When Do Words Matter? Understanding the Impact of Lexical Choice on Audience Perception Using Individual Treatment Effect Estimation

  • Zhao Wang Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Aron Culotta Illinois Institute of Technology


Studies across many disciplines have shown that lexical choice can affect audience perception. For example, how users describe themselves in a social media profile can affect their perceived socio-economic status. However, we lack general methods for estimating the causal effect of lexical choice on the perception of a specific sentence. While randomized controlled trials may provide good estimates, they do not scale to the potentially millions of comparisons necessary to consider all lexical choices. Instead, in this paper, we first offer two classes of methods to estimate the effect on perception of changing one word to another in a given sentence. The first class of algorithms builds upon quasi-experimental designs to estimate individual treatment effects from observational data. The second class treats treatment effect estimation as a classification problem. We conduct experiments with three data sources (Yelp, Twitter, and Airbnb), finding that the algorithmic estimates align well with those produced by randomized-control trials. Additionally, we find that it is possible to transfer treatment effect classifiers across domains and still maintain high accuracy.

AAAI Technical Track: Natural Language Processing