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The Role of Theory in Field Experiments

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  • David Card
  • Stefano DellaVigna
  • Ulrike Malmendier

Abstract

We propose a new classification of experiments that captures the extent to which the experimental design and analysis are linked to economic theory. We then use this system to classify all published field experiments in the five top economics journals from 1975 to 2010. We find that the vast majority of field experiments (68%) are Descriptive studies that lack any explicit model; 18% are Single Model studies that test a single model-based hypothesis; 6% are Competing Models studies that test competing model-based hypotheses; and 8% are Parameter Estimation studies that estimate structural parameters in a completely specified model. Using the same system to classify laboratory experiments published over the same period, we find that economic theory has played a more central role in the laboratory than in the field. Finally, we discuss in detail three sets of field experiments, on gift exchange, on charitable giving, and on negative income tax, that illustrate both the benefits and the potential costs of a tighter link between experimental design and theoretical underpinnings.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 17047.

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Date of creation: May 2011
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Publication status: published as David Card & Stefano DellaVigna & Ulrike Malmendier, 2011. "The Role of Theory in Field Experiments," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 25(3), pages 39-62, Summer.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:17047

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Blog mentions

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  1. An incrementalist view of Impact Evaluation and knowledge
    by Jed Friedman in Development Impact on 2012-05-02 13:27:23
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Cited by:
  1. Rodney J. Andrews & Trevon D. Logan & Michael J. Sinkey, 2012. "Identifying Confirmatory Bias in the Field: Evidence from a Poll of Experts," NBER Working Papers 18064, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. van der Klaauw, Bas, 2014. "From Micro Data to Causality: Forty Years of Empirical Labor Economics," IZA Discussion Papers 8047, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  3. Vojtech Bartos & Michal Bauer & Julie Chytilova & Filip Matejka, 2013. "Attention Discrimination: Theory and Field Experiments," CERGE-EI Working Papers wp499, The Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education - Economic Institute, Prague.
  4. Michèle Belot (University of Edinburgh) and Jonathan James (University of Bath), 2013. "Partner Selection into Policy Relevant Field Experiments," ESE Discussion Papers 236, Edinburgh School of Economics, University of Edinburgh.
  5. Stefano DellaVigna & John A. List & Ulrike Malmendier & Gautam Rao, 2014. "Voting to Tell Others," NBER Working Papers 19832, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  6. Axel Franzen & Sonja Pointner, 2013. "The external validity of giving in the dictator game," Experimental Economics, Springer, vol. 16(2), pages 155-169, June.
  7. Fink, Günther & McConnell, Margaret & Vollmer, Sebastian, 2011. "Testing for Heterogeneous Treatment Effects in Experimental Data: False Discovery Risks and Correction Procedures," Hannover Economic Papers (HEP) dp-477, Leibniz Universität Hannover, Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Fakultät.

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