What’s the Most Important Psychological Experiment That’s Never Been Done?

That is the very good question posed on the British Psychological Society’s research blog. The answers, provided by leading psychologists, are even better. In many cases, it’s not that the experiments haven’t been done, but that they can’t be, often for ethical or practical reasons. But even if the proposed experiments are only thought experiments, they are well worth reading. Some of my favorites:

Switching the parents around,” by Judith Rich Harris (about whom we wrote a bit in Freakonomics, and whom Malcolm Gladwell wrote about at length here).

The ‘Truman Show’ experiment,” by Jeremy Dean.

Challenging the conclusions drawn from Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment,” by Alex Haslam.

Is it worth asking: what’s the most important economics experiment that’s never been done?

Raj Pandravada

Pavlov's salivating dog experiment, I guess.


Could apply to economics, could apply to psychology; clearly it's flavor-calorie association and its effect on appetite, as demonstrated in the Shangri-La Diet.


They've all been done if you read the right literature. Have you seen my tinfoil hat?

jack sparrow

Until recently, economics was not in the business of experiments. However, it is changing now.


Measuring people's price elasticity of demand for lots of things without a proxy, like children, or human life in general.


Sadly, all too many of the most impractical and unethical economics experiments I can imagine have been practiced in the open laboratory of a real economy.


Have two groups, one which practices unchecked capitalism, the other which practices unchecked communism (NOT Stalinism.) I suspect each group would have to comprise people dedicated to making the relevant system work. The current world is the control.

Is one better than the other? Does either lead to success? Do both degenerate? What?

I leave the structure of the experiment to you social scientists. (I'm an English major!)

Follow on: slowly move from one extreme to the other, see where the "perfect" balance exists, if at all.


1) Actually implementing the conjecture that if you redistributed all the wealth evenly, then in n amount of time, the previously rich would be rich again and the previously poor would be poor again. How close to "exactly the same" would the results be?

2) Seeing if the reasoning of historian Carroll Quigley (History of Civilizations, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carroll_Quigley) that it is the imbalances between people's wealth which causes progress.


How can one have "unchecked communism" in the first place? Communism is, by definition, the abolition of individual property rights. How can you do that without checking on people to make sure they aren't harboring any property that the state, by definition, does not allow them to have?


Regarding the Psychological What If experiments- I like their current #1 entry- measuring death.

@Carol: Here's the thing- unrestrained free markets and communism are not polar opposites. On the contrary, they are very similar in terms of central planning. Unrestrained free market (corporatism) aggregates wealth in the hands of the few- the only difference is whose central authority is calling the (inefficient) shots. All you have to do is follow Marx's thought experiment to the logical conclusion- it is government intervention (trust busting) that keeps economic sectors viscous and capital free flowing between the economic sectors, slowing the calcification of the market and limiting individual choice.

A few suggestions from a social scientist- "success" must be a multivariable determination- which probably requires standard of living, personal happiness, suicide rate, etc., to determine the effectiveness of any proposed economic system as a "success" or "failure" to the populations it is supposed to serve.

Here's an economics experiment that would be difficult but worthwhile- one of the ideological principals of free market liberalism is the privatization of every service or good. I'd like to see a cross comparison of resource management with government run services and private for profit organizations with every service and good produced on the planet. My humble hypothesis? Some goods and services will be more a more efficient use of resources with private for profit groups and some will not. I suggest that some services are not cost effective or a satisfactory product/service with the private sector (education, energy, currency, security, research, healthcare, fire protection, etc. should favor government programs) at the helm. Likewise, government is probably ineffective at producing shoes, automobiles, luxury items, etc.

However, there is a wide spectrum in terms of private ownership- from the centrally planned economy of corporatism and the widely disbursed capital/means of production scene of early capitalism.



Can money actually buy happiness, and if so, how much?

I bet at the end of the day you'd have some kind of normal distribution for happiness on the y and money on the x. Getting given $5 probably won't make you terribly happy, but getting given $500 billion might well make you miserable too due to all the attention and fame you'd attract.


