Monday, June 11, 2018

Lab Experiments and Real-World Behaviour Reading List

We recently installed an experimental lab in the UCD Geary Institute as part of the development of our programme. We also developed a new module on lab and field experiments on our MSc in Behavioural Economics programme, and will teach Experimental Economics to our undergraduates for the first time in 2018/2019 academic year. On the research side, our key interest is how lab measures of behaviour correlate with and predict behaviour in non-lab settings. This reading list will collect interesting studies in this area and I will update it every so often. The focus is on economic studies with humans but I will add anything else that looks potentially interesting for this area.  Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments or email me (thanks to Theo Halpin for help in compiling this list).

Reading List:

Bickel, Warren K., Odum, Amy L., and Madden, Gregory J. (1999). Impulsivity and cigarette smoking: delay discounting in current, never, and ex-smokers. Psychopharmacology 146.

Rationale: Impulsivity is implicated in drug dependence. Recent studies show problems with alcohol and opioid dependence are associated with rapid discounting of the value of delayed outcomes. Furthermore, discounting may be particularly steep for the drug of dependence. Objectives: We determined if these findings could be extended to the behavior of cigarette smokers. In particular, we compared the discounting of hypothetical monetary outcomes by current, never, and ex-smokers of cigarettes. We also examined discounting of delayed hypothetical cigarettes by current smokers. Methods: Current cigarette smokers (n=23), never-smokers (n=22) and ex-smokers (n=21) indicated preference for immediate versus delayed money in a titration procedure that determined indifference points at various delays. The titration procedure was repeated with cigarettes for smokers. The degree to which the delayed outcomes were discounted was estimated with two non-linear decay models: an exponential model and a hyperbolic model. Results: Current smokers discounted the value of delayed money more than did the comparison groups. Never- and ex-smokers did not differ in their discounting of money. For current smokers, delayed cigarettes lost subjective value more rapidly than delayed money. The hyperbolic equation provided better fits to the data than did the exponential equation for 74 out of 89 comparisons. Conclusions: Cigarette smoking, like other forms of drug dependence, is characterized by rapid loss of subjective value for delayed outcomes, particularly for the drug of dependence. Never- and ex-smokers could discount similarly because cigarette smoking is associated with a reversible increase in discounting or due to selection bias.

Brañas-Garza, Pablo and Galizzi, Matteo M. and Nieboer, Jeroen (2018) Experimental and self-reported measures of risk taking and digit ratio (2D:4D): evidence from a large, systematic study International Economic Review. ISSN 0020-6598 (In Press)

Using a large (n=704) sample of laboratory subjects, we systematically investigate the links between the digit ratio - a biomarker for pre-natal testosterone exposure - and two measures of individual risk taking: (i) risk preferences over lotteries with real monetary incentives, and (ii) self-reported risk attitude. The digit ratio (also called 2D:4D) is the ratio of the length of the index finger to the length of the ring finger, and we consider both hands’ digit ratios. Previous studies have found that the digit ratio correlates with risk taking in some subject samples, but not others. In our sample, we find that both the right-hand and the left-hand digit ratio are significantly associated with risk preferences: subjects with lower digit ratios tend to choose riskier lotteries. Neither digit ratio, however, is associated with self-reported risk attitude.

Calisi, Rebecca M., and Bentley, George E. (2009). “Lab and field experiments: Are they the same animal?” Hormones and Behaviour 56(1).

To advance our understanding of biological processes we often plan our experiments based on published data. This can be confusing though, as data from experiments performed in a laboratory environment are sometimes different from, or completely opposite to, findings from similar experiments performed in the “real world”. In this mini-review, we discuss instances where results from laboratory experiments differ as a result of laboratory housing conditions, and where they differ from results gathered in the field environment. Experiments involving endocrinology and behavior appear to be particularly susceptible to influence from the environment in which they are performed. As such, we have attempted to promote discussion of the influence of housing environment on the reproductive axis, circadian biology and behavior, immune function, stress biology, neuroplasticity and photoperiodism. For example, why should a rodent species be diurnal in one housing environment yet nocturnal in another? Are data that are gathered from experiments in the laboratory applicable to the field environment, and vice-versa? We hope not only to highlight the need for experiments in both lab and field when looking at complex biological systems, but also to promote frank discussion of discordant data. Perhaps, just as study of individual variation has been gaining momentum in recent years, data from variation between experimental arenas can provide us with novel lines of research.

