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Harnessing Natural Experiments to Quantify the Causal Effect of Badges


Gomez Rodriguez,  Manuel
Group M. Gomez Rodriguez, Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, Max Planck Society;

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Kusmierczyk, T., & Gomez Rodriguez, M. (2017). Harnessing Natural Experiments to Quantify the Causal Effect of Badges. Retrieved from

A wide variety of online platforms use digital badges to encourage users to take certain types of desirable actions. However, despite their growing popularity, their causal effect on users' behavior is not well understood. This is partly due to the lack of counterfactual data and the myriad of complex factors that influence users' behavior over time. As a consequence, their design and deployment lacks general principles. In this paper, we focus on first-time badges, which are awarded after a user takes a particular type of action for the first time, and study their causal effect by harnessing the delayed introduction of several badges in a popular Q&A website. In doing so, we introduce a novel causal inference framework for badges whose main technical innovations are a robust survival-based hypothesis testing procedure, which controls for the utility heterogeneity across users, and a bootstrap difference-in-differences method, which controls for the random fluctuations in users' behavior over time. We find that first-time badges steer users' behavior if the utility a user obtains from taking the corresponding action is sufficiently low, otherwise, the badge does not have a significant effect. Moreover, for badges that successfully steered user behavior, we perform a counterfactual analysis and show that they significantly improved the functioning of the site at a community level.