## Heterogeneity and the flaw of averages

With interactive confounders explicitly included, the overall treatment effect β0 + β′zt is not a number but a variable that depends on the confounding effects. Absent observation of the interactive compounding effects, what is estimated is some kind of average treatment effect which is called by Imbens and Angrist (1994) a “Local Average Treatment Effect,” which is a little like the lawyer who explained that when he was a young man he lost many cases he should have won but as he grew older he won many that he should have lost, so that on the average justice was done. In other words, if you act as if the treatment effect is a random variable by substituting βt for β0 + β′zt , the notation inappropriately relieves you of the heavy burden of considering what are the interactive confounders and finding some way to measure them. Less elliptically, absent observation of z, the estimated treatment effect should be transferred only into those settings in which the confounding interactive variables have values close to the mean values in the experiment. If little thought has gone into identifying these possible confounders, it seems probable that little thought will be given to the limited applicability of the results in other settings.

Ed Leamer

Yes, indeed, regression-based averages is something we have reasons to be cautious about.

Suppose we want to estimate the average causal effect of a dummy variable (T) on an observed outcome variable (O). In a usual regression context one would apply an ordinary least squares estimator (OLS) in trying to get an unbiased and consistent estimate:

O = α + βT + ε,

where α is a constant intercept, β a constant ‘structural’ causal effect and ε an error term.

The problem here is that although we may get an estimate of the ‘true’ average causal effect, this may ‘mask’ important heterogeneous effects of a causal nature. Although we get the right answer of the average causal effect being 0, those who are ‘treated’ ( T=1) may have causal effects equal to -100 and those ‘not treated’ (T=0) may have causal effects equal to 100. Contemplating being treated or not, most people would probably be interested in knowing about this underlying heterogeneity and would not consider the OLS average effect particularly enlightening.

The heterogeneity problem does not just turn up as an external validity problem when trying to ‘export’ regression results to different times or different target populations. It is also often an internal problem to the millions of OLS estimates that economists produce every year.