The Role of Theory in Field Experiments

David Card, Stefano DellaVigna, Ulrike Malmendier

NBER Working Paper No. 17047
Issued in May 2011
NBER Program(s):Program on Children, Economics of Education Program, Environment and Energy Program, Health Care Program, Health Economics Program, Industrial Organization Program, Law and Economics Program, Labor Studies Program, Public Economics Program, Political Economy Program

We propose a new classification of experiments that captures the extent to which the experimental design and analysis are linked to economic theory. We then use this system to classify all published field experiments in the five top economics journals from 1975 to 2010. We find that the vast majority of field experiments (68%) are Descriptive studies that lack any explicit model; 18% are Single Model studies that test a single model-based hypothesis; 6% are Competing Models studies that test competing model-based hypotheses; and 8% are Parameter Estimation studies that estimate structural parameters in a completely specified model. Using the same system to classify laboratory experiments published over the same period, we find that economic theory has played a more central role in the laboratory than in the field. Finally, we discuss in detail three sets of field experiments, on gift exchange, on charitable giving, and on negative income tax, that illustrate both the benefits and the potential costs of a tighter link between experimental design and theoretical underpinnings.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17047

Published: David Card & Stefano DellaVigna & Ulrike Malmendier, 2011. "The Role of Theory in Field Experiments," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 25(3), pages 39-62, Summer. citation courtesy of

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