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The Promise and Success of Lab-Field Generalizability in Experimental Economics

Economics, evidence, methods, RCT

Abstract

This paper addresses a recent criticism of experimental economics, by Levitt and List [2007ab, 2008], that lab experimental findings may not generalize to field settings. We argue against the criticism in three ways. First, experimental economics seeks to establish a general theory linking economic factors, such as incentives, rules, and norms, to behavior. Hence, generalizability from the lab to the field is not a primary concern in a typical experiment. Second, the experimental features that could threaten lab-field generalizability are not essential for all lab experiments (except for obtrusiveness, because of human subjects protection). And even so, there is little evidence that typical lab features not necessarily undermine generalizability. Third, we review economics experiments that are specifically designed to test lab-field generalizability; most experiments demonstrated that laboratory findings could indeed be generalized to comparable field settings.

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