Experimental Economics

, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 372–382

Is there selection bias in laboratory experiments? The case of social and risk preferences

  • Blair L. Cleave
  • Nikos Nikiforakis
  • Robert Slonim


Laboratory experiments are frequently used to examine the nature of individuals’ social and risk preferences and inform economic theory. However, it is unknown whether the preferences of volunteer participants are representative of the population from which the participants are drawn, or whether they differ due to selection bias. To answer this question, we measured the preferences of 1,173 students in a classroom experiment using a trust game and a lottery choice task. Separately, we invited all students to participate in a laboratory experiment using common recruitment procedures. To evaluate whether there is selection bias, we compare the social and risk preferences of students who eventually participated in a laboratory experiment to those who did not, and find that they do not differ significantly. However, we also find that people who sent less in a trust game were more likely to participate in a laboratory experiment, and discuss possible explanations for this behavior.


Selection bias Laboratory experiments External validity Social preferences Risk preferences 

JEL Classification

C90 D03 

Supplementary material

10683_2012_9342_MOESM1_ESM.docx (338 kb)
(DOCX 338 kB)


  1. Bardsley, N., Cubitt, R., Loomes, G., Moffatt, P., Starmer, C., & Sugden, R. (2009). Experimental economics: rethinking the rules. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Google Scholar
  2. Berg, J., Dickhaut, J., & McCabe, K. (1995). Trust, reciprocity, and social history. Games and Economic Behavior, 10(1), 122–142. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Binswanger, H. P. (1981). Attitudes toward risk: theoretical implications of an experiment in rural India. Economic Journal, 91, 867–890. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bohnet, I., & Zeckhauser, R. (2004). Trust, risk and betrayal. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 55(5), 467–484. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cleave, B. L., Nikiforakis, N., & Slonim, R. (2010). Is there selection bias in laboratory experiments? (Research Paper No. 1106). Dept. Economics, University of Melbourne. Google Scholar
  6. Eckel, C., & Grossman, P. (2008). Forecasting risk attitudes: an experimental study using actual and forecast gamble choices. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 68(1), 1–17. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Falk, A., Meier, S., & Zehnder, C. (in press). Do lab experiments misrepresent social preferences? The case of self-selected student samples. Journal of the European Economic Association. Google Scholar
  8. Garbarino, E., & Slonim, R. (2009). The robustness of trust & reciprocity across a heterogeneous population. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 69(3), 226–240. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Harrison, G. W., Lau, M., & Rutström, E. (2009). Risk attitudes, randomization to treatment, and self-selection into experiments. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 70, 498–507. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Levitt, S. D., & List, J. A. (2007). What do laboratory experiments measuring social preferences reveal about the real world. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 21(2), 153–174. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Slonim, R., Wang, C., Garbarino, E., & Merrett, D. (2012). Opting-in: participation biases in the lab (IZA Discussion Paper No. 6865). Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Blair L. Cleave
    • 1
  • Nikos Nikiforakis
    • 1
    • 2
  • Robert Slonim
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of EconomicsThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Max-Planck Institute for Research on Collective GoodsBonnGermany
  3. 3.Department of EconomicsThe University of Sydney and IZASydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations