Field Experiments





Since 2005 we have performed a series of experiments in Colombia, Thailand, Nepal, China and India. We provide the protocols and data of those experiments in English and local languages once the basic results are published.
We also list a series of studies that build on our designed but applied by others.

Our studies

  • Field experiments on fisheries, forestry and irrigation (Colombia and Thailand)
  • Groundwater experiments (India) (to be published soon)
  • Experiments in 118 small scale rice producing irrigation communities (Colombia, Thailand, Nepal and China)(analysis ongoing).



Dynamics of Rules and Resources: Three New Field Experiments on Water, Forests and Fisheries (pdf)

Cardenas, J.C, M.A. Janssen, and F. Bousquet
Handbook on Experimental Economics and the Environment 2013, edited by John List and Michael Price, Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, 319-345.

Most common-pool resource experiments, inspired by the ground-breaking work of Ostrom, Gardner and Walker (1994), involve a typical structure of a static non-linear social dilemma with a rival but non- excludable good that is extracted by a number of players. However there are specific ecological features of relevant common-pool resources that can be incorporated into an experimental design and tested in the field or the lab. Stock effects, spatial effects or vertical downstream externalities are issues that natural scientists and economists have studied in forests, fisheries or watershed management although experimental works on these ecological aspects are rather scarce.
We designed three resource specific games to capture particular characteristics of common-pool resources and apply them in six villages in Thailand and Colombia. In each village we recruited 60 people and conducted three games. A water irrigation game capturing the downstream externalities and collective action problem of provision and appropriation stages where all players need to contribute to a public project that produces water which is then extracted sequentially by each of the players starting with the one located upstream, leaving the remaining water to the next player downstream, and so on. In our forestry game players start with a number of standing trees that can be cut by any of the players; in any round each player can extract between zero and a fixed number of trees. The remaining trees re- grow at a certain rate and the resulting trees are then left for the next round for individual extraction. The game ends at a maximum number of rounds or when no trees are left. Finally, the fisheries game involves two possible fishing sites that can have high or low levels of stock. Each player needs to decide where to fish between the two sites and her individual effort of fishing. Depending on the aggregate level of fishing effort in each site, the stock level will change for the following round and will determine the fishing returns. All games involve a social dilemma where individual interests clash with the socially optimal outcome. Lessons can be derived regarding the design of better resource management rules and a better understanding of how resource specific dynamics affect the social dilemmas in common- pool resources.

In Depth Studies


Field Experiments of Irrigation Dilemmas (Journal)

Janssen, M.A., F. Bousquet, J.C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, and K. Worrapimphong
Agricultural Systems 2012, 109: 65-75.

It is often assumed that irrigation systems require a central authority to solve coordination problems due to the asymmetry in position and influence between those located at the head-end of a system and those located at the tail-end. However, many examples of complex irrigation systems exist that are self-organized without central coordination. Field experiments on asymmetric commons dilemmas are performed with villagers in rural Colombia and Thailand. Our experiments show that there is a dynamic interaction between equality in the use of the common resource, and the level of the contributions to the creation of a common resource. Inequality in the distribution of benefits in one round triggers lower levels of group contributions, reducing efficiency and triggering even more inequality in contributions and distribution of the resource among players.

The upstream players act as “stationary bandits”. They take more than an equal share of the common resource, but leave sufficient resources for the downstream players to stimulate them to continue their contributions to the public infrastructure.

After 10 rounds, players can vote on one of three allocation rules: equal quota, random and rotating access to appropriation of the resource. The rotating access is most often elected. The resource dynamics in the second part of the experiment depend on the rule elected. With the quota rule, the stationary bandit metaphor is less relevant since taking equal shares of the resource is enforced. With the rotation access rule, the players act strategically on the rotating position. They invest more when having the first access to the resource compared to less favorable access. And when they have first access they extract the main part of the common resource. The rotation rule led to a reduction of the performance of the groups. With the random access rule there is no such strategic investment behavior and participants remain investing equal and similar levels as in the first 10 rounds.

