Literature Reviews and Summaries

Summaries of work hold, in part, because they provide other scholars with sign posts on where a literature is. In this section I post some of my work that summarizes literatures.

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.

Field Experiments in Economics: The Past, The Present, and The Future

Levitt, Steven D. and John A. List

European Economic Review, (2009), 53(1), pp. 1-18.


This study presents an overview of modern field experiments and their usage in economics. Our discussion focuses on three distinct periods of field experimentation that have influenced the economics literature. The first might well be thought of as the dawn of ”field” experimentation: the work of Neyman and Fisher, who laid the experimental foundation in the 1920s and 1930s by conceptualizing randomization as an instrument to achieve identification via experimentation with agricultural plots. The second, the large-scale social experiments conducted by government agencies in the mid-twentieth century, moved the exploration from plots of land to groups of individuals. More recently, the nature and range of field experiments has expanded, with a diverse set of controlled experiments being completed outside of the typical laboratory environment. With this growth, the number and types of questions that can be explored using field experiments has grown tremendously. After discussing these three distinct phases, we speculate on the future of field experimental methods, a future that we envision including a strong collaborative effort with outside parties, most importantly private entities.

Can Field Experiments Return Agricultural Economics to the Glory Days?

Herberich David H., Steven D. Levitt, and John A. List

American Journal of Agricultural Economics, (2009), 91(5), pp. 1259-1265.


As we contemplate the state of academic research in the agricultural economics community, there are two facts that are difficult to overlook. First, over roughly the first half of the twentieth century, scholars working on agricultural issues were the toast of the academy, setting forth an empirical research agenda that served to influence social and natural scientists profoundly. The seminal contributions made in these early years continue to shape important academic and policy debates. A second fact remains that this dominance has waned in the past several decades, with major empirical advances now more likely in sister fields, such as labor economics or industrial organization.

Field Experiments

List, John A. and David Reiley

The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume, eds., Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, (2008).


Field experiments provide a meeting ground between these two broad approaches to empirical economic science. By examining the nature of field experiments, we seek to make it a common ground between researchers.

Homo experimentalis Evolves

List, John A.

Science, (2008), 321(5886), pp. 207-208.


Homo economicus Evolves

Levitt, Steven D. and John A. List

Science, (2008), 319(5865), pp. 909-910.


The discipline of economics is built on the shoulders of the mythical species Homo economicus. Unlike his uncle, Homo sapiens, H. economicus is unswervingly rational, completely selfish, and can effortlessly solve even the most difficult optimization problems. This rational paradigm has served economics well, providing a coherent framework for modeling human behavior. However, a small but vocal movement in economics has sought to dethrone H. economicus, replacing him with someone who acts “more human.” This insurgent branch, commonly referred to as behavioral economics, argues that actual human behavior deviates from the rational model in predictable ways. Incorporating these features into economic models, proponents argue, should improve our ability to explain observed behavior.

Field Experiments: A Bridge between Lab and Naturally Occurring Data

List, John A.

The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, (2006), 6(2 – Advances), Article 8.


Laboratory experiments have been used extensively in economics in the past several decades to lend both positive and normative insights into a myriad of important economic issues. This study discusses a related approach that has increasingly grown in prominence of late—field exper- iments. I argue that field experiments serve as a useful bridge between data generated in the lab and empirical studies using naturally-occurring data. In discussing this relationship, I highlight that field experiments can yield important insights into economic theory and provide useful guidance to policymakers. I also draw attention to an important methodological contribution of field exper- iments: they provide an empirical account of behavioral principles that are shared across different domains. In this regard, at odds with conventional wisdom, I argue that representativeness of the environment, rather than representative of the sampled population, is the most crucial variable in determining generalizability of results for a large class of experimental laboratory games.

Experimental approaches to public economics: guest editors’ introduction

Andreoni, James, and John A. List

Journal of Public Economics, (2005), 89(8), pp. 1355-1359.


The Journal of Public Economics published its first paper based on a laboratory experiment in 1981, the 10th year in the life of the Journal. The authors were Jerry Marwell, a sociologist from the University of Wisconsin, and his graduate student Ruth Ames. Marwell, well known to his friends for his jovial antagonism toward economists, titled the paper, bEconomists free ride, does anyone else?Q as a challenge to economic methods and assumptions. Ironically, this paper has become a classic in the field of both public economics and experimental economics, and has led to deeper and more meaningful economic models. Moreover, it is one of the most highly cited papers ever published by the Journal.