Do Natural Field Experiments Afford Researchers More or Less Control than Laboratory Experiments? a Simple Model

21 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2015 Last revised: 4 Feb 2015

See all articles by Omar Al-Ubaydli

Omar Al-Ubaydli

George Mason University - Department of Economics; Derasat; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

John A. List

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

Date Written: January 2015

Abstract

A commonly held view is that laboratory experiments provide researchers with more “control” than natural field experiments, and that this advantage is to be balanced against the disadvantage that laboratory experiments are less generalizable. This paper presents a simple model that explores circumstances under which natural field experiments provide researchers with more control than laboratory experiments afford. This stems from the covertness of natural field experiments: laboratory experiments provide researchers with a high degree of control in the environment which participants agree to be experimental subjects. When participants systematically opt out of laboratory experiments, the researcher’s ability to manipulate certain variables is limited. In contrast, natural field experiments bypass the participation decision altogether and allow for a potentially more diverse participant pool within the market of interest. We show one particular case where such selection is invaluable: when treatment effects interact with participant characteristics.

Suggested Citation

Al-Ubaydli, Omar and List, John A., Do Natural Field Experiments Afford Researchers More or Less Control than Laboratory Experiments? a Simple Model (January 2015). NBER Working Paper No. w20877, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2555397

Omar Al-Ubaydli (Contact Author)

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Derasat ( email )

Bahrain

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

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John A. List

University of Chicago - Department of Economics ( email )

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IZA Institute of Labor Economics

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