The experiments show that a necessary condition of irrigation systems to self-organize is the development of norms to allocate fair shares of the water in order to recruit sufficient labor to construct and maintain the physical infrastructure. The different allocation rules do not increase efficiency, but they did increase equality of the earnings.

DOWNLOAD Irrigation Experimental Material

English Protocol Zip file
Spanish Protocol Zip file
Thai Protocol Zip file

Data Set Excel file


Context matters to explain field experiments: results from Thai and Colombian fishing villages (Journal)

Castillo, D., F. Bousquet, M.A. Janssen, K. Worrapimphong, and J-C. Cardenas
Ecological Economics 2011, 70(9): 1609-1620.

During the last decade, field experiments regarding the study of common pool resource governance have been performed that replicated earlier findings of laboratory experiments. One of the questions is how the decisions made by participants in rural communities are influenced by their experience. This paper presents the results of field experiments in Colombia and Thailand on fishery resources. Context information is derived from the communities via in-depth interviews, surveys and role playing exercises. The use of different methodological tools allowed to link decisions in field experiments with contextual variables for two fishery villages. Explanation of core variables in social dilemmas is given, the degree of cooperation levels, preferred rules, rule compliance and enforcement. Main findings include: i) fishermen made decisions in the field experiments that reflected their own experience and context, ii) agreements for rule crafting are possible only under specific conditions that guarantees livelihoods and sustainability, iii) the broader context determines cooperation levels at a local level, iv) inequalities in the sanctioning of rule breakers decrease the possibilities of reaching cooperation agreements, and v) high levels of trust among local fishermen is not a sufficient condition for resource sustainability, when trust in external rule makers and enforcers is low.

DOWNLOAD Fisheries Experimental Material

English Protocol Zip file
Spanish Protocol Zip file
Thai Protocol Zip file

Data Set Excel file


Breaking the elected rules in field experiments on forestry resources (Journal)

Janssen, M.A., F. Bousquet, J.C. Cardenas, D. Castillo, and K. Worrapimphong
Ecological Economics 2013, 90: 132-139.

Harvesting from common resources has been studied through experimental work in the laboratory and in the field. In this paper we report on a dynamic commons experiment, representing a forest, performed with different types of communities of resource users in Thailand and Colombia, as well as student participants. We find that all groups overharvest the resource in the first part of the experiment and that there is no statistical difference between the various types of groups. In the second part of the experiment, participants appropriate the common resource after one of three possible regulations is elected and implemented. There is less overharvesting after the rules are implemented, but there is a significant amount of rule breaking. The surprising finding is that Colombian villagers break the rules of the games more often than other groups, and even more so when they have more trust in members of the community. This observation can be explained by the distrust in externally proposed regulations due to the institutional and cultural context.

DOWNLOAD Forestry Experimental Material

English Protocol Zip file
Spanish Protocol Zip file
Thai Protocol Zip file

Data Set Excel file


Games for Groundwater Governance: Field Experiments in Andhra Pradesh, India (Journal)

Meinzen-Dick, R., R. Chaturvedi, L. Domènech, R. Ghate, M. A. Janssen, N. D. Rollins, and K. Sandeep. 2016. Games for groundwater governance: field experiments in Andhra Pradesh, India. Ecology and Society21(3):38.

Groundwater is a common pool resource which experience depletion in many places around the world. The increased use of irrigation and water demanding cash crops stimulate this development. We present results of field experiments on groundwater dilemmas performed in hard rock areas of Andhra Pradesh, India. Two NGOs (Foundation for Ecological Security and Jana Jagriti) ran the games in communities in which they were working to improve watershed and water management. Games were played with groups of five men or five women, followed by a community debriefing. Results indicate that longer time of NGO involvement in the village was associated with more cooperative outcomes in the games. Individuals with more education and with higher perceived social capital played more cooperatively, but neither gender nor method of payment had a significantly effect on individual behavior. When participants could repeat the game with communication, similar crop choice patterns were observed. The games provided an entry point for discussion on the understanding of communities of the interconnectedness of groundwater use and crops choice.

