Some of my research includes investigating incentive schemes on educational outcomes. Over the past several years, I’ve been working with Steve Levitt and Roland Fryer to investigate early childhood interventions in a metrics based environment at the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center in Chicago Heights, Illinois.

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The Behavioralist Goes to School: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Educational Performance

Levitt, Steven, John A. List, Susanne Neckermann, and Sally Sadoff

American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, forthcoming


Research on behavioral economics has established the importance of factors such as reference dependent preferences, hyperbolic discounting, and the value placed on non-financial rewards. To date, these insights have had little impact on the way the educational system operates. Through a series of field experiments involving thousands of primary and secondary school students, we demonstrate the power of behavioral economics to influence educational performance. Several insights emerge. First, we find substantial incentive effects from both financial and non-financial incentives on test scores. Second, we find that non-financial incentives are considerably more cost-effective than financial incentives for younger students, but were less effective with older students. Third, and perhaps most importantly, consistent with hyperbolic discounting, all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay. Since the rewards to educational investment virtually always come with a delay, our results suggest that the current set of incentives may lead to underinvestment. Fourth, in stark contrast to previous laboratory experiments, we do not see an increased response of effort when rewards are framed as losses. Our findings imply that in the absence of immediate incentives, many students put forth low effort on standardized tests, which may create biases in measures of student ability, teacher value added, school quality, and achievement gaps.

Parental Incentives and Early Childhood Achievement: A Field Experiment in Chicago Heights

Fryer, Roland G., Steven D. Levitt and John A. List

NBER Working Paper No. 21477


This article describes a randomized field experiment in which parents were provided financial incentives to engage in behaviors designed to increase early childhood cognitive and executive function skills through a parent academy. Parents were rewarded for attendance at early childhood sessions, completing homework assignments with their children, and for their child’s demonstration of mastery on interim assessments. This intervention had large and statistically significant positive impacts on both cognitive and non-cognitive test scores of Hispanics and Whites, but no impact on Blacks. These differential outcomes across races are not attributable to differences in observable characteristics (e.g. family size, mother’s age, mother’s education) or to the intensity of engagement with the program. Children with above median (pre-treatment) non cognitive scores accrue the most benefits from treatment.

The behavioralist as nutritionist: Leveraging behavioral economics to improve child food choice and consumption

List, John A. and Anya Samek

Journal of Health Economics, (2015), 39, pp. 135-146


We leverage behavioral economics to explore new approaches to tackling child food choice and consumption. Using a field experiment with >1500 children, we report several key insights. We find that incentives have large influences: in the control, 17% of children prefer the healthy snack, whereas introduction of small incentives increases take-up of the healthy snack to ∼75%. There is some evidence that the effects continue post-treatment, consistent with a model of habit formation. We find little evidence that the framing of incentives (loss vs. gain) matters. Educational messaging alone has little effect, but we observe a combined effect of messaging and incentives: together they provide an important influence on food choice.

The Curious Relation Between Theory of Mind and Sharing in Preschool Age Children

Cowell, Jason, Anya Samek, John A. List and Jean Decety

PLoS One. 2015 Feb 6;10(2):e0117947. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117947. eCollection 2015


Young children have long been known to act selfishly and gradually appear to become more generous across middle childhood. While this apparent change has been well documented, the underlying mechanisms supporting this remain unclear. The current study examined the role of early theory of mind and executive functioning in facilitating sharing in a large sample (N = 98) of preschoolers. Results reveal a curious relation between early false-belief understanding and sharing behavior. Contrary to many commonsense notions and predominant theories, competence in this ability is actually related to less sharing. Thus, the relation between developing theory of mind and sharing may not be as straightforward as it seems in preschool age children. It is precisely the children who can engage in theory of mind that decide to share less with others.

Using Field Experiments to Change the Template of How We Teach Economics

List, John A

Journal of Economic Education, (2014), 45(2), pp. 81-89


In this article, the author explains why field experiments can improve what we teach and how we teach economics. Economists no longer operate as passive observers of economic phenomena. Instead, they participate actively in the research process by collecting data from field experiments to investigate the economics of everyday life. This change can be shown to students by presenting them with evidence from field experiments. Field experiments related to factor markets, behavioral economics, and discrimination are presented to explain how this approach works across different economic content. The three questions that are highlighted are the following: (1) Why do women get paid less than men in labor markets? (2) How can we use behavioral economics to motivate teachers? (3) What seven words can end third-degree price discrimination?

Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment

Fryer, Roland G., Steven D. Levitt, John A. List and Sally Sadoff

NBER Working Paper No. 21477


Domestic attempts to use financial incentives for teachers to increase student achievement have been ineffective. In this paper, we demonstrate that exploiting the power of loss aversion–teachers are paid in advance and asked to give back the money if their students do not improve sufficiently–increases math test scores between 0.201 (0.076) and 0.398 (0.129) standard deviations. This is equivalent to increasing teacher quality by more than one standard deviation. A second treatment arm, identical to the loss aversion treatment but implemented in the standard fashion, yields smaller and statistically insignificant results. This suggests it is loss aversion, rather than other features of the design or population sampled, that leads to the stark differences between our findings and past research.

Field Experiments in Labor Economics

List, John A. and Imran Rasul

Chapter 2 in Handbook of Labor Economics Volume 4a, O. Ashenfelter and D. Card (editors), Elsevier, 2011, pp104-228


We overview the use of field experiments in labor economics. We showcase studies that highlight the central advantages of this methodology, which include: (i) using economic theory to design the null and alternative hypotheses; (ii) engineering exogenous variation in real world economic environments to establish causal relations and learning about the underlying mechanisms; and (iii) engaging in primary data collection and often working closely with practitioners. To highlight the potential for field experiments to inform issues in labor economics, we organize our discussion around the individual life cycle. We therefore consider field experiments related to the accumulation of human capital, the demand and supply of labor, behavior within firms, and close with a brief discussion of the nascent literature of field experiments related to household decision-making.

Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities

Hoffman, Moshe, Uri Gneezy and John A. List

Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, (2011), 108(36), pp. 14786-14788


Women remain significantly underrepresented in the science, engineering, and technology workforce. Some have argued that spatial ability differences, which represent the most persistent gender differences in the cognitive literature, are partly responsible for this gap. The underlying forces at work shaping the observed spatial ability differences revolve naturally around the relative roles of nature and nurture. Although these forces remain among the most hotly debated in all of the sciences, the evidence for nurture is tenuous, because it is difficult to compare gender differences among biologically similar groups with distinct nurture. In this study, we use a large-scale incentivized experiment with nearly 1,300 participants to show that the gender gap in spatial abilities, measured by time to solve a puzzle, disappears when we move from a patrilineal society to an adjoining matrilineal society. We also show that about one-third of the effect can be explained by differences in education. Given that none of our participants have experience with puzzle solving and that villagers from both societies have the same means of subsistence and shared genetic background, we argue that these results show the role of nurture in the gender gap in cognitive abilities.