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From Natural Variation to Optimal Policy? The Lucas Critique Meets Peer Effects


  • Scott E. Carrell
  • Bruce I. Sacerdote
  • James E. West


We take cohorts of entering freshmen at the United States Air Force Academy and assign half to peer groups with the goal of maximizing the academic performance of the lowest ability students. Our assignment algorithm uses peer effects estimates from the observational data. We find a negative and significant treatment effect for the students we intended to help. We show that within our "optimal" peer groups, students self-selected into bifurcated sub-groups with social dynamics entirely different from those in the observational data. Our results suggest that using reduced-form estimates to make out-of-sample policy predictions can lead to unanticipated outcomes.

Suggested Citation

  • Scott E. Carrell & Bruce I. Sacerdote & James E. West, 2011. "From Natural Variation to Optimal Policy? The Lucas Critique Meets Peer Effects," NBER Working Papers 16865, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16865
    Note: CH ED LS PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Scott E. Carrell & Frederick V. Malmstrom & James E. West, 2008. "Peer Effects in Academic Cheating," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 43(1).
    2. Bhattacharya, Debopam, 2009. "Inferring Optimal Peer Assignment From Experimental Data," Journal of the American Statistical Association, American Statistical Association, vol. 104(486), pages 486-500.
    3. Stinebrickner, Ralph & Stinebrickner, Todd R., 2006. "What can be learned about peer effects using college roommates? Evidence from new survey data and students from disadvantaged backgrounds," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(8-9), pages 1435-1454, September.
    4. Scott E. Carrell & Richard L. Fullerton & James E. West, 2009. "Does Your Cohort Matter? Measuring Peer Effects in College Achievement," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 27(3), pages 439-464, July.
    5. Scott E. Carrell & James E. West, 2010. "Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 118(3), pages 409-432, June.
    6. Bryan S. Graham & Guido W. Imbens & Geert Ridder, 2014. "Complementarity and aggregate implications of assortative matching: A nonparametric analysis," Quantitative Economics, Econometric Society, vol. 5, pages 29-66, March.
    7. David J. Zimmerman, 2003. "Peer Effects in Academic Outcomes: Evidence from a Natural Experiment," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(1), pages 9-23, February.
    8. Foster, Gigi, 2006. "It's not your peers, and it's not your friends: Some progress toward understanding the educational peer effect mechanism," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 90(8-9), pages 1455-1475, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. Gordon B. Dahl & Katrine V. L?ken & Magne Mogstad, 2014. "Peer Effects in Program Participation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 104(7), pages 2049-2074, July.
    2. Ainhoa Aparicio-Fenoll & Veruska Oppedisano, 2016. "Should I stay or should I go? Sibling effects in household formation," Review of Economics of the Household, Springer, vol. 14(4), pages 1007-1027, December.
    3. Androushchak, Gregory & Poldin, Oleg & Yudkevich, Maria, 2012. "Peer effects in exogenously formed student groups," Applied Econometrics, Publishing House "SINERGIA PRESS", vol. 26(2), pages 3-16.
    4. Seth Richards‐Shubik, 2015. "Peer effects in sexual initiation: Separating demand and supply mechanisms," Quantitative Economics, Econometric Society, vol. 6(3), pages 663-702, November.
    5. Mary A. Burke & Tim R. Sass, 2013. "Classroom Peer Effects and Student Achievement," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 31(1), pages 51-82.
    6. Leonardo Bursztyn & Florian Ederer & Bruno Ferman & Noam Yuchtman, 2012. "Understanding Peer Effects in Financial Decisions: Evidence from a Field Experiment," NBER Working Papers 18241, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. David Card & Laura Giuliano, 2013. "Peer Effects and Multiple Equilibria in the Risky Behavior of Friends," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 95(4), pages 1130-1149, October.
    8. Stephen B. Billings & David J. Deming & Jonah E. Rockoff, 2012. "School Segregation, Educational Attainment and Crime: Evidence from the end of busing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg," NBER Working Papers 18487, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Edwin Leuven & Marte Rønning, 2016. "Classroom Grade Composition and Pupil Achievement," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 126(593), pages 1164-1192, June.
    10. repec:bpj:bejeap:v:17:y:2017:i:3:p:10:n:9 is not listed on IDEAS
    11. Jing Cai & Alain De Janvry & Elisabeth Sadoulet, 2015. "Social Networks and the Decision to Insure," American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Association, vol. 7(2), pages 81-108, April.
    12. John Beshears & James J. Choi & David Laibson & Brigitte C. Madrian & Katherine L. Milkman, 2015. "The Effect of Providing Peer Information on Retirement Savings Decisions," Journal of Finance, American Finance Association, vol. 70(3), pages 1161-1201, June.
    13. Kiss David, 2017. "A Model about the Impact of Ability Grouping on Student Achievement," The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, De Gruyter, vol. 17(3), pages 1-10, July.
    14. Kiss, David, 2013. "The impact of peer achievement and peer heterogeneity on own achievement growth: Evidence from school transitions," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 37(C), pages 58-65.
    15. Mueller, Steffen, 2013. "Teacher experience and the class size effect — Experimental evidence," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 98(C), pages 44-52.
    16. Debopam Bhattacharya & Shin Kanaya & Margaret Stevens, 2017. "Are University Admissions Academically Fair?," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 99(3), pages 449-464, July.
    17. Li, Tao & Han, Li & Zhang, Linxiu & Rozelle, Scott, 2014. "Encouraging classroom peer interactions: Evidence from Chinese migrant schools," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 111(C), pages 29-45.
    18. Debopam Bhattacharya & Pascaline Dupas & Shin Kanaya, 2013. "Estimating the Impact of Means-tested Subsidies under Treatment Externalities with Application to Anti-Malarial Bednets," CREATES Research Papers 2013-06, Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus University.
    19. SHIMAMOTO Daichi & TODO Yasuyuki & Yu Ri KIM & Petr MATOUS, 2016. "Identifying and Decomposing Peer Effects on Participation Decisions Using a Randomized Controlled Trial," Discussion papers 16083, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry (RIETI).
    20. Vardardottir, Arna, 2013. "Peer effects and academic achievement: a regression discontinuity approach," Economics of Education Review, Elsevier, vol. 36(C), pages 108-121.
    21. Daichi Shimamoto & Yasuyuki Todo & Yu Ri Kim & Petr Matous, "undated". "Identifying and Decomposing Peer Effects on Decision-Making Using a Randomized Controlled Trial," Working Papers 1704, Waseda University, Faculty of Political Science and Economics.
    22. Gregory Androushchak & Oleg Poldin & Maria Yudkevich, 2012. "Peer Effects in Exogenously Formed University Student Groups," HSE Working papers WP BRP 03/EDU/2012, National Research University Higher School of Economics.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • I2 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education
    • J01 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - General - - - Labor Economics: General


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