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Published Papers

The Immigrant Next Door

American Economic Review, Forthcoming
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Thomas Chaney, Tarek Hassan, and Aakaash Rao

We study how decades-long exposure to individuals of a given foreign descent shapes natives’ attitudes and behavior toward that group. Using individualized donations data from large charitable organizations, we show that long-term exposure to a given foreign ancestry leads to more generous behavior specifically toward that group’s ancestral country. To shed light on mechanisms, we focus on attitudes and behavior toward Arab-Muslims, combining several existing large-scale surveys, cross-county data on implicit prejudice, and a newly-collected national survey. We show that greater long-term exposure: (i) decreases both explicit and implicit prejudice against Arab-Muslims, (ii) reduces support for policies and political candidates hostile toward Arab-Muslims, (iii) leads to more personal contact with Arab-Muslim individuals, and (iv) increases knowledge of Arab-Muslims and Islam in general.

Identifying the Effect of Election Closeness on Voter Turnout: Evidence from Swiss Referenda

Journal of the European Economic Association, Forthcoming
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Davide Cantoni, Patricia Funk, Felix Schönenberger, and Noam Yuchtman

We provide evidence of a causal effect of anticipated election closeness on voter turnout, exploiting the precise day-level timing of the release of Swiss national poll results for high-stakes federal referenda, and a novel dataset on daily mail-in voting for the canton of Geneva. Using an event study design, we find that the release of a closer poll causes voter turnout to sharply rise immediately after poll release, with no differential pre-release turnout levels or trends. We provide evidence that polls affect turnout by providing information shaping beliefs about closeness: first, the introduction of Swiss polls had significantly larger effects in politically unrepresentative municipalities, where locally available signals of closeness are less correlated with national closeness. Second, the effects of close polls are largest where newspapers report on them most. Counterfactual exercises suggest the importance of polls and reporting on polls in shaping election outcomes.

Opinions as Facts

Review of Economic Studies, 90(4), 1832-1864, (2023)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Aakaash Rao, Christopher Roth, and David Yanagizawa-Drott

The rise of opinion programs has transformed television news. Because they present anchors’ subjective commentary and analysis, opinion programs often convey conflicting narratives about reality. We experimentally document that people across the ideological spectrum turn to opinion programs over “straight news,” even when provided large incentives to learn objective facts. We then examine the consequences of diverging narratives between opinion programs in a high-stakes setting: the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. We find stark differences in the adoption of preventative behaviors among viewers of the two most popular opinion programs, both on the same network, which adopted opposing narratives about the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We then show that areas with greater relative viewership of the program downplaying the threat experienced a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Our evidence suggests that opinion programs may distort important beliefs and behaviors.

Justifying Dissent

Quarterly Journal of Economics, 138(3), 1403-1451 (2023)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Georgy Egorov, Ingar Haaland, Aakaash Rao, and Christopher Roth

Dissent plays an important role in any society, but dissenters are often silenced through social sanctions. Beyond their persuasive effects, rationales providing arguments supporting dissenters’ causes can increase the public expression of dissent by providing a “social cover” for voicing otherwise stigmatized positions. Motivated by a simple theoretical framework, we experimentally show that liberals are more willing to post a Tweet opposing the movement to defund the police, are seen as less prejudiced, and face lower social sanctions when their Tweet implies they had first read credible scientific evidence supporting their position. Analogous experiments with conservatives demonstrate that the same mechanisms facilitate anti-immigrant expression. Our findings highlight both the power of rationales and their limitations in enabling dissent and shed light on phenomena such as social movements, political correctness, propaganda, and anti-minority behavior.

Scapegoating During Crises

American Economic Association Papers and Proceedings, 112, 151-55 (2022)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Georgy Egorov, Ingar Haaland, Aakaash Rao, and Christopher Roth

Killer Incentives: Rivalry, Performance and Risk-Taking Among German Fighter Pilots, 1939-45

Review of Economic Studies, 89(4), 2257-2292, (2022) [Lead article]
Ager, Philipp, Leonardo Bursztyn, Lukas Leucht, and Hans-Joachim Voth

Using newly-collected data on death rates and aerial victories of more than 5,000 German fighter pilots during World War II, we examine the effects of public recognition on performance and risk-taking. When a particular pilot is honored publicly, both the victory rate and the death rate of his former peers increase. Fellow pilots react more if they come from the same region of Germany, or if they worked closely with him. Our results suggest that personal rivalry can be a prime motivating force, and that non-financial rewards can lead to a crowd-in of both effort and risktaking via social connections.

