"Because the problems related to social experimentation may differ substantially from those of biomedical and behavioral research, the Commission specifically declines to make any policy determination regarding such research at this time. Rather, the Commission believes that the problem ought to be addressed by one of its successor bodies. " The Belmont Report

Economics Experiments

The methodology of economics experimentation has been developed by economists over the last 40 years and is now used in political science, anthropology, sociology, management science, and other social sciences. Economics experiments typically have no risk in the sense that the experiences are similar to day to day decisions. In a typical economics experiment, participants are brought together in a laboratory, classroom or through the internet. They make a series of decisions and are rewarded based on their decisions and the decisions of other participants. They are instructed on how they will interact, and how the pattern of decisions will affect their own rewards and in some cases the rewards of others. Instruction is designed to assure that understanding is successful - participants are usually given opportunity to ask questions and may be required to pass a test of understanding. Participants understand that they can leave at any time. After they make their decisions, their decisions are recorded, and they are rewarded depending on the decisions they made and that others made. Different participants may earn different rewards, usually money, paid anonymously and in private after the experiment. Monetary rewards based on outcomes are used to ensure that participants are well motivated. They are considered important to maintaining experimental control over subjects' motivations, which exert a strong influence on the predictions of the theories being tested. Subjects are sometimes paid a small additional fee for showing up on time and listening to instructions.

When interactions take place using a computer network, the environment is typically no different from sitting in front of a computer screen, making decisions in response to the information that is displayed there. Face to face interactions are typically in the form of negotiations over a price or are similar to discussing a proposal in a committee setting. Participants are not exposed to any sort of harm nor can the decisions they make lead to harm to others. Subjects are volunteers and may leave at any time. Data that might identify particular individuals are not made public. Social science experiment that follow the methodology of experimental economics have been conducted with thousands of students over several decades and there are no instances of harm nor has any form of risk been discovered or reported. These methods are often used as part of classroom exercises to make clear how theories apply to daily experiences in economics and in social environments.

IRB Considerations

Experimentation fitting this general description is minimal risk and exempt under categories (1) and (2) of the CFR because it involves research conducted in esablished or commonly accepted educational setting involving normal educational practices and constitutes observation of public behavior. Subjects are protected by alerting them in advance that they are volunteers and may withdraw their participation at any time, and by clear explanations of the tasks and rewards prior to performance of the tasks.

Informed Consent

Because it is exempt informed consent is not required for this research. Consent is ongoing through continued participation. The relevant informational aspects of informed consent are satisfied by a properly implemented experimental protocol. Here is an analysis of the elements of medical informed consent as applied to economics experiments:

(a) Basic elements of informed consent. Except as provided in paragraph (c) or (d) of this section, in seeking informed consent the following information shall be provided to each subject:

(1) a statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject's participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental;

  • Participants are ordinarily made aware that the study involves research.
  • Disclosure of the purposes of the research is problematic.
    • A detailed explanation of the purpose involves technical details typically of little interest to participants, and not relevant to their decision to participate. It can also be misleading since the results may be used by other researchers for other purposes.
    • The science requires that subjects' choices be their own. Knowledge of the specific aims of the experiment is known to influence behavior. Consequently the features of theory and models and the specific hypotheses under consideration are not ordinarily disclosed to participants beforehand. Where there is a common subject pool, disclosure of specific hypotheses after the experiment poses the same problem for subsequent experiments as prior disclosure and there is ordinarily no disclosure after the experiment.
    • It is not practicable to carry out this type of research and disclose the purposes of the research, so this requirement should be waived.
  • It is advantageous to both the experimenter and subject that the time and expected duration of the session be made known in advance.
  • The procedures are ordinarily disclosed in some detail so that participants clearly understand the tasks and rewards prior to performance of the tasks.
    • It is important for scientific reasons that as little discussion as possible about the rules takes place among the participants. If some participants have had an opportunity to review the rules outside of the laboratory the goal of participants being equally informed is defeated. By acquiring information (or misinformation) outside of the laboratory setting an uncontrolled element is introduced. A particularly serious danger is that participants may systematically and intentionally alter their decisions. An example would be an attempt of several students to collude with one another by agreeing beforehand to behave in a certain way.
    • Ordinarily description of the tasks is done through an oral script. This minimizes the possibility of discussion outside the laboratory.
    • In the case of web-based experiments it is impossible to control discussion outside the laboratory, and a public written description of the rules is often used in place of an oral script.
  • This is not medical research: There are no procedures that are experimental.

(2) a description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject;

  • Not applicable: there are no risks or discomforts.

