Field Experiments in Economics: the Past, the Present, and the Future

59 Pages Posted: 23 Sep 2008 Last revised: 17 Mar 2010

See all articles by Steven D. Levitt

Steven D. Levitt

University of Chicago; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); American Bar Foundation

John A. List

University of Chicago - Department of Economics; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Date Written: September 2008

Abstract

This study presents an overview of modern field experiments and their usage in economics. Our discussion focuses on three distinct periods of field experimentation that have influenced the economics literature. The first might well be thought of as the dawn of "field" experimentation: the work of Neyman and Fisher, who laid the experimental foundation in the 1920s and 1930s by conceptualizing randomization as an instrument to achieve identification via experimentation with agricultural plots. The second, the large-scale social experiments conducted by government agencies in the mid-twentieth century, moved the exploration from plots of land to groups of individuals. More recently, the nature and range of field experiments has expanded, with a diverse set of controlled experiments being completed outside of the typical laboratory environment. With this growth, the number and types of questions that can be explored using field experiments has grown tremendously. After discussing these three distinct phases, we speculate on the future of field experimental methods, a future that we envision including a strong collaborative effort with outside parties, most importantly private entities.

Suggested Citation

Levitt, Steven D. and List, John A., Field Experiments in Economics: the Past, the Present, and the Future (September 2008). NBER Working Paper No. w14356. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1271388

Steven D. Levitt (Contact Author)

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John A. List

University of Chicago - Department of Economics ( email )

1126 East 59th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

IZA Institute of Labor Economics

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Bonn, D-53072
Germany

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