Playing games to save water: Collective action games for groundwater management in Andhra Pradesh, India (Journal)

Meinzen-Dick, R. M.A. Janssen, S. Kandikuppa, R. Chaturvedi, K. Rao, and S. Theis. 2018. Playing games to save water: Collective action games for groundwater management in Andra Pradesh, India. World Development, 107: 40-53

Groundwater is one of the most challenging common pool resources to govern, resulting in resource depletion in many areas. We present an innovative use of collective action games to not only measure propensity for cooperation, but to improve local understanding of groundwater interrelationships and stimulate collective governance of groundwater, based on a pilot study in Andhra Pradesh, India. The games simulate crop choice and consequences for the aquifer. These were followed by a community debriefing, which provided an entry point for discussing the interconnectedness of groundwater use, to affect mental models about groundwater. A slightly modified game was played in the same communities, one year later. Our study finds communication within the game increased the likelihood of groups reaching sustainable extraction levels in the second year of play, but not the first. Individual payments to participants based on how they played in the game had no effect on crop choice. Either repeated experience with the games or the revised structure of the game evoked more cooperation in the second year, outweighing other factors influencing behavior, such as education, gender, and trust index scores. After the games were played, a significantly higher proportion of communities adopted water registers and rules to govern groundwater, compared to other communities in the same NGO water commons program. Because groundwater levels are affected by many factors, games alone will not end groundwater depletion. However, games can contribute to social learning about the role of crop choice and collective action, to motivate behavior change toward more sustainable groundwater extraction.

DOWNLOAD Groundwater Experimental Material


English Protocol and Forms in Appendix PDF file


A number of people have used the original design and applied it in different contexts:

An experimental analysis of assignment problems and economic rent dissipation in quota managed fisheries (Journal)

Emery, T. J., Tisdell, J., Green, B. S., Hartmann, K., Gardner, C., and León, R
Ocean and Coastal Management 2015, 106: 10 –28.

Assignment problems may remain in quota managed fisheries due to variation in the productivity of the stock across space and time. Unless fishers can agree to coordinate their fishing effort, they will compete amongst themselves and over-exploit the stock where or when the quota unit value is highest, leading to economic rent dissipation. Coordination may be made more difficult in a dynamic marine environment when groups are heterogeneous and cannot communicate amongst themselves. To investigate this supposition, a series of economic experiments were conducted using university students. Participants took on the role of either a quota owner or lease quota fisher and in the presence or absence of communication were asked to make individual harvesting decisions, which allowed researchers to assess the relative influence of these factors on group coordination. This study found that participants were more likely to make socially optimal decisions to prevent rent dissipation when they could communicate and were in an experimental group containing solely quota owners. Participants who were lease quota fishers were less likely to make socially optimal decisions due to: (i) inequality in wealth; (ii) insecurity of tenure; and (iii) asymmetric information exchange. As participants were aware of these disparities, it negatively affected the ability of heterogeneous groups to establish trust and a sense of identity, despite being able to communicate. While requiring further exposition in the field, these results provide a theoretical insight into the difficulties heterogeneous fishers may have in solving assignment problems in a dynamic environment.

Experimental analysis of the use of fishery closures and cooperatives to reduce economic rent dissipation caused by assignment problems (pdf)

Emery, J.T., J. Tisdell, B.S. Green, K. Hartmann, C. Gardner, R. León
ICES Journal of Marine Sciences 2015, In Press.

