PT - JOURNAL ARTICLE
AU - Künzel, Sören R.
AU - Sekhon, Jasjeet S.
AU - Bickel, Peter J.
AU - Yu, Bin
TI - Metalearners for estimating heterogeneous treatment effects using machine learning
AID - 10.1073/pnas.1804597116
DP - 2019 Mar 05
TA - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
PG - 4156--4165
VI - 116
IP - 10
4099 - http://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/4156.short
4100 - http://www.pnas.org/content/116/10/4156.full
SO - Proc Natl Acad Sci USA2019 Mar 05; 116
AB - Estimating and analyzing heterogeneous treatment effects is timely, yet challenging. We introduce a unifying framework for many conditional average treatment effect estimators, and we propose a metalearner, the X-learner, which can adapt to structural properties, such as the smoothness and sparsity of the underlying treatment effect. We present its favorable properties, using theory and simulations. We apply it, using random forests, to two field experiments in political science, where it is shown to be easy to use and to produce results that are interpretable.There is growing interest in estimating and analyzing heterogeneous treatment effects in experimental and observational studies. We describe a number of metaalgorithms that can take advantage of any supervised learning or regression method in machine learning and statistics to estimate the conditional average treatment effect (CATE) function. Metaalgorithms build on base algorithms—such as random forests (RFs), Bayesian additive regression trees (BARTs), or neural networks—to estimate the CATE, a function that the base algorithms are not designed to estimate directly. We introduce a metaalgorithm, the X-learner, that is provably efficient when the number of units in one treatment group is much larger than in the other and can exploit structural properties of the CATE function. For example, if the CATE function is linear and the response functions in treatment and control are Lipschitz-continuous, the X-learner can still achieve the parametric rate under regularity conditions. We then introduce versions of the X-learner that use RF and BART as base learners. In extensive simulation studies, the X-learner performs favorably, although none of the metalearners is uniformly the best. In two persuasion field experiments from political science, we demonstrate how our X-learner can be used to target treatment regimes and to shed light on underlying mechanisms. A software package is provided that implements our methods.