, we acknowledge the MacMillan Institute at Yale University and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Yale IRB has granted exemption to the survey experiments reported in this paper under IRB Protocol # 1302011471.

Contributing Editor: Jonathan N. Katz

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