Assignment problems in quota-managed fisheries are caused by spatial and temporal heterogeneity in the productivity of the stock. If the quota management system is not fully delineated (e.g. harvest rights assigned to particular areas) the fishers will compete with each other and over exploit parts of the fishery where or when the quota unit value is highest (i.e. fishing costs low and or market price high), leading to economic rent dissipation. This study used experimental economics to assess the effectiveness of fishery temporal closures and income-sharing fishery cooperatives in resolving assignment problems across three different fisheries with varying levels of fisher heterogeneity (i.e. numbers of quota owners and lease quota fishers). While most fisheries were successful in reducing economic rent dissipation under the fishery closure management structure relative to their baseline(s), fisheries characterized by a greater number of lease quota fishers were less effective. This was due to the differential values that lease quota fishers place on the resource relative to quota owners, due to having insecurity of tenure and diminished wealth in having to bid for a quota package and pay for it using their revenue from fishing. Conversely, income-sharing fishery cooperatives were equally successful across all three fisheries in reducing assignment problems relative to their baseline(s). This was because income-sharing created an incentive to coordinate fishing effort, particularly among heterogeneous groups. While requiring further exposition in the field, these experimental results represent a first step in identifying management institutions that may assist fishers under quota management to resolve assignment problems in a dynamic environment.

Resource scarcity and democratic elections in commons dilemmas: An experiment on forest use in Ethiopia (Journal)

Gatiso, T.T., B. Vollan and E.A. Nuppenau
Ecological Economics 2015, 114: 199-207.

We study the effect of resource scarcity on human behavior using dynamic lab-in-the-field experiments which are framed around the extraction of trees from a communally managed forest in Ethiopia. Subjects who faced resource scarcity were less cooperative than those who faced more abundant commons condition. When initial condition of the commons was relatively abundant it seemed more likely that resource users established a norm of reciprocity. We further found that especially men overharvested under resource scarcity which is in line with studies that had found men to be more competitive. We also tested different policies. We found that gaining legitimacy through election increases cooperation independent of whether the resource is scarce or abundant. When sanctions were imposed we observed a crowding-out effect of intrinsic motivation to cooperate under resource abundance. With resource scarcity imposed sanctions did not lead to a crowding-out effect but democratic elections were by far more effective.

Experimental tests of tropical forest conservation measures (Journal)

Handberg, Ø.N. and A. Angelsen
Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 2015, 118: 346-359.

We conducted framed field experiments (FFEs) with local forest users in Tanzania. The harvest decisions are well below the individually optimal ones, suggesting significant non-pecuniary motivations. The participants display more pro-social behaviour than similar studies have shown, indicating that the forest specific framing influences participants’ behaviour. We tested three different conservation treatments: command and control (CAC), payment for environmental services (PES) and community forest management (CFM). CFM is as efficient as CAC in increasing pro-social forest use, despite not directly affecting the pecuniary gain. PES – as designed here – is the least effective treatment, but the results might be parameter sensitive. Women use forests more intensively than men, but are also more responsive to the treatments. The behavioural validity of the experiment is supported by strong correlation between behaviour in the experiment and in stated real life, while treatment validity cannot be tested directly. FFEs should become a supplement to traditional impact assessments (IA) of conservation policies, as it avoids many challenges that traditional IA methods face.
The Indus Basin Irrigation System suffers significant inequity in access to surface water across its millions of users. Information, i.e., monitoring and reporting of water availability, may be of value in improving conditions across the basin, and we investigated this via an experimental game of water distribution in Punjab, Pakistan. We found evidence that flow information allowed players to take more effective action to target overuse, and that overall activities that might bring social disapproval were reduced with information. However, we did not find any overall improvement in equity across the system, suggesting that information on its own might not be sufficient to lead to better water distribution among irrigators.
Many irrigation systems are special cases of common-pool resources (CPRs) in which some users have preferential access to the resource, which in theory aggravates collective action challenges such as the under-provision of necessary infrastructure as a result of unequal appropriation of water resources. We present experimental evidence based on an irrigation game played in communities that are dependent on one of the largest contiguous irrigation network: the Indus basin irrigation system in Punjab, Pakistan. Furthermore, we simulate two institutional mechanisms that are neglected in experimental studies, despite their importance in many CPR governance systems: traditional authorities and legal pluralism. In our experiments, Punjabi farmers (N = 160) managed to provide the CPR at a level close to the social optimum, even without communication or enforcement opportunities. The equal investment in water infrastructure seems to be a strong social norm, even though those in disadvantageous positions (tail-users) earn less than those who have preferential access (head-users). At the same time, head-users restrain themselves from maximum resource extraction, which could be interpreted either as a norm or a stationary bandit strategy. In contrast to one of the most consistent findings of previous experimental studies, the participants in our experiment increased their earnings over the experimental rounds by using the available resources in a more efficient manner. One explanation for this behavior could be the availability of social information in our game. Starting from a high level of cooperation during baseline rounds, the treatments did not change the group investment significantly. The introduction of external sanctions created additional coordination problems, which led to a decrease in the level of group welfare. More specifically, head-users reduced their water extraction in the face of possible external sanctions to a level that the remaining water could not be used completely by tail-users.

