Design approaches to experimental mediation

Angela G. Pirlott, David Mackinnon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

78 Scopus citations

Abstract

Identifying causal mechanisms has become a cornerstone of experimental social psychology, and editors in top social psychology journals champion the use of mediation methods, particularly innovative ones when possible (e.g. Halberstadt, 2010, Smith, 2012). Commonly, studies in experimental social psychology randomly assign participants to levels of the independent variable and measure the mediating and dependent variables, and the mediator is assumed to causally affect the dependent variable. However, participants are not randomly assigned to levels of the mediating variable(s), i.e., the relationship between the mediating and dependent variables is correlational. Although researchers likely know that correlational studies pose a risk of confounding, this problem seems forgotten when thinking about experimental designs randomly assigning participants to levels of the independent variable and measuring the mediator (i.e., “measurement-of-mediation” designs). Experimentally manipulating the mediator provides an approach to solving these problems, yet these methods contain their own set of challenges (e.g., Bullock, Green, & Ha, 2010). We describe types of experimental manipulations targeting the mediator (manipulations demonstrating a causal effect of the mediator on the dependent variable and manipulations targeting the strength of the causal effect of the mediator) and types of experimental designs (double randomization, concurrent double randomization, and parallel), provide published examples of the designs, and discuss the strengths and challenges of each design. Therefore, the goals of this paper include providing a practical guide to manipulation-of-mediator designs in light of their challenges and encouraging researchers to use more rigorous approaches to mediation because manipulation-of-mediator designs strengthen the ability to infer causality of the mediating variable on the dependent variable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)29-38
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume66
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2016

Keywords

  • Causal inference
  • Experimental mediation
  • Mediation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

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