What Are We Learning from Lab-in-the-Field Experiments in Developing Countries?

June 06, 2019

Last week, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote at the Symposium on Economic Experiments in Developing Countries (SEEDEC) at the University of California at Berkeley. Since 2011, the SEEDEC conference has been bringing together researchers using laboratory-style experimental methods in developing countries—for example, to study decision-making about risk or the willingness to delay gratification. Studies of this type were quite rare until about 20 years ago. Hans Binswanger did one of the first “lab-in-the-field” experiments measuring risk preferences in rural India in the late 1970s, and Robert Boyd, Jean Ensminger, and Joe Henrich (together with many collaborators) did some of the first lab-in-the-field experiments on prosociality and cooperation two decades later.

As part of my talk, I took a look at the growth of the field over the 40 years since Binswanger did his pioneering work. By my count, social scientists have now run experiments measuring individual preferences in over 100 countries (see map below). Lab-in-the-field papers account for 2.6 percent of articles published in the Journal of Development Economics over the last five years. The takeaway from my talk is that lab-in-the-field experiments may start to play a larger role in policy discussions when researchers incorporate more cutting-edge technologies to elicit individual preferences. You can find a few examples of recent work that embeds preference elicitation in the design of a randomized evaluation here, here, and here.


A table depicting the author's research

Source: Author’s calculations based on data from Google Scholar.

I’ve attended this conference quite a bit over the last decade, and every year the papers get better. I couldn’t attend all the talks (unlike Dave Evans, I don’t have the ability to be in two places at the same time). Below, I summarize the talks I was able to attend and highlight a few of the major themes.

An increasing number of papers bridge the gap between laboratory-style preference elicitation experiments (which some would call “field experiments”) and randomized trials (which, confusingly, a non-overlapping set of economists refer to as “field experiments”).

Quite a few researchers discussed studies that they had run at the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi—whose expanding presence in Kenya and beyond is making it easier and easier to run lab experiments that do not rely on rich-country university student subjects.

Finally, several of the most exciting papers highlighted what lab-in-the-field experiments do best: providing simple, controlled contexts to explore new policy mechanisms and test economic theory.

More information on these papers and the rest of the work presented at the conference is available here.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.