Insights

John List on Economic Field Experiments

April 5, 2022 2780
John List at a classroom pdium
LISTEN TO JOHN LIST NOW!

Any work in social and behavioral science presumably – but not necessarily immediately – tells us something about humans in the real world. To come up with those insights, research usually occurs in laboratory settings, where the researchers control the independent variables and which, in essence, rules out research ‘in the wild.’

Enter John List.

“For years,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “economists thought that the world is so ‘dirty’ that you can’t do field experiments. They had the mentality of a test tube in a chemistry lab, and what they had learned was that if there was a speck of dirt in that tube, you’re in trouble because you can’t control exactly what is happening.”

Since this complex real world isn’t getting any cleaner, you could conclusively rule out field experiments, and that’s what the ‘giants’ of economics did for years. Or you could learn to work around the ‘dirt,’ which is what List started doing around the turn of the millennium. “I actually use the world as my lab,” the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago says.

Since an early start centering on sports trading cards and manure-fertilized crop land (real field work, a self-described “bucolic” List happily acknowledges), his university homepage details a raft of field experiments:

“I have made use of several different markets, including using hospitals, pre-K, grammar, and high schools for educational field experiments, countless charitable fundraising field experiments to learn about the science of philanthropy, the Chicago Board of Trade, Costa Rican CEOs, the new automobile market, coin markets, auto repair markets, open air markets located throughout the globe, various venues on the internet, several auction settings, shopping malls, various labor markets, and partnered with various governmental agencies. More recently, I have been engaged in a series of field experiments with various publicly traded corporations—from car manufacturers to travel companies to ride-share.”

In the podcast, List explains, “I don’t anticipate or assume that I have a ‘clean test tube,’ but what I do is I randomly place people into a treatment condition or a control condition, and then what I look at is their outcomes, and I take the difference between those outcomes. That differences out the ‘dirt.’

“I can go to really dirty settings where other empirical approaches really take dramatic assumptions. All I need is really randomization and a few other things in place and then if I just take the simple difference, I can get an average treatment effect from that setting.”

His work – in journal articles, popular books like The Voltage Effect and The Why Axis, in findings applied immediately outside of academe – has earned him widespread praise (Gary Becker terms his output as “revolutionary”), a huge list of honors, and a recurring spot on Nobel shortlists.

For this podcast, List focuses on two of the many areas in which he’s conducted field experiments: charitable giving and the gig economy.

He describes one finding from working with different charities around the world over the last 25 years on what works best to raise money. For example, appeals to potential donors announcing their money would be matched when they gave, doubling or tripling a contribution’s impact. When he started, it was presumed that the greater the leverage offered by a match, the more someone would give, since their total gift would be that much greater.

“There was no science around it … it was art, or gut feeling.” It was also wrong.

List tested the assumption, offering four different appeals to four different groups: one with just an appeal for funding, one with a 1:1 match, one with a 2:1 match, and the last a 3:1 match. And the results bore out that matching a contribution amped up the results – but the leverage didn’t matter. “Just having the match matters, but the rate of the match does not matter.”

List was later the chief economist with ride-share behemoth Uber – and then with its competitor, Lyft. He coined the term Ubernomics for his ability to manipulate the tsunami of data the company generated. “It’s not only that you have access to a lot of data,” he says, “it’s also that you have access to generating a lot of new data. As a field economist, this is a playground that is very, very difficult to beat.”

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.

Join the debate and discuss this episode with fellow listeners on our Multytude conversation. Multytude is a new social media app that aims to make sense of the online conversation. With support from the SAGE Concept Grant, the Multytude team is working to create a new method of qualitative research for social scientists to better understand what people are saying about the big issues of today.


For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

View all posts by Social Science Bites

Related Articles

Maybe You Can’t Buy Happinesss, But You Can Teach About It
Insights
May 14, 2024

Maybe You Can’t Buy Happinesss, But You Can Teach About It

Read Now
Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income
Social Science Bites
May 1, 2024

Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

Read Now
There’s Something in the Air, Part 2 – But It’s Not a Miasma
Insights
April 15, 2024

There’s Something in the Air, Part 2 – But It’s Not a Miasma

Read Now
The Fog of War
Insights
April 12, 2024

The Fog of War

Read Now
Alex Edmans on Confirmation Bias 

Alex Edmans on Confirmation Bias 

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Edmans, a professor of finance at London Business School and author of the just-released “May Contain Lies: How Stories, Statistics, and Studies Exploit Our Biases – And What We Can Do About It,” reviews the persistence of confirmation bias even among professors of finance.

Read Now
A Community Call: Spotlight on Women’s Safety in the Music Industry 

A Community Call: Spotlight on Women’s Safety in the Music Industry 

Women’s History Month is, when we “honor women’s contributions to American history…” as a nation. Author Andrae Alexander aims to spark a conversation about honor that expands the actions of this month from performative to critical

Read Now
Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Drawing on the findings of a workshop on making translational research design principles the norm for European research, Gabi Lombardo, Jonathan Deer, Anne-Charlotte Fauvel, Vicky Gardner and Lan Murdock discuss the characteristics of translational research, ways of supporting cross disciplinary collaboration, and the challenges and opportunities of adopting translational principles in the social sciences and humanities.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments