“What are people currently doing?”

Andrew Gelman’s recent blog post responding to a Berk Özler hypothetical about data collection costs and survey design raised a good point about counterfactuals that I theoretically knew, but was phrased in a way that brought new insight:

“A related point is that interventions are compared to alternative courses of action. What are people currently doing? Maybe whatever they are currently doing is actually more effective than this 5 minute patience training?”

It was the question “What are people currently doing?” that caught my attention. It reminded me that one key input for interpreting results of an RCT is what’s actually going on in your counterfactual. Are they already using some equivalent alternative to your intervention? Are they using a complementary or incompatible alternative? How will the proposed intervention interact with what’s already on the ground – not just how will it interact in a hypothetical model of what’s happening on the ground?

This blogpost called me to critically investigate what quant and qual methods I could use to understand the context more fully in my future research. It also called me to invest in my ability to do comprehensive and thorough literature reviews and look at historical data – both of which could further inform my understanding of the context. And, even better, to always get on the ground and talk to people myself. Ideally, I would always do this in-depth research before signing onto the kind of expensive, large-scale research project Özler and Gelman are considering in the hypothetical.