Archives for Experiments



Would You Let a Coin Toss Decide Your Future? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Would You Let a Coin Toss Decide Your Future?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

In it, Stephen Dubner grills Steve Levitt about a new project called Freakonomics Experiments. (Levitt blogged about it here and stopped by Marketplace last week.) The basic idea is to learn more about how people make decisions, especially when they’re on the margin. So: if you’re struggling with a decision, large or small, you can bring your question to FreakonomicsExperiments.com, where a random coin flip will help solve your dilemma. You also become part of the scientific experiment by taking follow-up surveys and letting the research team know how the decision turned out.

The idea originated from the flood of emails Dubner and Levitt received in response to our “Upside of Quitting” podcast. Many listeners said the show had emboldened them to quit something they no longer wanted to do. In this podcast, you’ll hear from two of those quitters: former racecar driver Daniel Herrington and ex-runner Serra Mentessi. Read More »



The Busara Center

Behavioral economics has a new testing ground: the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Nairobi, Kenya. The lab, which will be open to researchers and students from around the world, is hosted by Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA).  Here’s its website blurb:

Busara is a state-of-the-art facility for experimental studies in behavioral economics and other social sciences, located in Nairobi, Kenya. The core of Busara is a pool of participants from the Nairobi slums, combined with a cluster of 20 networked computers with which researchers can investigate economic behavior and preferences. A central feature of the computer setup is that all computers have touchscreen monitors; together with specially developed paradigms, this allows for the participation of not only computer-illiterate, but entirely illiterate populations.

Johannes Haushofer, the Scientific Director of the Center, gave us a little more information: Read More »



Does Studying Economics Teach You to Lie?

new paper by Raúl López-Pérez and Eli Spiegelman investigates “truth preferences” — i.e., preferences for being honest versus lying. Their goal was to study whether economics students lie more as a result of their education. Or do liars self-select? From the paper:

Does studying economics give people “maximizing” habits of thought, and thus cause them to  behave more in line with its own predictions, or do people already inclined towards such behavior tend to self-select into economics?

A computer test structured with a slight incentive to lie was administered to 258 students at The Autonomous University of Madrid. The screen showed two colors, and participants were paid 14 euros for declaring blue and 15 euros for declaring green to another person, regardless of the actual color shown on screen. So what happened? According to the authors, the business and economics (“B&E”) majors gamed the system. Read More »



Too Much Trash? Get Rid of the Trashcans

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is trying a counterintuitive approach to cleaning up the subway by removing trash cans from some of its dirtiest stations. According to the New York Times, a subway stop in Queens and another in Greenwich Village have been entirely without trashcans for the last two weeks:

The idea is to reduce the load on the authority’s overtaxed garbage crew, which is struggling to complete its daily rounds of clearing out 40 tons of trash from the system.

But it also offers a novel experiment: will New Yorkers stop throwing things away in the subway if there is no place to put them?

Results have so far been mixed. While one bin-less station appeared relatively clean to a Times reporter, the experiment is obviously having some knock-on effects. Read More »



The Myth of Common Sense: Why The Social World Is Less Obvious Than It Seems

This is a guest post by Duncan Watts, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Labs, and the author of Everything is Obvious: Once You Know The Answer.

The Myth of Common Sense: Why The Social World Is Less Obvious Than It Seems
By Duncan Watts

“Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.”
-Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly

“This is not rocket science”
-Bill Frist on fixing health care, The New York Times

As these two quotes illustrate, there is something strangely conflicted about contemporary views on government and policy. On one hand, many people are in apparent agreement that government frequently accomplishes less than it ought to, sometimes embarrassingly so. Yet on the other hand, many of these same people are also of the opinion that the failings of government do not imply any great difficulty of the problems themselves—that they are not rocket science, as it were. Read More »



The Boss Effect: Study Shows Chinese Recognize Their Boss’s Face Before Their Own

A small study published in the journal PLoS One, titled “Who’s Afraid of the Boss,” reveals key cultural differences in the way people react to their superiors. The study notes a particularly stark difference between Chinese and Americans. Researchers in both countries showed subjects a rapid series of photographs, asking them to press a button either when they recognized themselves or their boss. The abstract states:

Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their own.

Americans, on the other hand, are predictably different in light of a cultural emphasis on independence rather than collectivism. Read More »



An Economist’s Twitter Experiment Begins

I promised to give Twitter a real randomized trial. And so today, it begins. I woke up, flipped a coin, and it came up heads. Which means that today I’ll be tweeting. You can follow me @justinwolfers. What I do tomorrow is up to the coin.

I announced this experiment here three weeks ago, but wanted to spend some time getting used to this new medium. Here are eleven things I learned during my pre-experiment trial:

1. Twitter is fun. And addictive.

2. Information really does move at light speed. I find myself reading tomorrow’s newspaper, today. (But remember: tomorrow’s newspaper will be here in the morning.)

3. As a Twitter-virgin, I hadn’t previously realized how much more it is about sharing links than making glib statements. Hive-mind curation can be extraordinary. Read More »



Which City has the Most Dis-Honest Tea Drinkers?

According to an experiment by Honest Tea, it’s L.A.

The company has placed unattended racks of its cold bottled tea on street corners in a handful of cities. A sign asks people to pay $1 per bottle, a heavy discount already. Viewers then “watched people wrestle with their conscience.” Hidden cameras live-stream the action here.

So far, the citizens of Seattle are coming out as the most honest, with 97% of people paying. Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and Cincinnati are in second with 96%. L.A. is last with 87% — they were actually at 90% earlier today, but that fell as the day went on, and the temperature went up. Here are yesterday’s high temperatures for the handful of cities, in order of payment rates: Read More »