A Very Long-Term Experiment in Educational Incentives

Photo: wired_gr

A worthwhile Bloomberg profile of John List, the University of Chicago economist, frequent Levitt collaborator, and SuperFreakonomics hero who has championed the use of field experiments. List recently received $10 million from hedge funder Kenneth Griffin to track the performance of 600 students, including 150 at the Griffin Early Childhood Center. Along with Levitt and Roland Fryer, List will “monitor the students through annual tests, attendance records and graduation rates. As the students move into adulthood, their employment, pay and criminal records, if any, will also be tracked. While early results from the experiment may be published as soon as this year, the project has money to follow the students ‘until they die,’ List says.” List plans to experiment with using incentives to motivate both students and parents; he successfully used incentives (a trip to Disney World) to potty-train his daughter. “Incentives are the pillar of economics and represent everything I’m about,” says List. “If you understand the incentives people are operating under, you have a good first guess about what they’re going to be doing in certain circumstances and how changes in the environment and/or in their institutions will influence their behavior.”


Experimental vs. Empirical... ...


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Jon VP

Unfortunately, there is little incentive to study the impact of incentives in the "very long term," because, well, as Keynes famously put it: "In the long run we're all dead."

Bill McGonigle

I understand the academic value, but it's a bit creepy that there are young children who are now marked for being studied through their whole lives. I hope they are allowed to opt-out when they turn 18. Of course, if they know they are being tracked that could skew the experiment...

I suspect that the financial management of the endowment at some point over the next century may make the point moot, though.


I have been involved in a blood pressure study with the University of MN since I was around 7 years old. It is voluntary and I actually get a kick out of it.


I wonder if knowing that they are being studied and followed has any effect on the students over time. Interesting though.


This isn't related to the blog but to the upgrade of the site. Very nice :) However, I'm sure you've noticed, but during the upgrade, all comment posts from previous years and days before the upgrade contain duplicate comments from each user. Very quick fix in the query calling the information or a change in the code (depending on how the comments loop works).

Sian Robertson

Reminds me of 7up, the documentary series following people every 7 years starting when they were 7 yrs old. I think they are in their early 50s now.

ve student

It is obvious that incentives have been used to drive people in all fields of life from all period of time. However, tracking the incentives of a student from birth to death will not result in much data. I believe that as time passes so does a person's incentives. As eras come and go so do the trends that change. The incentive for one person may differ from another. The key to incentives are effectively using them in the variety of different circumstances present in life. I also believe that tracking a person's entire life is kind of creepy and some what an invasion of privacy, but whatever means to get your data I guess.

Annes Kim

This concept and behavior is directly connected to psychology. The reward and punishment system is very effective if people want to train children at a young age. However, the incentive motivation only includes the rewards, which gives a very positive vibe, as only rewards come with good deeds, but punishments are not even in the picture, taking misbehavior out of the question as well. Different people are raised differently, and this is one way that children can be trained; this will help them mature faster and learn more adult related ideals. I can't wait to find out what happened to the children who were put under this study.

Caleb Park

If you are measuring the incentives of students, why does it matter that you have to follow through with them their whole life. By the way, do the 600 students agree to this? Is this even legal?


Well if a student knows that every move will be evaluated/tracked/ recorded by a person wouldn't their obligation to do better in school be different than just solely having a monetary incentive? If every student had their own personal life evaluator hovering over every step they take, of course the results would be different. The money would not be the factor that pushes students to work harder, it'd be that creepy person.

Kevin Park

Economics has always been based of assumptions. It's good to see someone actually testing these theories with real people and observing the outcome.


Yeah, so much for education getting kids somewhere. Not all people are motivated by any type of incentive to do better or succeed. People such as myself would like incentives, but my own brother finds no point in improving himself for even the greatest of rewards. I feel so bad for any student under these circumstances.