Error Free Multi-dimensional Thinking

1 May

Some recent research suggests that Americans’ policy preferences are highly constrained, with a single dimension able to correctly predict over 80% of the responses (see Jessee 2009, Tausanovitch and Warshaw 2013). Not only that, adding a new (orthogonal) dimension doesn’t improve prediction success by more than a couple of percentage points.

All this flies in the face of conventional wisdom in American Politics, which is roughly antipodal to the new view: most people’s policy preferences are unstructured. In fact, many people don’t have any real preferences on many of the issues (`non-preferences’). Evidence that is most often cited in support of this view comes from Converse – weak correlation between preferences across measurement waves spanning two years (r ~ .4 to .5), and even lower within wave cross-issue correlations (r ~ .2).

What explains this double disagreement – over authenticity of preferences, and over structuration of preferences?

First, authenticity of preferences. When reports of preferences change across waves, is it a consequence of attitude change or non-preferences or measurement error? In response to concerns about long periods between test-retest – which allowed for opinions to genuinely change – researchers tried shorter time periods. Correlations were notably stronger (r ~ .6 to .9)(see Brown 1970). But the sheen of these healthy correlations was worn off by concerns that stability was merely an artifact of people remembering and reproducing what they put down last time.

Redemption of correlations over longer time periods came from Achen (1975). While few of the assumptions behind the redemption are correct – notably uncorrelated errors (across individuals, waves, etc.) – for inferences to be seriously wrong, much has to go wrong. More recently, and, subject to validation, perhaps more convincingly, work by Dean Lacy suggests that once you take out the small number of implausible transitions between waves – those from one end of the scale to another – cross-wave correlations are fairly healthy. (This is exactly opposite to the conclusion Converse came to based on a Markov model; he argued that aside from a few consistent responses, rest of the responses were mostly noise.) Much simpler but informative tests are still missing. For instance, it seems implausible that lots of people who hold well-defined preferences on an issue would struggle to pick even the right side of the scale when surveyed. Tallying stability of dichotomized preferences would be useful.

Some other purported evidence for authenticity of preferences has come from measurement error models that rest upon more sizable assumptions. These models assume an underlying trait (or traits) and pool preferences over disparate policy positions (see for instance, Ansolabehere, Rodden, and Snyder 2006 but also Tausanovitch and Warshaw 2013). How do we know there is an underlying trait? That isn’t clear. Generally, it is perfectly okay to ask whether preferences are correlated, less so to simply assume that preferences are structured by an unobserved underlying mental construct.

With the caveat that dimensions may not reflect mental constructs, we next move to assessing claims about dimensionality of preferences. Differences between recent results and conventional wisdom about “constraint” may be simply due to increase in structuration of preferences over time. However, research suggests that constraint hasn’t increased over time (Baldassari and Gelman 2008). Perhaps more plausibly, dichotomization – which presumably reduces measurement error – is behind some of the differences. There are of course less ham-handed ways of reducing measurement error. For instance, using multiple items to measure preferences on a single policy, as psychologists often do. Since it cannot be emphasized enough, the lesson of past two paragraphs is: keep adjustments for measurement error, and measurement of constraint separate.

Analysis suggesting higher constraint may also be an artifact of analysts’ choices. Dimension reduction techniques are naturally sensitive to the pool of items. If a large majority of the items solicit preferences on economic issues (as in Tausanovitch and Warshaw 2013), the first principal component will naturally pick preferences on that dimension. Since majority of the gains would come from correctly predicting a large majority of the items, gains in percentage correctly predicted would be poor at judging whether there is another dimension, say preferences on cultural issues. Cross-validation across selected large item groups (large enough to overcome idiosyncratic error) would be a useful strategy. And then again, gains in percentage correctly predicted over the entire population may miss subgroups with very different preference structures. For instance, Blacks and Catholics, who tend to be more socially conservative but economically liberal. Lastly, it is possible that preferences on some current issues (such as those used by Jessee 2009) may be more structured (by political conflict) than some old standing issues.

GSS and ANES: alike yet different

1 Jan

The General Social Survey (GSS), run out of National Opinion Research Center at University of Chicago, and American National Election Studies (ANES), which until recently ran out of University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, are two preeminent surveys tracking over-time trends in social and political attitudes, beliefs and behavior of the US adult population.

Outside of their shared Midwestern roots, GSS and ANES also share sampling design – both use stratified random sample, with selection of PSUs affected by necessities of in-person interviewing, and during the 1980s and 1990s, sampling frame. However, in spite of this relative close coordination in sampling, common mode of interview, responses to few questions asked identically in the two surveys diverge systematically.

In 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008, GSS and ANES included exact same questions on racial trait ratings. Limiting the sample to just White respondents, mean difference in trait ratings of Whites and Blacks was always greater in ANES – ratings of hardwork and intelligence, almost always statistically significantly so.

Separately, difference in proportion of self-identified Republicans estimated by ANES and GSS is declining over time.

This unexplained directional variance poses considerable threat to inference. The problem takes additional gravity given that the surveys are the bedrock of important empirical research in social science.

