An Equivalence Approach to Balance and Placebo Tests


Recent emphasis on credible causal designs has led to the expectation that scholars justify their research designs by testing the plausibility of their causal identification assumptions, often through balance and placebo tests. Yet current practice is to use statistical tests with an inappropriate null hypothesis of no difference, which can result in equating nonsignificant differences with significant homogeneity. Instead, we argue that researchers should begin with the initial hypothesis that the data are inconsistent with a valid research design, and provide sufficient statistical evidence in favor of a valid design. When tests are correctly specified so that difference is the null and equivalence is the alternative, the problems afflicting traditional tests are alleviated. We argue that equivalence tests are better able to incorporate substantive considerations about what constitutes good balance on covariates and placebo outcomes than traditional tests. We demonstrate these advantages with applications to natural experiments.

In American Journal of Political Science
Erin Hartman
Erin Hartman
Assistant Professor of
Political Science and Statistics