Uncovering noisy social signals: Using optimization methods from experimental physics to study social phenomena

M.C. Kaptein, Robin Van Emden, Davide Iannuzzi

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Due to the ubiquitous presence of treatment heterogeneity, measurement error, and contextual confounders, numerous social phenomena are hard to study. Precise control of treatment variables and possible confounders is often key to the success of studies in the social sciences, yet often proves out of the realm of control of the experimenter. To amend this situation we propose a novel approach coined "lock-in feedback" which is based on a method that is routinely used in high-precision physics experiments to extract small signals out of a noisy environment. Here, we adapt the method to noisy social signals in multiple dimensions and evaluate it by studying an inherently noisy topic: the perception of (subjective) beauty. We show that the lock-in feedback approach allows one to select optimal treatment levels despite the presence of considerable noise. Furthermore, through the introduction of an external contextual shock we demonstrate that we can find relationships between noisy variables that were hitherto unknown. We therefore argue that lock-in methods may provide a valuable addition to the social scientist's experimental toolbox and we explicitly discuss a number of future applications.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0174182
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 17 Mar 2017



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