Chabris, Christopher F., Laibson, David., Morris, Carrie L., Schuldt, Jonathon P., and Taubinsky, Dmitry. (2008). Individual laboratory-measured discount rates predict field behaviour. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 37

We estimate discount rates of 555 subjects using a laboratory task and find that these individual discount rates predict inter-individual variation in field behaviors (e.g., exercise, BMI, smoking). The correlation between the discount rate and each field behavior is small: none exceeds 0.28 and many are near 0. However, the discount rate has at least as much predictive power as any variable in our dataset (e.g., sex, age, education). The correlation between the discount rate and field behavior rises when field behaviors are aggregated: these correlations range from 0.09–0.38. We present a model that explains why specific intertemporal choice behaviors are only weakly correlated with discount rates, even though discount rates robustly predict aggregates of intertemporal decis

Courtemanche, Charles., Heutel, Garth., and McAlvanah, Patrick. (2015). Impatience, Incentives, and Obesity. The Economic Journal 125(582).

This article explores the relationship between time preferences, economic incentives and body mass index (BMI). We provide evidence of an interaction effect between time preference and food prices, with cheaper food leading to the largest weight gains among those exhibiting the most impatience. The interaction of changing economic incentives with heterogeneous discounting may help explain why increases in BMI have been concentrated amongst the distribution’s right tail. We also model time-inconsistent preferences by computing individuals’ quasi-hyperbolic discounting parameters. Both long-run patience and present-bias predict BMI, suggesting obesity is partly attributable to both rational intertemporal tradeoffs and time inconsistency

Delaney, L., and Lades, L. K. (2017). Present Bias and Everyday Self-Control Failures: A Day Reconstruction Study. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making,

Everyday life is full of self‐control problems. The economist's favorite explanation for self‐control problems is present bias. This paper tests whether experimentally elicited present bias predicts self‐control problems in everyday life. We measure present bias by using a standard incentivized delay discounting task and everyday self‐control by using the day reconstruction method (DRM). Because this is the first study to measure everyday self‐control by using the DRM, we also validate the method by showing that its data replicate key results from the seminal Everyday Temptation Study. We find that present bias does not predict everyday self‐control. This points to a distinction between decreasing impatience (as measured in delay discounting tasks) and visceral influences (as occurring in everyday life) as determinants of self‐control problems. We argue that decision making research can benefit from the DRM as a cost‐effective tool that complements lab and field experiments to better understand economic preference measures and their correlates in everyday life decision making.

DellaVigna, Stefano. (2009). Psychology and Economics, Evidence from the Field. Journal of Economic Literature 47(2).

The research in Psychology and Economics (a.k.a. Behavioral Economics) suggests that individuals deviate from the standard model in three respects: (1) nonstandard preferences, (2) nonstandard beliefs, and (3) nonstandard decision making. In this paper, I survey the empirical evidence from the field on these three classes of deviations. The evidence covers a number of applications, from consumption to finance, from crime to voting, from charitable giving to labor supply. In the class of nonstandard preferences, I discuss time preferences (self-control problems), risk preferences (reference dependence), and social preferences. On nonstandard beliefs, I present evidence on overconfidence, on the law of small numbers, and on projection bias. Regarding nonstandard decision making, I cover framing, limited attention, menu effects, persuasion and social pressure, and emotions. I also present evidence on how rational actors? firms, employers, CEOs, investors, and politicians? respond to the nonstandard behavior described in the survey. Finally, I briefly discuss under what conditions experience and market interactions limit the impact of the nonstandard features.

Karlan, Dean S. (2005). “Using Experimental Economics to Measure Social Capital and Predict Financial Decisions”. The American Economic Review 95(5).


Measures (Peruvian) participant’s responses in the ‘Trust Game’ and correlates this to likelihood that participants will repay their loans. Raises some interesting questions about how what people do in the field changes our understanding of why they make certain decisions in the lab.

Levitt, Steven D., and List, John A. (2007). Viewpoint: On the generalizability of lab behaviour to the field. Canadian Journal of Economics/Revue Canadienne d’Économique 40(2).

