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Testing the Causal Direction of Mediation Effects in Randomized Intervention Studies

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In a recent update of the standards for evidence in research on prevention interventions, the Society of Prevention Research emphasizes the importance of evaluating and testing the causal mechanism through which an intervention is expected to have an effect on an outcome. Mediation analysis is commonly applied to study such causal processes. However, these analytic tools are limited in their potential to fully understand the role of theorized mediators. For example, in a design where the treatment x is randomized and the mediator (m) and the outcome (y) are measured cross-sectionally, the causal direction of the hypothesized mediator-outcome relation is not uniquely identified. That is, both mediation models, x → m → y or x → y → m, may be plausible candidates to describe the underlying intervention theory. As a third explanation, unobserved confounders can still be responsible for the mediator-outcome association. The present study introduces principles of direction dependence which can be used to empirically evaluate these competing explanatory theories. We show that, under certain conditions, third higher moments of variables (i.e., skewness and co-skewness) can be used to uniquely identify the direction of a mediator-outcome relation. Significance procedures compatible with direction dependence are introduced and results of a simulation study are reported that demonstrate the performance of the tests. An empirical example is given for illustrative purposes and a software implementation of the proposed method is provided in SPSS.

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Correspondence to Wolfgang Wiedermann.

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Wiedermann, W., Li, X. & von Eye, A. Testing the Causal Direction of Mediation Effects in Randomized Intervention Studies. Prev Sci 20, 419–430 (2019).

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