Here's an econ experiment that's never been tried: a truly free-market economy.

Travers Naran

Truly free-market economies do exist, but usually outside the law (e.g., black markets, organized crime). And the results from that show humans don't behave nice and resort to violence, aggression and power plays to achieve market control. If there's a power vacuum, someone wants to fill it.

But on the other hand, there are some smaller experiments with free-markets on the legal side of the street that would be interesting:

* Eliminate minimum wage. I'd really like to know what would happen to productivity and how would wages change.

* Winning the Life lottery. In the Undercover Economist, there was a mention of Kenneth Arrow and simply giving the poorest members of society a lump sum and no interference. No further hand outs, assistance or interference. Could that correct the unequal access to opportunity problem that plagues our society?

* Completely private highway/transit systems. We've seen small examples of it here and there (orange country), but what if we allowed the private sector to build and maintain highways and bridges and collect income from it anyway they want from the user? No interference or restrictions other than the usual zoning issues. I don't know if something good would happen, but I'd like to find out.

* Legalize the selling and trading of virtual gold. Or more accurately, allowing it to happen with no further interference. For games like Everquest, there was a floating exchange rate between in-game gold and US dollars that has essentially been shut down by Sony. This could be a fascinating laboratory to test theories about currencies and trade. Second Life simply doesn't have the same dynamics to make this as valid an experiment.



Since 1929 there have been lots of theories and ideas about what to do after a stock market crash of equal proportion. We probably won't know whether or not those theories will truly work until another colossal crash (unless you're asking the authors of the theories).


what about miligram experiment? thats a cool one


1) What factors really did cause the Great Depression? (i.e. try them each to see which one causes GD 2)

2) Test the best method to recover from a Great Depression. Did the actions of the federal government really stall the recovery? (Cause Great Depressions and try different recovery methods.)

3) What would really happen if Social Security was 100% private? What would happen if people had the choice to opt-out?

4) What would the economy be like without (or a much less powerful) Federal Reserve?

5) How would the U.S. Airline & Passenger Rail industries look & act without government bailouts & subsidies? (# flights, ticket prices, customer satisfaction)

6) Ditto for the FAA. Make each airport a privatly run entity.


What would happen if you took away the incentives for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals? I'd rather do this with Dubner's proposed experiment rather than find out the hard way. There's one fact that I never hear from the politicians and voters who want socialized medicine: What do the doctors (and nurses, etc) think of it? The proposals all seem to be concerned with the recipients of the healthcare (demand) and never address the providers (supply).


No one has ever done a study of the effects of a belief in hell on a person. (Emotions, efficacy, self-worth, confidence, ability to function, feelings, thoughts, actions, other beliefs, any parameters.) Apparently, no one will ever do it.

The people who don't believe in hell are usually so busy being uber-reactive they can't think straight. The ones who do believe in it think, well, their beliefs are fact, they know it all, and everybody should believe the way they do.

We need somebody concerned enough with it to think clearly without infantile reactionism (that's me!), and someone with the necessary training and experience to do a study (that's not me!).


@17: Michael Moore's "Sicko" does briefly address that issue. He interviews a French doctor who earns less than his American counterpart, but still makes a comfortable living, lives in a nice house, and drives a fancy car.

Indeed, that "experiment" has already been performed in countries around the world -- to the extent that it lines up with actual national health care proposals -- and the results can be observed by anyone who cares to look.


I would be intrigued to know how much people value their life. I would want to see how much people would take to see their vital organs today. Will someone do this rather altruistic act (since only their family would get the money)? Will they take more or less than the present value of their future life-long earnings (logic would tell us more, adjusted by non-incurred living expenses)? This would provide fascinating insight into what life is really worth, which could give perspective on what it would be worth spending to save a life (rationing health care) along with giving great insight to what organs are worth. I know its morbid, but could actually be done if the Fed lifted it organ selling ban.