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Placebo statements in list experiments: Evidence from a face-to-face survey in Singapore

Guillem Riambau and Kai Ostwald

Political Science Research and Methods, 2021, vol. 9, issue 1, 172-179

Abstract: List experiments are a widely used survey technique for estimating the prevalence of socially sensitive attitudes or behaviors. Their design, however, makes them vulnerable to bias: because treatment group respondents see a greater number of items (J + 1) than control group respondents (J), the treatment group mean may be mechanically inflated due simply to the greater number of items. The few previous studies that directly examine this do not arrive at definitive conclusions. We find clear evidence of inflation in an original dataset, though only among respondents with low educational attainment. Furthermore, we use available data from previous studies and find similar heterogeneous patterns. The evidence of heterogeneous effects has implications for the interpretation of previous research using list experiments, especially in developing world contexts. We recommend a simple solution: using a necessarily false placebo statement for the control group equalizes list lengths, thereby protecting against mechanical inflation without imposing costs or altering interpretations.

Date: 2021
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