Misperceptions about Others

Annual Review of Economics, 14, 425-452 (2022)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, and David Y. Yang

People’s perceptions about others play an important role in shaping their own attitudes and behaviors, as well as social norms more broadly. This review presents a meta-analysis of the recent empirical literature that examines perceptions about others in the field. We document a number of stylized facts. Misperceptions about others are widespread, asymmetric, much larger when about out-group members, and positively associated with one’s own attitudes. Experimental treatments to re-calibrate misperceptions generally work as intended; they sometimes lead to meaningful changes in behaviors, though this often occurs only immediately after the treatments. We discuss different conceptual frameworks that could explain the origin, persistence, and rigidity of misperceptions about others. We point to several directions for future research.

Persistent Political Engagement: Social Interactions and the Dynamics of Protest Movements

American Economic Review: Insights, 3(2): 233-250 (2021)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Davide Cantoni, David Y. Yang, Noam Yuchtman, and Y. Jane Zhang

We study the causes of sustained participation in political movements. To identify the persistent effect of protest participation, we randomly, indirectly incentivize Hong Kong university students into participation in an antiauthoritarian protest. To identify the role of social networks, we randomize this treatment’s intensity across major-cohort cells. We find that incentives to attend one protest within a political movement increase subsequent protest attendance, but only when a sufficient fraction of an individual’s social network is also incentivized to attend the initial protest. One-time mobilization shocks have dynamic consequences, with mobilization at the social network level important for sustained political engagement.

From Extreme to Mainstream: The Erosion of Social Norms

American Economic Review, 110(11): 3522-3548 (2020)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Georgy Egorov, and Stefano Fiorin

Social norms, usually persistent, can change quickly when new public information arrives, such as a surprising election outcome. People may become more inclined to express views or take actions previously perceived as stigmatized and may judge others less negatively for doing so. We examine this possibility using two experiments. We first show via revealed preference experiments that Donald Trump’s rise in popularity and eventual victory increased individuals’ willingness to publicly express xenophobic views. We then show that individuals are judged less negatively if they publicly expressed a xenophobic view in an environment where that view is more popular.

Misperceived Social Norms: Women Working Outside the Home in Saudi Arabia

American Economic Review, 110(10): 2997-3029 (2020) [Lead article]
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Alessandra González, and David Yanagizawa-Drott

Through the custom of guardianship, husbands typically have the final word on their wives’ labor supply decisions in Saudi Arabia. We provide incentivized evidence that the vast majority of young married men in Saudi Arabia privately support women working outside the home (WWOH) from a normative perspective, while they substantially underestimate the level of support for WWOH by other similar men – even men from their same social setting, such as their neighbors. We then show that randomly correcting these beliefs about others increases married men’s willingness to help their wives search for jobs, as measured by their costly sign-up for a job-matching service for their wives. Four months after the main intervention, the wives of men whose beliefs about acceptability of WWOH were corrected are more likely to have applied and interviewed for a job outside the home. In an additional recruitment experiment with a local company, randomly informing women about the actual level of support for WWOH leads them to switch from an at-home temporary enumerator job to a higher-paying, outside-the-home version of the job. Together, our evidence indicates a potentially important source of labor market frictions, where labor supply is distorted due to misperceived social norms.

Political Identity: Experimental Evidence on Anti-Americanism in Pakistan

Journal of the European Economic Association, 18(5): 2532-2560 (2020)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Michael Callen, Bruno Ferman, Saad Gulzar, Ali Hasanain, and Noam Yuchtman

We identify Pakistani men’s willingness to pay to preserve their anti-American identity using an experiment imposing clearly-specified financial costs on anti-American expression, with minimal consequential or social considerations. Around one-quarter of subjects forgo payments from the U.S. government worth around one-fifth of a day’s wage to avoid an identity-threatening choice: anonymously checking a box indicating gratitude toward the U.S. government. When subjects anticipate that rejection will be observable, rejection falls, suggesting that pressure to conform outweighs the need to publicly signal one’s identity. A second experiment correlates rejection of the U.S. payment with membership in Pakistan’s major anti-American political party.

