Placebo Selection in Survey Experiments: An Agnostic Approach

Cambridge University Press
June 14, 2021

Although placebo conditions are ubiquitous in survey experiments, little evidence guides common practices for their use and selection. How should scholars choose and construct placebos? First, we review the role of placebos in published survey experiments, finding that placebos are used inconsistently. Then, drawing on the medical literature, we clarify the role that placebos play in accounting for nonspecific effects (NSEs), or the effects of ancillary features of experiments. We argue that, in the absence of precise knowledge of NSEs that placebos are adjusting for, researchers should average over a corpus of many placebos. We demonstrate this agnostic approach to placebo construction through the use of GPT-2, a generative language model trained on a database of over 1 million internet news pages. Using GPT-2, we devise 5,000 distinct placebos and administer two experiments (N = 2,975). Our results illustrate how researchers can minimize their role in placebo selection through automated processes. We conclude by offering tools for incorporating computer-generated placebo text vignettes into survey experiments and developing recommendations for best practice.

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