FIELD EXPERIMENTS? AN ADVENTURE THAT SOMETIMES LEADS TO USEFUL OUTCOMES: AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIE CHYTILOVÁ

Julie Chytilová, CERGE-EI Researcher and Institute of Economic Studies FSV UK faculty member, has won the 2016 Czech Minister of Education’s Award for Excellence in Research, Experimental Development, and Innovation. In addition, she is last year’s laureate of the Kateřina Šmídková Award, which recognizes Czech female economists for their outstanding research achievements.

Julie, when asked about the key topics of your research, you gave the following three:  the spread of hostile behavior, the impact of war on the willingness to cooperate, and the discrimination of minorities. How did you come to these topics?

I’ve been interested in the questions of development, poverty, and inequality for quite some time. In fact, they played a major role in my decision to pursue an academic career. My research work started ten years ago when Michal Bauer – my companion in most of what I do – and myself spent half a year as volunteers in rural Uganda.

This experience naturally motivated us to think about the decision-making of the poor and sources of poverty more broadly. We organized our first research project in which we studied the impacts of education on patience – an important element when people make choices about saving, investing, or sending kids to schools. Later, we continued to study the formation of preferences and how they are affected by other aspects of the economic and social environment, for example by parental background and major shocks such as violent conflict.

One of our continued interests has been investigating how experiencing war-related violence impacts prosocial behavior and group identity. We collected field data on this topic in two locations: the Republic of Georgia a few months after the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, and in Sierra Leone ten years after its long and brutal civil war. Although these two settings and the nature of both conflicts are very different, the results are strikingly similar in both countries: people who were more exposed to war were less selfish towards members of their own group and more selfish towards other groups. These results may help to understand two important phenomena observed in post-conflict societies: rapid recoveries and repeated conflict.

So, you typically don’t rely on data collected by others, but rather on your own field data, right?

Yes, most of my work is based on original field data. Typically, we employ methods of economic experiments tailored to answer specific research questions. We also try to collect data in the specific settings and among populations that are relevant for the questions of interest. To study the impacts of war, we worked in Sierra Leone and the Republic of Georgia. To study ethnic discrimination, we work in Eastern Slovakia, a region with a large proportion of minority Roma. In our earlier projects, Michal and I also collected our own data in Uganda and India. In recent years, we have been lucky enough to work with a group of great colleagues with whom we jointly organize data collections.

Typically, I’m in the field at the beginning of a project to finalize and pilot the experimental protocols and survey instruments, and to get a better sense of the environment. Frankly, I wish I could spend more time in the field. Getting a sense of the issue based on personal interviews with people on the ground is often very helpful when interpreting the data. Experiments in the field are always an adventure, a lot of fun, and hopefully, sometimes they are useful.

Given the current global situation, according to many, the topics you and Michal are involved in rank among the world’s most pressing. Do you perceive them the same way?

Well, it is certainly our ambition to work on issues that matter. There are many pressing questions and we try to pick some for which we feel the tools of experimental economics could allow us to say something meaningful.

Thanks to their interdisciplinary focus, your articles not only appear in the top economics journals, but also in psychology journals. Do you have to modify the same article for each discipline?

Yes, you probably mean our paper (with Michal Bauer, Alessandra Cassar and Joe Henrich) in which we study the effects of war on prosocial behavior and which was published in Psychological Science…

Yes, among others…

In fact, economists are often interested in similar questions as other scientists – psychologists, anthropologists, and political scientists – and sometimes use quite similar, and sometimes very different, methods. For example, economists are proud that they use more rigorous methods and incentivize people to reveal their true motivations for a certain type of behavior, while anthropologists prefer to stay in the field for long periods to gain the trust of local people and thus understand their behavior better. Different fields also speak a somewhat different academic language.

It was fantastic to work with Joe Henrich (Harvard University) on this project, a truly multi-disciplinary scholar. He’s a human evolutionary biologist who integrates ethnographic tools from anthropology with experimental techniques from psychology and economics in his work. When entering college, he initially studied aerospace engineering… It’s a pity that social science research sometimes looks so “tribal.” I think it’s more fruitful when people try to reach out across fields.

Which of your published studies do you value the most?

Hard question J. I guess I’m biased towards the most recent ones, since they’re still on my mind. I like the overview paper on the impacts of war on cooperative behavior – a joint work with Michal Bauer, Chris Blattman, Joe Henrich, Ted Miguel and Tamar Mitts. I think it makes a surprising and important point.

In that paper, we synthesize recent evidence from surveys and experiments from over forty countries and find a systematic pattern: exposure to war violence tends to increase social cooperation at the local level. This finding resonates with the experience of rapid post-war political, social and, economic recovery in many war-torn societies, as well as their tendency to implement egalitarian social policies. Yet some of the evidence suggests that people become more parochial and less cooperative with out-group members, which can contribute to conflict cycles, and help explain the well-known pattern that many post-conflict countries soon return to violence. This paper relates to our previous work in Sierra Leone and Georgia, and the fact that similar findings have been found over and over in different countries suggests these effects are quite general.

Another paper worth reading is Attention Discrimination (a joint work with Vojtěch Bartoš, Michal Bauer and Filip Matějka). It builds on the idea that people are rationally inattentive and tests its predictions in three field experiments on discrimination. Specifically, we study whether the knowledge of a group attribute affects the level of attention and effort in reading an application. Due to limited attention, human resource managers might be less likely to open the resumes of applicants from a minority group or might read them very superficially. The experiments were conducted in the Czech Republic and Germany. We sent emails responding to apartment rental advertisements and job openings and randomly varied the names of applicants who signaled their ethnicity. Tools to monitor the decision-making process are a new feature of the experiments.

The results show that systematic discrimination arises very early, during the process of acquiring information about applicants, and can help to explain lower returns to employment qualifications for groups that are negatively stereotyped.

What research are you currently conducting?

Currently, my colleagues and I are interested in questions related to the sources of conflict, in particular how hostile attitudes towards other ethnic groups spread among peers (a joint project with Michal Bauer, Jana Cahlíková and Tomáš Želinský). This project is motivated by the observation that often people live peacefully with others from different ethnic groups, but then something happens and suddenly aggressive behavior quickly spreads. This is relevant both for historical events like the Holocaust or the war in Rwanda, and also for the current situation and changes in attitudes of people in Europe towards people from different ethnic or religious groups.

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