Learn more about breakthroughs pioneered at the University of Chicago

Field experiments, explained

Editor’s note: This is part of a series called “The Day Tomorrow Began,” which explores the history of breakthroughs at UChicago. Learn more here.

A field experiment is a research method that uses some controlled elements of traditional lab experiments, but takes place in natural, real-world settings. This type of experiment can help scientists explore questions like: Why do people vote the way they do? Why do schools fail? Why are certain people hired less often or paid less money?

University of Chicago economists were early pioneers in the modern use of field experiments and conducted innovative research that impacts our everyday lives—from policymaking to marketing to farming and agriculture. 

What is a field experiment?

Field experiments bridge the highly controlled lab environment and the messy real world. Social scientists have taken inspiration from traditional medical or physical science lab experiments. In a typical drug trial, for instance, participants are randomly assigned into two groups. The control group gets the placebo—a pill that has no effect. The treatment group will receive the new pill. The scientist can then compare the outcomes for each group.

A field experiment works similarly, just in the setting of real life.

It can be difficult to understand why a person chooses to buy one product over another or how effective a policy is when dozens of variables affect the choices we make each day. “That type of thinking, for centuries, caused economists to believe you can't do field experimentation in economics because the market is really messy,” said Prof. John List, a UChicago economist who has used field experiments to study everything from how people use Uber and Lyft to how to close the achievement gap in Chicago-area schools. “There are a lot of things that are simultaneously moving.”

The key to cleaning up the mess is randomization—or assigning participants randomly to either the control group or the treatment group. “The beauty of randomization is that each group has the same amount of bad stuff, or noise or dirt,” List said. “That gets differenced out if you have large enough samples.”

Though lab experiments are still common in the social sciences, field experiments are now often used by psychologists, sociologists and political scientists. They’ve also become an essential tool in the economist’s toolbox. 

Why do a field experiment?

Some issues are too big and too complex to study in a lab or on paper—that’s where field experiments come in.

In a laboratory setting, a researcher wants to control as many variables as possible. These experiments are excellent for testing new medications or measuring brain functions, but they aren’t always great for answering complex questions about attitudes or behavior.

Labs are highly artificial with relatively small sample sizes—it’s difficult to know if results will still apply in the real world. Also, people are aware they are being observed in a lab, which can alter their behavior. This phenomenon, sometimes called the Hawthorne effect, can affect results.

Traditional economics often uses theories or existing data to analyze problems. But, when a researcher wants to study if a policy will be effective or not, field experiments are a useful way to look at how results may play out in real life.

In 2019, UChicago economist Michael Kremer (then at Harvard) was awarded the Nobel Prize alongside Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT for their groundbreaking work using field experiments to help reduce poverty. In the 1990s and 2000s, Kremer conducted several randomized controlled trials in Kenyan schools testing potential interventions to improve student performance. 

In the 1990s, Kremer worked alongside an NGO to figure out if buying students new textbooks made a difference in academic performance. Half the schools got new textbooks; the other half didn’t. The results were unexpected—textbooks had no impact.

“Things we think are common sense, sometimes they turn out to be right, sometimes they turn out to be wrong,” said Kremer on an episode of the Big Brains podcast. “And things that we thought would have minimal impact or no impact turn out to have a big impact.”

In the early 2000s, Kremer returned to Kenya to study a school-based deworming program. He and a colleague found that providing deworming pills to all students reduced absenteeism by more than 25%. After the study, the program was scaled nationwide by the Kenyan government. From there it was picked up by multiple Indian states—and then by the Indian national government.

“Experiments are a way to get at causal impact, but they’re also much more than that,” Kremer said in his Nobel Prize lecture. “They give the researcher a richer sense of context, promote broader collaboration and address specific practical problems.”   

What are examples of field experiments?

Among many other things, field experiments can be used to:

Study bias and discrimination

A 2004 study published by UChicago economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan (then at MIT) examined racial discrimination in the labor market. They sent over 5,000 resumes to real job ads in Chicago and Boston. The resumes were exactly the same in all ways but one—the name at the top. Half the resumes bore white-sounding names like Emily Walsh or Greg Baker. The other half sported African American names like Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones. The study found that applications with white-sounding names were 50% more likely to receive a callback.

Examine voting behavior

Political scientist Harold Gosnell, PhD 1922, pioneered the use of field experiments to examine voting behavior while at UChicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. In his study “Getting out the vote,” Gosnell sorted 6,000 Chicagoans across 12 districts into groups. One group received voter registration info for the 1924 presidential election and the control group did not. Voter registration jumped substantially among those who received the informational notices. Not only did the study prove that get-out-the-vote mailings could have a substantial effect on voter turnout, but also that field experiments were an effective tool in political science.

Test ways to reduce crime and shape public policy

Researchers at UChicago’s Crime Lab use field experiments to gather data on crime as well as policies and programs meant to reduce it. For example, Crime Lab director and economist Jens Ludwig co-authored a 2015 study on the effectiveness of the school mentoring program Becoming a Man. Developed by the non-profit Youth Guidance, Becoming a Man focuses on guiding male students between 7th and 12th grade to help boost school engagement and reduce arrests. In two field experiments, the Crime Lab found that while students participated in the program, total arrests were reduced by 28–35%, violent-crime arrests went down by 45–50% and graduation rates increased by 12–19%.

When did field experiments become popular in modern economics?

The earliest field experiments took place—literally—in fields. Starting in the 1800s, European farmers began experimenting with fertilizers to see how they affected crop yields. In the 1920s, two statisticians, Jerzy Neyman and Ronald Fisher, were tasked with assisting with these agricultural experiments. They are credited with identifying randomization as a key element of the method—making sure each plot had the same chance of being treated as the next.

The earliest large-scale field experiments in the U.S. took place in the late 1960s to help evaluate various government programs. Typically, these experiments were used to test minor changes to things like electricity pricing or unemployment programs.

Though field experiments were used in some capacity throughout the 20th century, this method didn’t truly gain popularity in economics until the 2000s. Kremer and List were early pioneers and first began experimenting with the method in the 1990s.

In 2004, List co-authored a seminal paper defining field experiments and arguing for the importance of the method. In 2008, he and UChicago economist Steven Levitt published another study tracing the history of field experiments and their impact on economics.

In the past few decades, the use of field experiments has exploded. Today, economists often work alongside NGOs or nonprofit organizations to study the efficacy of programs or policies. They also partner with companies to test products and understand how people use services. 

What are criticisms of field experiments?

There are several ethical discussions happening among scholars as field experiments grow in popularity. Chief among them is the issue of informed consent. All studies that involve human test subjects must be approved by an institutional review board (IRB) to ensure that people are protected.

However, participants in field experiments often don’t know they are in an experiment. While an experiment may be given the stamp of approval in the research community, some argue that taking away peoples’ ability to opt out is inherently unethical. Others advocate for stricter review processes as field experiments continue to evolve.

According to List, another major issue in field experiments is the issue of scale. Many experiments only test small groups—say, dozens to hundreds of people. This may mean the results are not applicable to broader situations. For example, if a scientist runs an experiment at one school and finds their method works there, does that mean it will also work for an entire city? Or an entire country?

List believes that in addition to testing option A and option B, researchers need a third option that accounts for the limitations that come with a larger scale. “Option C is what I call critical scale features. I want you to bring in all of the warts, all of the constraints, whether they're regulatory constraints, or constraints by law,” List said. “Option C is like your reality test, or what I call policy-based evidence.”

This problem isn’t unique to field experiments, but List believes tackling the issue of scale is the next major frontier for a new generation of economists.

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