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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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  2. Ernst Fehr & Lorenz Goette, 2002. "Do workers work more if wages are high? Evidence from a randomized field experiment," Natural Field Experiments 00240, The Field Experiments Website.
  3. Stefano DellaVigna & John A. List & Ulrike Malmendier, 2012. "Testing for Altruism and Social Pressure in Charitable Giving," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 127(1), pages 1-56.
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  8. Terry R. Johnson & John Pencavel, 1982. "Forecasting the effects of a negative income tax program," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, ILR Review, Cornell University, ILR School, vol. 35(2), pages 221-234, January.
  9. repec:pri:rpdevs:deaton_understanding_mechanisms_of_economic_development_with_abstract_apr is not listed on IDEAS
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  15. Fehr, Ernst & Kirchsteiger, George & Riedl, Arno, 1993. "Does Fairness Prevent Market Clearing? An Experimental Investigation," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 108(2), pages 437-59, May.
  16. Akerlof, George A, 1982. "Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 97(4), pages 543-69, November.
  17. Axel Ockenfels & Gary E. Bolton, 2000. "ERC: A Theory of Equity, Reciprocity, and Competition," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(1), pages 166-193, March.
  18. Michael C. Keeley & Philip K. Robins, 1980. "Experimental Design, the Conlisk-Watts Assignment Model, and the Proper Estimation of Behavioral Response," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 15(4), pages 480-498.
  19. Uri Gneezy & John A List, 2006. "Putting Behavioral Economics to Work: Testing for Gift Exchange in Labor Markets Using Field Experiments," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 74(5), pages 1365-1384, 09.
  20. Angrist, Joshua D, 1990. "Lifetime Earnings and the Vietnam Era Draft Lottery: Evidence from Social Security Administrative Records: Errata," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 80(5), pages 1284-86, December.
  21. Daniel Nagin & James Rebitzer & Seth Sanders & Lowell Taylor, 2002. "Monitoring, Motivation and Management: The Determinants of Opportunistic Behavior in a Field Experiment," NBER Working Papers 8811, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  22. 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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  24. LaLonde, Robert J, 1986. "Evaluating the Econometric Evaluations of Training Programs with Experimental Data," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 76(4), pages 604-20, September.
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