Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, and Teppei Yamamoto
Validating vignette and conjoint survey experiments against real-world behavior
PNAS 2015 112 (8) 2395-2400; doi:10.1073/pnas.1416587112
Survey experiments, like vignette and conjoint analyses, are widely used in the social sciences to elicit stated preferences and study how humans make multidimensional choices. However, there is a paucity of research on the external validity of these methods that examines whether the determinants that explain hypothetical choices made by survey respondents match the determinants that explain what subjects actually do when making similar choices in real-world situations. This study compares results from conjoint and vignette analyses on which immigrant attributes generate support for naturalization with closely corresponding behavioral data from a natural experiment in Switzerland, where some municipalities used referendums to decide on the citizenship applications of foreign residents. Using a representative sample from the same population and the official descriptions of applicant characteristics that voters received before each referendum as a behavioral benchmark, we find that the effects of the applicant attributes estimated from the survey experiments perform remarkably well in recovering the effects of the same attributes in the behavioral benchmark. We also find important differences in the relative performances of the different designs. Overall, the paired conjoint design, where respondents evaluate two immigrants side by side, comes closest to the behavioral benchmark; on average, its estimates are within 2% percentage points of the effects in the behavioral benchmark.
Little evidence exists on whether preferences about hypothetical choices measured in a survey experiment are driven by the same structural determinants of the actual choices made in the real world. This study answers this question using a natural experiment as a behavioral benchmark. Comparing the results from conjoint and vignette experiments on which attributes of hypothetical immigrants generate support for naturalization with the outcomes of closely corresponding referendums in Switzerland, we find that the effects estimated from the surveys match the effects of the same attributes in the behavioral benchmark remarkably well. We also find that seemingly subtle differences in survey designs can produce significant differences in performance. Overall, the paired conjoint design performs the best.
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Editor's note: This research is significant when ethics educators use vignettes to help psychologists learn about their ethical decision-making process and moral beliefs.