Randomized Controlled Trials: Powerful, But Only When Used Right

January 23, 2015 8:27 PM

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There has been a recent surge in the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in the social sciences. With topics ranging from financial education and tax repayment to organ donation, studies where individuals are (often unknowingly) randomly allocated to different intervention conditions - and then compared to each other - have become increasingly popular. Many researchers, myself included, have heralded this movement as a much-needed development in social science research, as RCTs have the power to generate new insights, especially on the application side of the social sciences. However, the design of RCTs often prevents important questions from being answered while seeming to suggest that they are bringing us closer to the truth. Here, I want to highlight three elements of RCTs that often go unnoticed and that can be useful to consider when evaluating these types of studies (sparked by this recent NYT article): a need for more sophisticated control groups, more careful consideration of other affected behaviors, and better conceptualization of long-term effects.

Although RCTs first appeared in psychology, they were popularized by medicinal research and are today conceived as the "gold standard" for a clinical trial. Conceptually, an RCT is a study where people are randomly allocated to one or more intervention conditions. Thus, it is possible to compare the...

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