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Natural Experiments Are Everywhere

If you think like an experimentalist, you eventually come to see the unlimited possibilities for research going on all around you. Across the United States, school boards set rigid cutoff dates for children who are starting school. Suppose the cutoff is August 1. Children born at the end of July start kindergarten at age 5. Children born at the beginning of August start at age 6. Since children from 5 to 7 are going through an intense period of cognitive development, Morrison et al. (1996) treat this situation as a natural experiment and ask: Are there short- and long-term impacts on cognitive skills of just missing or just making the cutoff?

Ever notice how people like to tell stories about the time they found themselves sitting next to a famous person on a plane? It’s called BIRGing in social psychology—basking in reflected glory. Cialdini et al. (1976) evaluated the natural BIRGing experiment that is conducted on most big university campuses every weekend during football season. Over a period of 8 weeks, professors at Arizona State, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Southern California recorded the percentage of students in their introductory psychology classes who wore school insignias (buttons, hats, t-shirts, etc.) on the Monday after Saturday football games. For 177 students per week, on average, over 8 weeks, 63% wore some school insignia after wins in football versus 44% after losses or ties. The difference was statistically significant and the finding opened up a whole area of research that continues (Madrigal and Chen 2008).

Here’s another one. On January 1, 2002, 12 of the then-15 members of the European Union gave up their individual currencies and adopted the euro (there are now 16 countries in the eurozone out of 27 in the European Union). Greece was one of the 12, Denmark wasn’t. Some researchers noticed that many of the euro coins were smaller than the Greek drachma coins they’d replaced and thought that this might create a choking hazard for small children (Papadopoulos et al. 2004). The researchers compared the number of choking incidents reported in Danish and Greek hospitals in January through March from 1996 through 2002. Sure enough, there was no increase in the rate of those incidents in Denmark (which hadn’t converted to the euro), but the rate in Greece suddenly more than doubled in 2002 (box 4.6).

 
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