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Unpacking the "black box" of programs and policies: A conceptual overview of mediation analysis

Policymakers and practitioners have a growing interest in answering questions beyond simply "does a program work?" Researchers are moving towards study designs to identify the mechanisms of action--known as mediators--that describe how their interventions work (Chen, 1990; MacKinnon, 2008). Without mediation analysis, it is difficult to specify how a program produces results or why it fails to do so. For example, an intervention can fail because it targeted the correct mechanisms but did not substantially change them. Or, the intervention may have targeted and changed mechanisms that did not lead to subsequent changes in the outcomes of interest. If one of the goals of evaluation is to build knowledge to improve future intervention attempts, these types of distinctions are important to make. In this brief, we discuss 1) key considerations in mediation analysis, 2) options for mediation design and analysis, and 3) some best practices to follow when designing and conducting a mediation analysis. (author abstract)
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