Statistical Mediation Analysis for Models with a Binary Mediator and a Binary Outcome: the Differences Between Causal and Traditional Mediation Analysis

Judith J. M. Rijnhart, Matthew J. Valente, Heather L. Smyth, David P. MacKinnon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Mediation analysis is an important statistical method in prevention research, as it can be used to determine effective intervention components. Traditional mediation analysis defines direct and indirect effects in terms of linear regression coefficients. It is unclear how these traditional effects are estimated in settings with binary variables. An important recent methodological advancement in the mediation analysis literature is the development of the causal mediation analysis framework. Causal mediation analysis defines causal effects as the difference between two potential outcomes. These definitions can be applied to any mediation model to estimate natural direct and indirect effects, including models with binary variables and an exposure–mediator interaction. This paper aims to clarify the similarities and differences between the causal and traditional effect estimates for mediation models with a binary mediator and a binary outcome. Causal and traditional mediation analyses were applied to an empirical example to demonstrate these similarities and differences. Causal and traditional mediation analysis provided similar controlled direct effect estimates, but different estimates of the natural direct effects, natural indirect effects, and total effect. Traditional mediation analysis methods do not generalize well to mediation models with binary variables, while the natural effect definitions can be applied to any mediation model. Causal mediation analysis is therefore the preferred method for the analysis of mediation models with binary variables.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPrevention Science
Early online date2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2021


  • Binary mediator
  • Binary outcome
  • Causal inference
  • Counterfactual
  • Logistic regression
  • Mediation analysis
  • Potential outcomes

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