Noted Economist Tests Theories in the Real World

John List is not content to sit at a computer and tinker with models. The noted economist, who recently spoke at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, prefers conducting experiments in the field, which is to say the world.

Described by Bloomberg News as "a pioneer in designing experiments that test how well economic theories explain the real world," List discussed his work during a talk at the Atlanta Fed's October 23 Public Affairs Forum and in a subsequent interview.

"Instead of waiting to have the world give me interesting data sets...I actually go out to the real world and generate my own data," said List, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and coauthor with Uri Gneezy of a new book, The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life.

Examining if women are really less competitive than men
List discussed several of his experiments during his Atlanta visit. He has worked with charities to explore why people give to them, for example. List also examined the long-standing pay gap between men and women, as research has shown that women generally earn about 20 percent less than men for similar work.

Part of List's research on pay disparity involved visiting a tribe in India in which women are traditionally assertive and men more passive. The experiment revealed that women and men are not much different genetically, in terms of competitiveness in areas like asking for a pay raise, List told Atlanta Fed research economist Paula Tkac.

Instead, the bigger gender differences result from societal forces. For instance, in the United States, competitive girls traditionally have been considered "tomboys." On the other hand, boys who do not try hard in gym class might be asked why they are "playing like a girl," List noted.

"What we find is that those social influences are extremely important in determining who we are and how we behave," he said.