field experiments in economics

The current issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (free access) contains a Symposium of three articles on “Field Experiments”. University of Chicago economist John List introduces the collection:

Samuelson and Nordhaus (1985) wrote in their introductory economics textbook a quarter-century ago:

The economic world is extremely complicated. There are millions of people and firms, thousands of prices and industries. One possible way of figuring out economic laws in such a setting is by controlled experiments. A controlled experiment takes place when everything else but the item under investigation is held constant. Thus a scientist trying to determine whether saccharine causes cancer in rats will hold “other things equal” and only vary the amount of saccharine. Same air, same light, same type of rat.

Economists have no such luxury when testing economic laws. They cannot perform the controlled experiments of chemists or biologists because they cannot easily control other important factors. Like astronomers or meteorologists, they generally must be content largely to observe.

In my own travels, I have often found similar skepticism. ….

To economists, “field research” has often meant chatting with the cab driver on the way from the airport to another academic seminar. But more and more empirical economists are opening their eyes and searching for situations and questions in which a field experiment might offer a feasible and desirable approach.

John A. List, “Why Economists Should Conduct Field Experiments and 14 Tips for Pulling One Off“, Journal of Economic Perspectives 25:3 (Summer 2011), pp. 3–16.

The quote is from Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, Economics (12th edition, McGraw-Hill, NY, 1985).

The three articles are:

“Mechanism Experiments and Policy Evaluations”, by Jens Ludwig, Jeffrey R. Kling and Sendhil Mullainathan.

“The Role of Theory in Field Experiments”, by David Card, Stefano DellaVigna and Ulrike Malmendier.

“Field Experiments with Firms”, by Oriana Bandiera, Iwan Barankay and Imran Rasul.

They can be downloaded here.


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