Qualitative Approximations to Causality: Non-Randomizable Factors in Clinical Psychology


  • Michael Höfler Orcid
  • Sebastian Trautmann
  • Philipp Kanske


Background: Causal quests in non-randomized studies are unavoidable just because research questions are beyond doubt causal (e.g., aetiology). Large progress during the last decades has enriched the methodical toolbox.
Aims: Summary papers mainly focus on quantitative and highly formal methods. With examples from clinical psychology, we show how qualitative approaches can inform on the necessity and feasibility of quantitative analysis and may yet sometimes approximate causal answers.
Results: Qualitative use is hidden in some quantitative methods. For instance, it may yet suffice to know the direction of bias for a tentative causal conclusion. Counterfactuals clarify what causal effects of changeable factors are, unravel what is required for a causal answer, but do not cover immutable causes like gender. Directed acyclic graphs (DAGs) address causal effects in a broader sense, may give rise to quantitative estimation or indicate that this is premature.
Conclusion: No method is generally sufficient or necessary. Any causal analysis must ground on qualification and should balance the harms of a false positive and a false negative conclusion in a specific context.