Inconvenient samples: Modeling biases related to parental consent by coupling observational and experimental results

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In studies involving human subjects, voluntary participation may lead to sampling bias, thus limiting the generalizability of findings. This effect may be especially pronounced in developmental studies, where parents serve as both the primary environmental input and decision maker of whether their child participates in a study. We present a novel empirical and modeling approach to estimate how parental consent may bias measurements of children’s behavior. Specifically, we coupled naturalistic observations of parent–child interactions in public spaces with a behavioral test with children, and used modeling methods to impute the behavior of children who did not participate. Results showed that parents’ tendency to use questions to teach was associated with both children’s behavior in the test and parents’ tendency to participate. Exploiting these associations with a model-based multiple imputation and a propensity score–matching procedure, we estimated that the means of the participating and not-participating groups could differ as much as 0.23 standard deviations for the test measurements, and standard deviations themselves are likely underestimated. These results suggest that ignoring factors associated with consent may lead to systematic biases when generalizing beyond lab samples, and the proposed general approach provides a way to estimate these biases in future research.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13-24
Number of pages12
JournalOpen Mind
StatePublished - 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Child interaction
  • Multiple imputation
  • Parent
  • Parental consent
  • Pedagogical question
  • Propensity score matching


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