Training Young Scholars to Answer Big Questions with Experiments

What will sway shoppers to choose healthy options when shopping at the store? How much should a bottle of wine cost? How can educators get parents more engaged with their kids’ schooling?  Any time an organization isn’t exactly sure how to address a problem, field experiments are good at shedding light on possible solutions, says John List.

List has been working to expand the use of field experiments in the economist’s tool kit for 20 years, Field experiments take place in the real world, outside of a laboratory, measuring different kinds of interventions aimed at shaping human behavior. List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor of Economics and chair of the University of Chicago Economics Department has championed their use with his own body of work and the collected work of similarly field-oriented economists working together under the banner of institute’s Chicago Experiments initiative.

But in List’s experience, there are still many more organizations with good questions that might be answered via experimentation, and not enough researchers who know how to design and run good experiments. “To go to the next level, we need to expand the number of people who have access to these [researcher-practitioner] partnerships."

To address that gap, List, Anya Samek, and Luigi Butera have partnered with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to create a summer institute offering first-hand experience with the technique. The institute pairs young scholars with representatives from organizations interested in using experiments to improve their operations. The four-day training course—first offered in July 2015—will be composed of topic sessions in the mornings andkeynote presentations from List, Steven Levitt, and other noted experimental economists in the afternoons. In break-out sessions at the end of the day, scholars learning to design experiments will listen to what practitioners within organizations are seeking to learn about their business and clientele.

List sees the institute—particularly these networking sessions—as a natural expansion of the interactions that events like the Science of Philanthropy Initiative’s annual conference have spurred between practitioners and scholars, inspiring  field experiments that analyze all sorts of new problems. "Can we take it to pricing decisions at a major airline? Can we employ experiments when it comes to making hiring decisions at Wal-mart? Can we take it to the UK government, getting people to pay back taxes that they owe? The answer is yes, yes, and yes."

The core goal that the organizers have for their students will be to teach them how to use the scientific method to analyze problems that come up every day in businesses and nonprofits. Researchers will learn how to listen to their subjects and design experiments that address the question at hand while working within the constraints of an operational business. Practitioners will learn how to effectively communicate their organization’s challenges and work with researchers to find creative ways to motivate and move people, which can then be tested.

“Many times incentives are the mother of invention—you have to come up with innovations and approaches to get around those constraints,” said List. “If our partners say 'we can't pay [participants] cash,' what other ways can people be moved?"

Both scholars and practitioners will emerge from the four-day training session with a better understanding of the symbiosis between field research and willing partner organizations, and learn to forge those relationships themselves. They’ll leave Chicago not only with the skills to run their own field experiments, but with relationships with practitioners in the field already primed to launch their first experiments together.

List sees this endeavor not only as a great way to train future microeconomists, but as a vector for allowing a much wider group of people—business leaders, reformers, educators, and anyone else who might be interested—to learn how the scientific method might be applied to real world problems they want to solve. "My job is to take science from the ivory tower to the living room. If we're willing to do that, I think the world can be a much better place."