Self-Governance and Sustainable Common Pool Resource Management in Kyrgyzstan (pdf)

Baerlein, T., U. Kasymov, D. Zikos
Sustainability 2015, 7(1): 496-521.

How to best govern natural resources in order to enable a sustainable way of handling them is what both research and practice aim to achieve. Empirical findings from several studies indicate that resource users are able to successfully cooperate in the management of common pool resources and solve social dilemmas through self-governance arrangements. The authors explore the potential success of self-governance in irrigation systems, focusing primarily on the factors influencing compliance of irrigation water users under self-crafted and self-enforced rules in two Kyrgyz communities. A field experiment is employed to provide insights and some quantitative empirical data, further complemented by qualitative methods (questionnaires, group discussions and interviews) to enhance the analysis of the findings about working rules in irrigation at the community level. The results show that Kyrgyz irrigation users of the selected communities generally respond better in a self-governance setting in terms of rules compliance, distribution efficiency and equity. Compliance and cooperative behavior depend on group as well as individual variables including communication, social norms and the legitimacy of rules.
In our field experiment carried out with stakeholders from the Chinese Haihe River Basin, a group of five players located along an irrigation channel first decide on the amount they would invest in a public fund for channel maintenance. In the next step, they choose the amount of water to withdraw from the channel to irrigate their plots of land. We compare the effects of different rules of water distribution and communication on three types of group participants: farmers, water administrators and students.

The power asymmetry in the location along the irrigation channel was the most important factor affecting players’ investment and water harvest decisions. The introduction of rules of water distribution only weakly altered the effect of power asymmetry but communication and the ability to modify the rules did reduce the effects. This result was strongest among the students and administrators and weakest among the farmers. In addition, farmers tended to break the rules more frequently and withdraw more water than agreed upon.

Resource scarcity, spite and cooperation, Working papers (pdf)

Prediger, S., B. Vollan and B. Herrmann
Faculty of Economics and Statistics 2013, University of Innsbruck.

Using an experimental approach, this paper examines how scarcity of natural resources affects people‟s readiness to cooperate and to engage in antisocial behaviour. The experiments were carried out with pastoralists from southern Namibia whose livelihoods are highly dependent on grazing availability on their collectively used rangelands. We split the study region into two areas according to exogenous differences in biomass production, a high- yield and a low-yield area, and conduct a one-shot public goods experiment and the joy-of- destruction experiment with pastoralists from both areas. Results from the joy-of-destruction experiment reveal that a substantial fraction of people is willing to reduce another subject‟s income, although this comes at an own cost. We show that this kind of spiteful behaviour occurs twice as often in the area where resources are scarcer and hence competitive pressure is higher. By contrast, levels of cooperation are very similar across areas. This indicates that scarcity does not hamper cooperation, at least as long as a sub-survival level has not been reached. Our data further reveal a coexistence of prosocial and antisocial behaviour within individuals, suggesting that people‟s motivations depend on the experimental environment they are acting in. One possible explanation is that subjects are ready to cooperate when substantial net gains can be realized, but turn to spiteful money burners when there is no scope for efficiency improvements and the risk of “falling behind” is particularly salient.

