Chicago Experiments

Studying economic behavior in everyday settings

This initiative expands UChicago’s leadership in the growing field of experimental economics. Under the leadership of John List, researchers devise innovative studies—often of observing everyday activities and responses in natural, real-world “field” settings—to understand a wide range of economic behavior.

Games and simulations, typically conducted with student volunteers, have long proved useful for testing economic theory with data on individuals’ economic responses. Increasingly, List and colleagues improve upon such studies by recruiting more relevant subject pools. Their work collects data from business leaders, factory workers, borrowers, or customers in malls and markets—individuals likely to make actual spending, saving, or investment decisions.

With framed field experiments, researchers add naturalness by asking subjects to complete a task they normally perform, while aware they are taking part in an experiment. Finally, natural field experiments add a more realistic element: observing people in their everyday settings.
Learn more about field experiments »

The initiative refines the methodology of field experimentation while training students in these techniques. With creative experiments, researchers are exploring a wide range of key social and policy issues. Some major areas of study include:

  • Education – the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center
    For several years economists helped operate a comprehensive preschool, housed within a public school in Chicago Heights. The program was designed to foster development and learning in the critical early years, while testing the effectiveness of education methods, family support, and incentives for parents. The aim was to determine causal effects of interventions designed to improve educational and life outcomes. Funded by the Kenneth and Anne Griffin Foundation, the project devised and tested effective strategies to strengthen family engagement in education and  place children on the path to lasting success, with an eye to identifying those that could be leveraged in schools nationwide. Chicago Experiments also ran the Parent Academy first developed at Chicago Heights for families in the United Kingdom
  • Philanthropy:  The Science of Philanthropy Initiative
    List has been conducting research for more than a decade to gather evidence on how and why people donate to charity. That work has grown into an initiative combining rigorous quantitative methods and partnerships with the philanthropic community to explore, among other things, the motivations behind charitable giving. Funded by a generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation, SPI works to develop a deeper understanding of the types of social preferences that shape philanthropic giving and to apply this knowledge to both practitioners and policymakers interested in philanthropy and the private provision of public goods.
    Learn more about SPI »
  • Voting Behavior
    To study voting behavior, List and coauthors ran a door-to-door campaign surveying whether or not people voted. List’s team then compared the survey answers to household data that showed whether or not the individual voted. Through this, the researchers aimed to learn the relative value people put on having other people believe that they voted.
  • Environment
    Learning from previous research in behavioral economics, experimenters use social norms and social signaling to elicit energy conservation behavior . Specifically, economists examined used direct mail and door-to-door surveys to assess factors that influenced residential electricity usage from California to Vermont. Another study testing interventions with airline pilots showed that low-cost interventions like providing feedback on their in-flight fuel conservation measures can result in significant fuel savings. 

Participating Scholars

John List

Robert Metcalfe

This initiative is supported with generous funding through the Andrew and Betsy Rosenfield Program in Economics, Public Policy, and Law.