Moral Incentives in Credit Card Debt Repayment: Evidence from a Field Experiment

Journal of Political Economy, 127(4): 1641-1683 (2019)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Stefano Fiorin, Daniel Gottlieb, and Martin Kanz

We study the role of morality in debt repayment, using an experiment with the credit card customers of a large Islamic bank in Indonesia. In our main treatment, clients receive a text message stating that “non-repayment of debts by someone who is able to repay is an injustice.” This moral appeal decreases the share of delinquent customers by 4.4 percentage points from a baseline of 66 percent, and reduces default among the customers with the highest ex-ante credit risk. Additional treatments help benchmark the effects against those of direct financial incentives, understand the underlying mechanisms, and rule out competing explanations, such as reminder effects, priming religion, signaling the lender’s commitment to debt collection, and provision of new information.

Cool to Be Smart or Smart to Be Cool? Understanding Peer Pressure in Education

Review of Economic Studies, 86(4): 1487-1526 (2019)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Georgy Egorov, and Robert Jensen

We model and test two school-based peer cultures: one that stigmatizes effort and one that rewards ability. The model shows that either may reduce participation in educational activities when peers can observe participation and performance. We design a field experiment that allows us to test for, and differentiate between, these two concerns. We find that peer pressure reduces takeup of an SAT prep package virtually identically across two very different high school settings. However, the effects arise from very distinct mechanisms: a desire to hide effort in one setting and a desire to hide low ability in the other.

Status Goods: Experimental Evidence from Platinum Credit Cards

Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(3): 1561-1595 (2018)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Bruno Ferman, Stefano Fiorin, Martin Kanz, and Gautam Rao

This paper provides field-experimental evidence on status goods. We work with an Indonesian bank that markets platinum credit cards to high-income customers. In a first experiment, we show that demand for the platinum card exceeds demand for a nondescript control product with identical benefits, suggesting demand for the pure status aspect of the card. Transaction data reveal that platinum cards are more likely to be used in social contexts, implying social image motivations. In a second experiment, we provide evidence of positional externalities from the consumption of these status goods. A final experiment provides suggestive evidence that increasing self-esteem causally reduces demand for status goods, indicating that social image might be a substitute for self image.

'Acting Wife': Marriage Market Incentives and Labor Market Investments

American Economic Review, 107(11): 3288-3319 (2017)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Thomas Fujiwara, and Amanda Pallais

Do single women avoid career-enhancing actions because these actions signal undesirable traits, like ambition, to the marriage market? While married and unmarried female MBA students perform similarly when their performance is unobserved by classmates (on exams and problem sets), unmarried women have lower participation grades. In a field experiment, single female students reported lower desired salaries and willingness to travel and work long hours on a real-stakes placement questionnaire when they expected their classmates to see their preferences. Other groups’ responses were unaffected by peer observability. A second experiment indicates the effects are driven by observability by single male peers.

Social Image and Economic Behavior in the Field: Identifying, Understanding and Shaping Social Pressure

Annual Review of Economics, 9: 131-153 (2017)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, and Robert Jensen

Many people care about how they are perceived by those around them. A number of recent field experiments in economics have found that such social image concerns can have powerful effects on a range of behaviors. In this paper, we first review this recent literature aimed at identifying social image concerns or social pressure. We then highlight and discuss two important areas that have been comparatively less well-explored in this literature: understanding social pressure, including the underlying mechanisms, and whether such pressure can be shaped or influenced.

Poverty and the Political Economy of Public Education Spending: Evidence from Brazil

Journal of the European Economic Association, 14(5): 1101-1128 (2016)
Bursztyn, Leonardo

A large literature has emphasized elite capture of democratic institutions as the explanation for the low levels of spending on public education in many low-income democracies. This paper provides an alternative to that longstanding hypothesis. Motivated by new cross-country facts and evidence from Brazilian municipalities, we hypothesize that many democratic developing countries might invest less in public education spending because poor decisive voters prefer the government to allocate resources elsewhere. One possible explanation is that low-income voters could instead favor redistributive programs that increase their incomes in the short run, such as cash transfers. To test for this possibility, we design and implement an experimental survey and an incentivized choice experiment in Brazil. The findings from both interventions support our hypothesis.

A Tear in the Iron Curtain: The Impact of Western Television on Consumption Behavior (with Davide Cantoni)

Review of Economics and Statistics, 98(1): 25-41 (2016)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, and Davide Cantoni

This paper examines the impact of exposure to foreign media on the economic behavior of agents in a totalitarian regime. We study private consumption choices focusing on the former East Germany, where differential access to Western television was determined by geographic features. Using data collected after the transition to a market economy, we find no evidence of a significant impact of previous exposure to Western television on aggregate consumption levels. However, exposure to Western broadcasts affects the composition of consumption, biasing choices in favor of categories of goods with a high intensity of prereunification advertisement. The effects vanish by 1998.

How Does Peer Pressure Affect Educational Investments?

Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(3): 1329-1367 (2015)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, and Robert Jensen

When effort is observable to peers, students may try to avoid social penalties by conforming to prevailing norms. To test this hypothesis, we first consider a natural experiment that introduced a performance leaderboard into computer-based high school courses. The result was a 24 percent performance decline. The decline appears to be driven by a desire to avoid the leaderboard; top performing students prior to the change, those most at risk of appearing on the leaderboard, had a 40 percent performance decline, while poor performing students improved slightly. We next consider a field experiment that offered students complimentary access to an online SAT preparatory course. Sign-up forms differed randomly across students only in whether they said the decision would be kept private from classmates. In nonhonors classes, sign-up was 11 percentage points lower when decisions were public rather than private. Honors class sign-up was unaffected. For students taking honors and nonhonors classes, the response depended on which peers they were with at the time of the offer, and thus to whom their decision would be revealed. When offered the course in a nonhonors class (where peer sign-up rates are low), they were 15 percentage points less likely to sign up if the decision was public. But when offered the course in an honors class (where peer sign-up rates are high), they were 8 percentage points more likely to sign up if the decision was public. Thus, students are highly responsive to their peers are the prevailing norm when they make decisions

Understanding Mechanisms Underlying Peer Effects: Evidence from a Field Experiment on Financial Decisions

Econometrica, 82(4): 1273-1301 (2014)
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Florian Ederer, Bruno Ferman, and Noam Yuchtman

Using a high-stakes field experiment conducted with a financial brokerage, we implement a novel design to separately identify two channels of social influence in financial decisions, both widely studied theoretically. When someone purchases an asset, his peers may also want to purchase it, both because they learn from his choice (“social learning”) and because his possession of the asset directly affects others’ utility of owning the same asset (“social utility”). We randomize whether one member of a peer pair who chose to purchase an asset has that choice implemented, thus randomizing his ability to possess the asset. Then, we randomize whether the second member of the pair: (i) receives no information about the first member, or (ii) is informed of the first member’s desire to purchase the asset and the result of the randomization that determined possession. This allows us to estimate the effects of learning plus possession, and learning alone, relative to a (no information) control group. We find that both social learning and social utility channels have statistically and economically significant effects on investment decisions. Evidence from a follow-up survey reveals that social learning effects are greatest when the first (second) investor is financially sophisticated (financially unsophisticated); investors report updating their beliefs about asset quality after learning about their peer’s revealed preference; and, they report motivations consistent with “keeping up with the Joneses” when learning about their peer’s possession of the asset. These results can help shed light on the mechanisms underlying herding behavior in financial markets and peer effects in consumption and investment decisions.

The Schooling Decision: Family Preferences, Intergenerational Conflict, and Moral Hazard in the Brazilian Favelas

Journal of Political Economy, 120(3): 359-397 (2012) [Lead article]
Bursztyn, Leonardo, and Lucas C. Coffman

This paper experimentally analyzes the schooling decisions of poor households in urban Brazil. We elicit parents’ choices between monthly government transfers conditional on their adolescent child attending school and guaranteed, unconditional transfers of varying sizes. In the baseline treatment, an overwhelming majority of parents prefer conditional transfers to larger unconditional transfers. However, few parents prefer conditional payments if they are offered text message notifications whenever their child misses school. These findings suggest important intergenerational conflicts in these schooling decisions, a lack of parental control and observability of school attendance, and an additional rationale for conditional cash transfer programs—the monitoring they provide.

The Environment and Directed Technical Change

American Economic Review, 102(1): 131–166 (2012)
Acemoglu, Daron, Philippe Aghion, Leonardo Bursztyn, and David Hemous

This paper introduces endogenous and directed technical change in a growth model with environmental constraints. The final good is produced from “dirty” and “clean” inputs. We show that: (i) when inputs are sufficiently substitutable, sustainable growth can be achieved with temporary taxes/subsidies that redirect innovation toward clean inputs; (ii) optimal policy involves both “carbon taxes” and research subsidies, avoiding excessive use of carbon taxes; (iii) delay in intervention is costly, as it later necessitates a longer transition phase with slow growth; and (iv) use of an exhaustible resource in dirty input production helps the switch to clean innovation under laissez-faire.

Working Papers

How Are Gender Norms Perceived?

Revise and Resubmit - Econometrica
Bursztyn, Leonardo, Alexander W. Cappelen, Bertil Tungodden, Alessandra Voena, and David Yanagizawa-Drott

Actual and perceived gender norms are key to understanding gender inequality in society. In this paper, using newly collected nationally representative datasets from 60 countries that cover over 80% of the world population, we study gender norms on two distinct policy issues: 1) basic rights, allowing women to work outside of the home, and 2) affirmative action, prioritizing women when hiring for leadership positions. We establish that misperceptions of gender norms are pervasive across the world. The nature of the misperception, however, is context-dependent. In less gender- equal countries, people underestimate support for both policies, particularly support among men; in more gender-equal countries, people overestimate support for affirmative action, particularly support among women, and underestimate support for basic rights. We provide evidence of gender stereotyping and overweighting of the minority view as potential drivers of the global patterns of misperceptions. Together, our findings indicate how misperceptions of gender norms may obstruct progress toward gender equality, but also may contribute to sustaining gender policies that are not necessarily favored by women themselves.

When Product Markets Become Collective Traps: The Case of Social Media

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Benjamin Handel, Rafael Jiménez-Durán, and Chris Roth

Individuals might experience negative utility from not consuming a popular product. For example, being inactive on social media can lead to social exclusion or not owning luxury brands can be associated with having a low social status. We show that, in the presence of such spillovers to non-users, standard measures that take aggregate consumption as given fail to appropriately capture welfare. We propose a new methodology to measure welfare that accounts for these consumption spillovers, which we apply to estimate the consumer surplus of two popular social media platforms, TikTok and Instagram. In large-scale, incentivized experiments with college students, we show that, while the standard welfare measure suggests a large and positive surplus, our measure accounting for consumption spillovers indicates a negative surplus, with a large share of active users deriving negative utility. We also shed light on the drivers of consumption spillovers to non-users in the case of social media and show that, in this setting, the “fear of missing out” plays an important role. Our framework and estimates highlight the possibility of product market traps, where large shares of consumers are trapped in an inefficient equilibrium and would prefer the product not to exist.

Social Media and Xenophobia: Evidence from Russia

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Georgy Egorov, Ruben Enikolopov, and Maria Petrova

We study the causal effect of social media on ethnic hate crimes and xenophobic attitudes in Russia and the mechanisms underlying this effect, using quasi-exogenous variation in social media penetration across cities. Higher penetration of social media led to more hate crimes in cities with a high pre-existing level of nationalist sentiment. Consistent with a mechanism of coordination of crimes, the effects are stronger for crimes with multiple perpetrators. Using a national survey experiment, we also find evidence of a mechanism of persuasion: social media led individuals (especially young, male, and less-educated ones) to hold more xenophobic attitudes.

Political Adverse Selection

Bursztyn, Leonardo, Jonathan Kolstad, Aakaash Rao, Pietro Tebaldi, and Noam Yuchtman

We study how the politicization of policies designed to correct market failures can undermine their effectiveness. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was among the most politically divisive expansions of the US government. We examine whether partisanship distorted enrollment and market outcomes in the ACA insurance marketplaces. Controlling for observable characteristics and holding fixed plans and premiums available, Republicans enrolled less than Democrats and independents in ACA marketplace plans. Selection out of the ACA marketplaces was strongest among Republicans with lower expected healthcare costs, generating adverse selection. Computing enrollment and average cost with and without partisan differences, we find that this political adverse selection reduced enrollment by around three million people and raised average costs in the marketplaces, increasing the level of public spending necessary to provide subsidies to low-income enrollees by around $105 per enrollee per year. Lower enrollments and higher costs are concentrated in more Republican areas, potentially contributing to polarized views of the ACA.

Lab Member Papers

Coming Soon