We can think of no question more fundamental to experimental economics than understanding whether, and under what circumstances, laboratory results generalize to naturally occurring environments. In this paper, we extend Levitt and List (2006) to the class of games in which financial payoffs and ‘doing the right thing’ are not necessarily inc onflict. We argue that behaviour is crucially linked to not only the preferences of people, but also the properties of the situation. By doing so, we are able to provide a road map of the psychological and economic properties of people and situations that might interfere with generalizability of laboratory result from a broad class of games.

Lunn, Peter D., and Ní Choisdealbha, Áine. (2018). The case for laboratory experiments in behavioural public policy. Behavioural Public Policy 2(1).

Behavioural science is increasingly applied to policy in many countries. While the empirical approach to policy development is welcome, we argue with reference to existing literature that laboratory experiments are presently underused in this domain, relative to field studies. Assumptions that field experiments, including randomised controlled trials, produce more generalisable results than laboratory experiments are often misplaced. This is because the experimental control offered by the laboratory allows underlying psychological mechanisms to be isolated and tested. We use examples from recent research on energy efficiency and financial decision-making to argue that mechanism-focused laboratory research is often not only complementary to field research, but also necessary to interpreting field results, and that such research can have direct policy implications. The issues discussed illustrate that in some policy contexts a well-designed laboratory study can be a good – perhaps the best – way to answer the kinds of research questions that policy-makers ask.

Falk, Armin., and Heckman, James J. (2009). “Lab Experiments Are a Major Source of Knowledge in the Social Sciences”. Science 326(5952).

Laboratory experiments are a widely used methodology for advancing causal knowledge in the physical and life sciences. With the exception of psychology, the adoption of laboratory experiments has been much slower in the social sciences, although during the past two decades the use of lab experiments has accelerated. Nonetheless, there remains considerable resistance among social scientists who argue that lab experiments lack “realism” and generalizability. In this article, we discuss the advantages and limitations of laboratory social science experiments by comparing them to research based on nonexperimental data and to field experiments. We argue that many recent objections against lab experiments are misguided and that even more lab experiments should be conducted.

Galizzi, Matteo M. and Navarro-Martínez, Daniel (2018) On the external validity of social preference games: a systematic lab-field study Management Science. ISSN 0025-1909

We present a lab-field experiment designed to systematically assess the external validity of social preferences elicited in a variety of experimental games. We do this by comparing behavior in the different games with several behaviors elicited in the field and with self-reported behaviors exhibited in the past, using the same sample of participants. Our results show that the experimental social preference games do a poor job explaining both social behaviors in the field and social behaviors from the past. We also include a systematic review and meta-analysis of previous literature on the external validity of social preference games.

Laury, Susan K., and Taylor, Laura O. (2008). “Altruism spillovers: Are behaviors in context-free experiments predictive of altruism toward a naturally occurring public good?” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 65.

This paper addresses the external validity of experiments investigating the characteristics of altruism in the voluntary provision of public goods. We conduct two related experiments that allow us to examine whether individuals who act more altruistically in the context-free environment are also more likely to act altruistically toward a naturally occurring public good. We find that laboratory behavior can be predictive of contributions toward naturally occurring goods, but not in a uniform way. In fact, parametric measures of altruism do a poor job of predicting which subjects are most likely to contribute to a naturally occurring public good

Lopez, R. B., Hofmann, W., Wagner, D. D., Kelley, W. M., & Heatherton, T. F. (2014). Neural predictors of giving in to temptation in daily life. Psychological science, 25(7), 1337-1344.

The ability to control desires, whether for food, sex, or drugs, enables people to function successfully within society. Yet, in tempting situations, strong impulses often result in self-control failure. Although many triggers of self-control failure have been identified, the question remains as to why some individuals are more likely than others to give in to temptation. In this study, we combined functional neuroimaging and experience sampling to determine if there are brain markers that predict whether people act on their food desires in daily life. We examined food-cue-related activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), as well as activity associated with response inhibition in the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Greater NAcc activity was associated with greater likelihood of self-control failures, whereas IFG activity supported successful resistance to temptations. These findings demonstrate an important role for the neural mechanisms underlying desire and self-control in people’s real-world experiences of temptations

Meier, Stephan., and Sprenger, Charles. (2010). Present-Biased Preferences and Credit Card Borrowing. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2(1).

