Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 9 No. 2 (Spring 1995)


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Assessing the Case for Social Experiments

Article Citation

Heckman, James J., and Jeffrey A. Smith. 1995. "Assessing the Case for Social Experiments." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 9(2): 85-110.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.9.2.85


This paper analyzes the method of social experiments. The assumptions that justify the experimental method are exposited. Parameters of interest in evaluating social programs are discussed. The authors show how experiments sometimes serve as instrumental variables to identify program impacts. The most favorable case for experiments ignores variability across persons in response to treatments received and assumes that mean impacts of a program are the main object of interest in conducting an evaluation. Experiments do not identify the distribution of program gains unless additional assumptions are maintained. Evidence on the validity of the assumptions used to justify social experiments is presented.

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Heckman, James J. (Harris School of Public Policy Studies, U Chicago)
Smith, Jeffrey A. (U Western Ontario and Center for Social Program Eval, Chicago)

JEL Classifications

C93: Field Experiments


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