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Deception, Incentives, and Behavior Symposium 2012, UC San Diego Rady School of Management

The Ethical Quandary of Natural Field Experiments in Economics: Neither Informed Consent, Nor Deception, Nor Covert Observation!
Natural field experiments go beyond mere real-ism in that the randomized treatments are implemented with the institutions and artefacts that the Subjects engage with irrespective of the experiment. In natural field experiments Subjects voluntarily engage with the experimental task and are not aware of being participants in an experiment. Hence formal informed consent is not possible within natural field experiments. In many countries including the UK, each individual economics natural field experiment proposal faces an uphill ethics battle from the start: it is classed as 'high risk', it contains elements that 'should only be used as a last resort when no other approach is possible', and it requires highest-level REC-clearance.

Problem #1: Research Ethics Codes that assume either Absence of informed consent

The absence of explicit formal informed consent does not logically imply deception because the task(s) may be clear and transparent -- and must be, in economics natural field experiments. Covertness of observation is also not necessarily implied because a certain level of tracking/observation is understood by everyone to be taking place in the field context in which a natural field study may be implemented.


Deception or

Absence of informed consent




Covert observation

For instance: you visit a website and the landing page you see is one of two or more specially configured options that are randomly allocated to site visitors as treatment conditions. <> No explicit informed consent, no deception, and no covert observation.

Problem #2: Research Ethics Codes lacking a definition of 'minimal risk'

Illustration: US Office for Human Research Protections' Common Rule currently stipulates that Research activities that (1) present no more than minimal risk to human subjects, and (2) involve only procedures listed in one or more of the following categories, may be reviewed by the IRB through the expedited review procedure authorized by 45 CFR 46.110 and 21 CFR 56.110. ( Where minimal risk is defined in 45 CFR 46.102(i) as meaning that the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests. ( By the Common Rule standard, pure economics experiments both in the laboratory and in natural field settings qualify for 'minimum risk' status, and thus become eligible for expedited review.

In countries with Civil Code legal systems this is not an issue. In countries with adversarial, litigious, Common Law legal systems, this is an impediment to research. For instance: <> The UK has a Common Law legal system, but <> UK Research Ethics Codes (e.g. the ESRC's FRE) do not contain a definition of 'minimal risk'

Problem #3: Nationally unbalanced contribution rates to natural field experiments literature
Natural Field Experiments published 2010

A problem for science, insofar as replication studies are not being performed in a blanced fashion across countries representing the full range of socio-politico-legal systems, cultures, and genetic compositions of populations. Call this biased replication selection. A problem for individual countries' social science funding bodies, # # as Problems 1 and 2 impede the empirical research community from evaluating the capstone of research impact: external validity.


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Kim Kaivanto* Department of Economics Lancaster University Management School *Views expressed here are the author's own. Funding from the LU RSO and the RCUK 'Informing
energy choices using ubiquitous sensing' (EP/I00033X/1) project are gratefully acknowledged.