Counterfactual graphical models for longitudinal mediation analysis with unobserved confounding

Ilya Shpitser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Questions concerning mediated causal effects are of great interest in psychology, cognitive science, medicine, social science, public health, and many other disciplines. For instance, about 60% of recent papers published in leading journals in social psychology contain at least one mediation test (Rucker, Preacher, Tormala, & Petty, 2011). Standard parametric approaches to mediation analysis employ regression models, and either the "difference method" (Judd & Kenny, 1981), more common in epidemiology, or the "product method" (Baron & Kenny, 1986), more common in the social sciences. In this article, we first discuss a known, but perhaps often unappreciated, fact that these parametric approaches are a special case of a general counterfactual framework for reasoning about causality first described by Neyman (1923) and Rubin (1924) and linked to causal graphical models by Robins (1986) and Pearl (2006). We then show a number of advantages of this framework. First, it makes the strong assumptions underlying mediation analysis explicit. Second, it avoids a number of problems present in the product and difference methods, such as biased estimates of effects in certain cases. Finally, we show the generality of this framework by proving a novel result which allows mediation analysis to be applied to longitudinal settings with unobserved confounders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1011-1035
Number of pages25
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Causal inference
  • Counterfactuals
  • Direct and indirect effects
  • Graphical models
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Mediation analysis
  • Path-specific effects

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


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