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The Role of Theory in Field Experiments

  • David Card
  • Stefano DellaVigna
  • Ulrike Malmendier

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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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
Note: CH ED EEE HC HE IO LE LS PE POL
Contact details of provider: Postal: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138, U.S.A.
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  7. John List & Stefano DellaVigna & Ulrike Malmendier, 2012. "Testing for altruism and social pressure in charitable giving," Natural Field Experiments 00137, The Field Experiments Website.
  8. Angrist, Joshua D, 1990. "Lifetime Earnings and the Vietnam Era Draft Lottery: Evidence from Social Security Administrative Records," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(3), pages 313-36, June.
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  18. Tuma, Nancy Brandon & Robins, Philip K, 1980. "A Dynamic Model of Employment Behavior: An Application to the Seattle and Denver Income Maintenance Experiments," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 48(4), pages 1031-52, May.
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  20. Akerlof, George A, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-69, November.
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