Some individuals borrow extensively on their credit cards. This paper tests whether present-biased time preferences correlate with credit card borrowing. In afield study, we elicit individual time preferences with incentivized choice experiments, and match resulting time preference measures to individual credit reports and annual tax returns. The results indicate that present-biased individuals are more likely to have credit card debt, and to have significantly higher amounts of credit card debt, controlling for disposable income, other socio-demographics, and credit constraints.

Scharff, Robert L., and Viscusi, W. Kip. (2011). Heterogenous Rates of Time Preference and the Decision to Smoke. Economic Inquiry 49(4).

Individuals with higher personal rates of time preference will be more likely to smoke. Although previous studies have found no evidence of a relationship between smoking and rates of time preference, analysis of implicit rates of time preference associated with workers’ wage fatality risk trade-offs indicates that smokers have higher rates of time preference with respect to years of life. Current smokers have an implied rate of time preference of 13.8% as compared to 8.1% for nonsmokers. Current smokers who are blue-collar workers have rates of time preference with respect to years of life of 16.3% compared to 7.8% for nonsmoking blue-collar workers.

Sutter, Matthias., Kocher, Martin G., Glätzle-Rützler, Daniela., and Trautmann, Stefan T. (2013). “Impatience and Uncertainty: Experimental Decisions Predict Adolescents’ Field Behavior”. American Economic Review 103(1).

We study risk attitudes, ambiguity attitudes, and time preferences of 661 children and adolescents, aged ten to eighteen years, in an incentivized experiment and relate experimental choices to field behavior. Experimental measures of impatience are found to be significant predictors of health-related field behavior, saving decisions, and conduct at school. In particular, more impatient children and adolescents are more likely to spend money on alcohol and cigarettes, have a higher body mass index, are less likely to save money, and show worse conduct at school. Experimental measures for risk and ambiguity attitudes are only weak predictors of field behavior.

van Kleef, Ellen., Otten, Kai., and van Trijp, Hans CM. (2012). “Healthy snacks at the checkout counter: A lab and field study on the impact of shelf arrangement and assortment structure on consumer choices”. BMC Public Health 12(1072).


Both a lab and field study applied a two-factor experimental design manipulating snack offerings both in an on-screen choice environment and a natural environment (hospital staff restaurant). Shelf arrangement (i.e. accessibility) was altered by putting healthy snacks at higher shelves versus lower shelves. Assortment structure (i.e. availability) was altered by offering an assortment that either included 25% or 75% healthy snacks. Participants in the lab study (n = 158) made a choice from a shelf display. A brief survey following snack selection asked participants to evaluate the assortment and their choice. The field experiment took place in a hospital canteen. Daily sales data were collected for a period of four weeks. On completion of the field study, employees (n = 92) filled out a questionnaire about all four displays and rated their attractiveness, healthiness and perceived freedom of choice. The lab study showed a higher probability of healthy snack choice when 75% of the assortment consisted of healthy snacks compared to conditions with 25% healthy snack assortments, even though choices were not rated less satisfying or more restrictive. Regarding shelf display location of healthy snacks, no significant differences were observed. There was also no significant shelf arrangement by assortment structure interactive effect. The field study replicated these findings, in that this assortment structure led to higher sales of healthy snacks. Sales of unhealthy and total snacks were not impacted by manipulations (no main or interaction effects). Employees preferred shelf displays including a larger healthy snack assortment located at top shelves. Employees also felt more freedom in choice when healthy snacks were displayed at top shelves compared to lower shelves.

Voors, Maarten., Turley, Ty., Kontoleon, Andreas., Bulte, Erwin., and List, John A. (2011). “Exploring whether behavior in context-free experiments is predictive of behavior in the field: Evidence from lab and field experiments in rural Sierra Leone”. Economics Letters 114.

We use a sample of subsistence farmers in Sierra Leone as respondents to compare behavior in a context-free experiment (a standard public goods game) and behavior in the field (a real development intervention). There is no meaningful correlation in behavior across contexts. This casts doubt on the prospect of using lab experiments as ‘‘predictors’’ of behavior in real life.

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