Propensity score methodology in the presence of network entanglement between treatments

Journal Article

In experimental design and causal inference, it may happen that the treatment is not defined on individual experimental units, but rather on pairs or, more generally, on groups of units. For example, teachers may choose pairs of students who do not know each other to teach a new curriculum; regulators might allow or disallow merging of firms, and biologists may introduce or inhibit interactions between genes or proteins. In this paper, we formalize this experimental setting, and we refer to the individual treatments in such setting as entangled treatments. We then consider the special case where individual treatments depend on a common population quantity, and develop theory and methodology to deal with this case. In our target applications, the common population quantity is a network, and the individual treatments are defined as functions of the change in the network between two specific time points. Our focus is on estimating the causal effect of entangled treatments in observational studies where entangled treatments are endogenous and cannot be directly manipulated. When treatment cannot be manipulated, be it entangled or not, it is necessary to account for the treatment assignment mechanism to avoid selection bias, commonly through a propensity score methodology. In this paper, we quantify the extent to which classical propensity score methodology ignores treatment entanglement, and characterize the bias in the estimated causal effects. To characterize such bias we introduce a novel similarity function between propensity score models, and a practical approximation of it, which we use to quantify model misspecification of propensity scores due to entanglement. One solution to avoid the bias in the presence of entangled treatments is to model the change in the network, directly, and calculate an individual unit's propensity score by averaging treatment assignments over this change.

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Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Toulis, P; Volfovsky, A; Airoldi, EM