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.
CHECC programs led to improvements in a range of academic outcomes. While CHECC was not designed to assess the impact of education on health, it now presents an opportunity for Chicago Experiments, through generous funding from the NIH, to study the impact of this existing early education RCT on childhood diet, activity and obesity. Research has identified a number of early life factors that affect childhood obesity; however, little is known about whether early childhood programs (i.e., preschool) affect childhood obesity. To address this critical evidence gap, this project builds upon the existing early childhood study, CHECC, — in which nearly 1,500 3-4 year-old children were randomly assigned to early childhood programs or to a control group — and measures the causal impact of preschool and parent programs on children’s diet, activity and obesity. Returning to the children who are now 6-12 years of age, we will compare early childhood program groups and control groups using data we will collect on diet, activity and obesity for up to 4 years. The project will evaluate three new mediators underlying the effects of the programs, specifically children’s cognitive skills, their executive functions and related skills and parental involvement. Our study also examines whether there are differential effects by race, comparing the impact of the programs on Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian children. Understanding the causal impact of early childhood education on obesity is crucial for the development of public policies aimed at improving the health of the nation, particularly the widely debated policy on the public provision of preschool.
Other Education Projects
CHECC KinderPrep has been replicated in Flossmoor SD161 during the summer of 2018 and will be taking place in summer of 2019. This will provide additional data on KinderPrep results with a varied SES population.
Science of Using Science
Evidence-based policies are no longer an aspirational ‘gold-standard’ of public policy but are now considered the baseline standard for new and ongoing programs. These policies are usually based on successful (i.e., high benefit-cost ratio) results from randomized control trials (RCTs). But do these results persist when policies are implemented at a larger scale than the RCT? Even before scaling up to a larger size, can the positive results be replicated if identical RCTs are run again? Although the research community has become better at translating rigorously tested results to policy-makers, there exists a distinct gap in the replication and scalability of even the most promising programs. We have identified several obstacles that stop policymakers/implementers from identifying scalable evidence-based policies. We will systematically tackle these obstacles with the goal to better understand when, and how, results from RCTs will scale to the broader population.
Philanthropy: The Science of Philanthropy (SPI)
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 the Science of Philanthropy initiative, which combines rigorous quantitative methods and partnerships with the philanthropic community to explore, among other things, the motivations behind charitable giving. Previously funded by a generous grant from The John Templeton Foundation, and currently in partnership with the IUPUI Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the overarching goal of SPI is 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.
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.
Jesse Backstrom, Department of Economics
Chris Clapp – University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy
Lenka Fiala – Tilburg University, Netherlands
Matthias Rodemeier – University of Münster, Germany
Sutanuka Roy – Australian National University
Chicago Experiments Research Professionals
John List’s Chicago Experiments Group (CEG) is comprised of senior and junior faculty, post-doctoral and graduate researchers, and pre-doctoral research professionals (RPs), all of whom employ a field experiment approach to study what works and why. John coordinates the collaborative efforts of the CEG by hosting weekly team meetings, which include project updates and presentations by internal and external speakers. Learn more
This initiative is supported with generous funding through the Andrew and Betsy Rosenfield Program in Economics, Public Policy, and Law.
Associated Working Papers
High-Frequency Location Data Shows That Race Affects the Likelihood of Being Stopped and Fined for Speeding
Speaker Spotlight: John List of Lyft
Other Research at BFI
- Big Data Initiative
- Health Economics Initiative
- Industrial Organization Initiative
- Initiative for the Study of Gender in the Economy
- International Economics and Economic Geography Initiative
- MFR Program
- Macroeconomic Research Initiative
- Political Economics Initiative
- Price Theory Initiative
- Ronzetti Initiative for the Study of Labor Markets