Cultural norms, cooperation, and communication: Taking experiments to the field in indigenous communities (pdf)

Ghate, R., S. Ghate and E. Ostrom
International Journal of the Commons 2013, 7(2), pp.498–520.

Extensive experimental research has been devoted to the study of behaviour in laboratory settings related to public goods, common-pool resources, and other social dilemmas. When subjects are anonymous and not allowed to communicate, they tend not to cooperate. To the surprise of game theorists, however, simply allowing subjects to communicate in a laboratory setting enables them to achieve far more cooperative outcomes. This finding has now been replicated in many laboratory experiments in multiple countries and in some initial field experiments. Carefully conducted laboratory experiments do have strong internal validity. External validity, however, requires further research beyond the initial field experiments that have already been conducted. In this paper, we report on a series of common-pool resource field experiments conducted in eight indigenous communities in India that have very long traditions of shared norms and mutual trust. Two experimental designs were used in all eight villages: a “no-communication” game that was repeated in ten rounds where no one was allowed verbal or written communication and a “communication game” in which the same five participants were allowed to communicate with each other at the beginning of each round before making their decisions. The findings from these field experiments are substantially different from the findings of similar experiments conducted in experimental laboratories. Subjects tended to cooperate in the first design even in the absence of communication. The shared norms in these indigenous communities are so deeply embedded that communication is not needed to adopt cooperative decisions. Communication does, however, tend to homogenize group and individual outcomes so that communities that are overly cooperative tend to reduce cooperation slightly and those with small deviations in the other direction tend to move toward the optimal solution.

Collective Action for Watershed Management: Field Experiments in Colombia and Kenya (Journal)

Cardenas, J.C., L.A. Rodriguez and N. Johnson
Environment and Development Economics 2011, 16(3): 275-303.

The collective action problem around water use and management involves solving both the problems of provision and appropriation. Cooperation in the provision can be affected by the rival nature of appropriation and the asymmetries in access. We report the results of two field experiments conducted in Colombia and Kenya. The irrigation game was used to explore the provision and appropriation decisions under asymmetric or sequential appropriation, complemented by a voluntary contribution mechanism experiment which looks at provision decisions under symmetric appropriation. The overall results were consistent with the patterns of previous studies: the zero contribution hypotheses is rejected whereas the most effective institution to increase cooperation was face-to-face communication, although we find that communication works much more effectively in Colombia than in Kenya. We also find that the asymmetric appropriation did reduce cooperation, though the magnitude of the social loss and the effectiveness of alternative institutional options varied across sites.

The impact of culture and ecology on cooperation in a common-pool resource experiment (Journal)

Prediger, S., B. Vollan, and M. Frölich
Ecological Economics 2011, 70(9):1599-1608.

Context affects decision-making in many ways. In this paper we explore differences in cooperation behaviour between communal farmers in Namibia and South Africa, who share the same ethnic origin but have had different historical and ecological constraints. We report on a series of field experiments based on a common-pool resource model. Our experimental design is framed according to the grazing situation in semi-arid rangelands. Dependent on the behaviour in previous rounds, participants are facing different states of resource availability with varying need to cooperate, coordinate and to be patient. While only 4% of the grazing areas in South Africa remain in good quality, Namibians achieve a level of 42%. We analyse the different experimental states and find that Namibians behave in all states more cooperatively. We argue that the large difference between the two regions is due to a combination of different historical developments and ecological preconditions: Namibian resource users have a longer experience in cooperative resource management and intact traditional norms. Moreover, the real-life payoffs to cooperation are higher in Namibia stemming from ecological factors.