12 Jun '19
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Policy evaluation by randomized trials may provoke greater objections than implementing them untested.

Meyer et al. find that experiments comparing two unobjectionable policies or treatments can generate more objections than simply proceeding to implement them.

Significance

Randomized experiments—long the gold standard in medicine—are increasingly used throughout the social sciences and professions to evaluate business products and services, government programs, education and health policies, and global aid. We find robust evidence—across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three populations spanning nine domains—that people often approve of untested policies or treatments (A or B) being universally implemented but disapprove of randomized experiments (A/B tests) to determine which of those policies or treatments is superior. This effect persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). This experimentation aversion may be an important barrier to evidence-based practice.

Abstract

Randomized experiments have enormous potential to improve human welfare in many domains, including healthcare, education, finance, and public policy. However, such “A/B tests” are often criticized on ethical grounds even as similar, untested interventions are implemented without objection. We find robust evidence across 16 studies of 5,873 participants from three diverse populations spanning nine domains—from healthcare to autonomous vehicle design to poverty reduction—that people frequently rate A/B tests designed to establish the comparative effectiveness of two policies or treatments as inappropriate even when universally implementing either A or B, untested, is seen as appropriate. This “A/B effect” is as strong among those with higher educational attainment and science literacy and among relevant professionals. It persists even when there is no reason to prefer A to B and even when recipients are treated unequally and randomly in all conditions (A, B, and A/B). Several remaining explanations for the effect—a belief that consent is required to impose a policy on half of a population but not on the entire population; an aversion to controlled but not to uncontrolled experiments; and a proxy form of the illusion of knowledge (according to which randomized evaluations are unnecessary because experts already do or should know “what works”)—appear to contribute to the effect, but none dominates or fully accounts for it. We conclude that rigorously evaluating policies or treatments via pragmatic randomized trials may provoke greater objection than simply implementing those same policies or treatments untested.

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