(3) a description of any benefits to the subject or to others which may reasonably be expected from the research;

  • Not applicable: there are no benefits to the subject, and the benefits of the research are not relevant to the decision to participate.

(4) a disclosure of appropriate alternative procedures or courses of treatment, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject;

  • Not applicable: this is not medical research and there is no treatment.

(5) a statement describing the extent, if any, to which confidentiality of records identifying the subject will be maintained;

  • Because economics experiments involve mundane decisions, lack of confidentiality does not pose any risk to participants. However, participants are not ordinarily identified in published research, and it is usually advantageous to both the experimenters and participants that this be known to the participants.

(6) for research involving more than minimal risk, an explanation as to whether any compensation and an explanation as to whether any medical treatments are available if injury occurs and, if so, what they consist of, or where further information may be obtained;

  • Not applicable: this research is minimal risk.

(7) an explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects' rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject; and

  • It is generally a good idea to provide contact information for the laboratory and the IRB.

(8) a statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled.

  • It is important that participants be aware of this.

(b) additional elements of informed consent. When appropriate, one or more of the following elements of information shall also be provided to each subject:

  • These are not applicable to economics experiments.
Documenting Informed Consent and Preservation of Data

Because this type of research is exempt, no written signed consent is required. Written signed consent is also undesirable because it is not ordinarily used outside the research setting, and may raise unfounded fears on the part of partipants that the research is not minimal risk, or that they are being deceived. With the exception of the description of the procedures, the information above can be effectively provided through a web-based signup system, or if such a system is not available, by blackboard, or by providing participants with an information sheet giving the relevant information. It is not a good idea to inform participants of non-existent risks: for example, statements of the sort "There are no known risks" or "There are no alternative treatments" will at best be confusing to participants, and at worst will raise unfounded suspicions.

Except in web-based experiments, the detailed procedures are generally given orally.

Publication generally requires both that the data in anonymous form and written versions of the oral scripts be available to other researchers in perpetuity.

Information Provided to the IRB

Because this type of research is exempt, it is usually subject only to administrative review. However, few institutions allow researchers to self exempt, so it may be necessary to provide information that enables the reviewers to determine that the proposed research is of the type described above. This would not ordinarily include a discussion of the purpose of the research unless it is relevant to subject recruitment: because the research is minimal risk, the benefits and purpose are not relevant to the protection of subjects. In cases where the purpose of the research is discussed, it should be adequate to provide a paragraph indicating the general types of issues that will be studied. Detailed discussions of theories, technical hypotheses and literature review are not relevant nor does the human subjects protection community generally have the expertise needed to understand them.

To determine that the research is exempt, some description of the procedures are generally needed. A sample script, together with the general range of cases that will implemented can usually accomplish this purpose. Detailed information about the amount of money paid to participants and particular sessions are not ordinarily needed to determine whether the research is exempt.

One issue of concern to IRBs is the nature of the subject pool. Exempt research cannot involve vulnerable subject populations. Recruiting subjects based on past participation or non-participation in particular sessions or classes ought not be problematic, and the particular way in which this is done is not generally relevant. Recruiting subjects based on ethnicity or gender ought not be problematic as long as it is related to the purpose of the study; however, in this case it may be necessary to make an explicit statement of the criteria for inclusion/exclusion and how it is related to the purpose of the study.

Multiple Project Assurances and Federal Wide Assurances

In addition to the CFR title 45 part 46 most human subject research is also bound by Multiple Project Assurances negotiated between institutions and the Department of Health and Human Services. Frequently these agreements include an assurance that all human subject research, exempt or not, and regardless of funding source, will adhere to the Belmont Report. This need not be of concern for economics experiments: The Belmont Report explicitly recognizes that rules for medical research are not likely to be appropriate for the social sciences. The relevant portion of the Belmont report reads:

"Because the problems related to social experimentation may differ substantially from those of biomedical and behavioral research, the Commission specifically declines to make any policy determination regarding such research at this time. Rather, the Commission believes that the problem ought to be addressed by one of its successor bodies."

In addition the Belmont Report assigns no special status to written and signed consent.

MPAs are being phased out and replaced by Federal Wide Assurances. This involves further restrictions on exempt research: under FWAs exempt research is explicitly subject to the requirements of written informed consent. It does not, however, require signed informed consent, so no waiver is needed in this respect. The two elements of informed consent that do require explicit waiver are the purposes of the research, and a written description of the procedures to be followed. The impractibility of conducting this type of research with those elements of informed consent is explained above.