Another coding issue in the ANES Cumulative File

29 Dec

Technology has made it easy to analyze data. However we have paid inadequate attention to developing automation in data analysis software that pays more attention to potential problems with the data itself. For example, I was recently exploring how interviewer rated political knowledge varied by respondent’s level of education within each year over time using ANES cumulative file. It was only when I plotted the confidence bounds (not earlier) that I found that in 2004 7-category education variable (VCF0140a) had fewer than 7 levels – a highly unlikely scenario. To verify, I checked the unique levels for education in 2004 and indeed there were only 5 –
[1] 6 5 2 3 1

The variable from which the 7-category variable is ostensibly constructed (V043254) in 2004 has 8 levels. Since the plot looks reasonable for 2004, the problem was likely due to the case of (unwarranted) collapsing of adjacent categories than switching order more irresponsibly. Tallying raw counts revealed that categories 6 and 7, 0 and 1, and 4 and 5 had been collapsed.

On to the point about developing software that automatically flags potential problems – it would be nice if the software flagged differing number of levels of same variable by year. However this suggestion is piecemeal and more careful thinking ought to be brought to bear to design issues.

Perils of balancing scales

15 Nov

Randomization of scale order (balancing) across respondents is common practice. It is done to ‘cancel’ errors generated by ‘satisficers’ who presumably pick the first option on a scale without regard to content. The practice is assumed to have no impact on the propensity of satisficers to pick the first option, or on other respondents, both somewhat unlikely assumptions.

A far more reasonable hypothesis is that reversing scale order does have an impact on respondents, on both non-satisficers and satisficers. Empirically, people take longer to fill out reverse ordered scales, and it is conceivable that they pay more attention to filling out the responses — reducing satisficing and perhaps boosting the quality of responses, either way not simply ‘canceling’ errors among a subset, as hypothesized.

Within satisficers, without randomization, correlated bias may produce artificial correlations across variables where none existed. For example, satisficers (say uneducated) love candy (love candy to hate candy scale). Such a calamity ought to be avoided. However, in a minority of cases where satisficers true preferences are those expressed in the first choice, randomization will artificially produce null results. Randomization may be more sub-optimal still if there indeed are effects on rest of the respondents.

Within survey experiments, where balancing randomization is “orthogonal” (typically just separate) to the main randomization, it has to be further assumed that manipulation has equal impact on “satisficers” in either reverse or regularly ordered scale, again a somewhat tenuous assumption.

The entire exercise of randomization is devoted not to find out the true preferences of the satisficers, a more honorable purpose, but to eliminate them from the sample. There are better ways to catch ‘satisficers’ than randomizing across the entire sample. One possibility is to randomize within a smaller set of likely satisficers. On knowledge questions, ability estimated over multiple questions can be used to inform propensity the first option (if correct and if chosen) was not a guess. Response latency can be used as well to inform judgments. For attitude questions, follow up questions measuring the strength of attitude etc. can be used to weight responses on attitude questions.

If we are interested in getting true attitudes from ‘satisficers,’ we may want to motivate respondents either by interspersed exhortations that their responses matter, or by providing financial incentives.

Lastly, it is important to note that combining two kinds of systematic error doesn’t make it a ‘random’ error. And no variance in data can be a conservative attribute of data (with hardworking social scientists around).

Reaching far beyond the ‘narrow database’

25 Feb

“College sophomores may not be people,” (Carl Hovland quoting Tolman) yet research done on them continues to be a significant part of all research in Social Science. The status quo is a function, not of want, but of cost, and effort.

In 2007, Cindy Kam, proposed using university staff as one way to move beyond the ‘narrow database’.

There exist two other convenient ways of expanding the database further – alumni, and local community colleges. Using social networks, universities can tap into interested student, and staff acquaintances.

A common (university wide) platform to recruit, and manage panels of such respondents would not only yield greater quality control, convenience, but also cost savings.

Coding issues in ANES Cumulative File

29 Nov

I have on occasion used American National Election Studies (ANES) cumulative file to do over time comparisons. Roughly half of those times, I have found patterns that don’t make much sense. Only a small fraction of the times when the patterns didn’t make sense have I chosen to investigate the data more closely, as a likely explanation for aberrant patterns. The following ‘finding’ is a result of such effort.

ANES cumulative file (1948-2004) carries a variety of indices. In creating some of the indices, it appears pre-election measures have been combined with post-election measures in some of the years. If that wasn’t enough, at least one of the times, the same index in some years has pre-election measure combined with post-election measure, while using only post measures in other years. Here’s an example –

‘External Efficacy Index’ (VCF0648) is built out of two items –

Item 1: Public officials don’t care much what people like me think.
Item 2: People like me don’t have any say about what the government does

Item 2 is asked both pre and post election in some cycles. In 1996, efficacy is built out of –

960568 (pre), 961244 (post)

[you can ID post-election wave questions through the following coding category – Inap, no Post IW]. Post version of 960568 is 961245

While in 2000 it is built out of – 001527 (post) ,001528 (post)

I have alerted the ANES staff and it is likely that the new iteration of cumulative file will fix this particular issue.