Gautam Rao

Note: I am on leave for the 2017-18 academic year, and am visiting the Economics Department at MIT.

I am an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics at Harvard University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and a faculty affiliate at the The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL). Prior to joining the faculty at Harvard, I was a post-doctoral researcher at Microsoft Research's New England Lab in Cambridge, MA from July 2014-June 2015. I graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Economics in 2014.

My research seeks to bring insights from psychology to bear on topics in economics, particularly topics relevant to developing countries. Recent projects include studying how a demand for social status affects consumption decision in Indonesia, how mixing rich and poor students in schools in India affects social preferences and behaviors, how citizens in the United States are motivated to vote by social image concerns, and how innovative financial contracts can help patients with hypertension overcome their self-control problems in rural India. 


Department of Economics
Littauer Center M-30, Harvard University
Cambridge, MA 02138

[Curriculum Vitae]
[Updated September 2016]

Office Hours (Students Only):
 I am on leave for the 2017-18 academic year. While I am on leave, office hours are generally restricted to my advisees and students in my class at MIT. Please email me for an appointment.

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Teaching (Fall 2017):
MIT 14.160 Behavioral Economics (PhD Behavioral Economics, with Frank Schilbach)

Information for (potential) advisees                                                                                                        


The Importance of Being Marginal: Gender Differences in Generosity

(with Stefano DellaVigna, John List and Ulrike Malmendier)

American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, May 2013.

Abstract: Do men and women have different social preferences? Previous findings are contradictory. We provide a potential explanation using evidence from a field experiment. In a door-to-door solicitation, men and women are equally generous, but women become less generous when it becomes easy to avoid the solicitor. Our structural estimates of the social preference parameters suggest an explanation: women are more likely to be on the margin of giving, partly because of a less dispersed distribution of altruism. We find similar results for the willingness to complete an unpaid survey: women are more likely to be on the margin of participation

[online appendix]

Voting to Tell Others [Final Version: Sep 2016]

(with Stefano DellaVigna, John List and Ulrike Malmendier)

Review of Economic Studies, January 2017

Abstract: Why do people vote? We design a field experiment to estimate a model of voting `because others will ask'. The expectation of being asked motivates turnout if individuals derive pride from telling others that they voted, or feel shame from admitting that they did not vote, provided that lying is costly. In a door-to-door survey about election turnout, we experimentally vary (i) the informational content and use of a flyer pre-announcing the survey, (ii) the duration and payment for the survey, and (iii) the incentives to lie about past voting. The experimental results indicate significant social image concerns. For the 2010 Congressional election, we estimate a value of voting ‘to tell others’ of about $15, contributing 2 percentage points to turnout. Lastly, we evaluate a get-out-the-vote intervention in which we tell potential voters that we will ask if they voted.

[online appendix]  [data and code]

Status Goods: Experimental Evidence from Platinum Credit Cards

(with Leonardo Bursztyn, Bruno Ferman, Stefano Fiorin and Martin Kanz)

Conditionally Accepted, Quarterly Journal of Economics

Abstract: This paper provides novel 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 greatly 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. Combining price variation with information on the use of the card sheds light on the magnitude of the demand for social status. In a second experiment, we provide evidence of positional externalities from the consumption of these status goods.  The final experiment shows that increasing self-esteem causally reduces demand for status goods. We infer that part of the demand for status is psychological in nature, and that social image is a substitute for self image.

[AEA Pre-Registration]

Working Papers:

Familiarity Does Not Breed Contempt: Diversity, Discrimination and Generosity in Delhi Schools

[July 2015]

Abstract: I exploit a natural experiment in India to identify ho[w mixing rich and poor students in schools affects social preferences and behaviors. A policy change in 2007 forced many private schools in Delhi to meet a quota of poor children in admissions. This led to a sharp increase in the presence of poor children in new cohorts in those schools, but not in older cohorts or in other schools. Exploiting this variation, and using a combination of field and lab experiments, administrative data and test scores, I study impacts on three classes of outcomes: (i) prosocial behavior, (ii) social interactions and discrimination, and (iii) academic outcomes. First, I find that having poor classmates makes wealthy students more prosocial and generous. They become more likely to volunteer for a charity at school, more generous towards both rich and poor students in dictator games, and choose more equitable distributions of payoffs in the lab. Second, having poor classmates makes wealthy students discriminate less against poor children, measured by their teammate choice in an incentivized sports contest. Consistent with this, they become more willing to socialize with poor children outside school. Third, I find marginally significant negative effects on test scores in English, but no effect on Hindi or Math. Overall, I conclude that mixing in schools had substantial positive effects on the social behaviors of wealthy students, at the cost of negative but arguably modest impacts on academic achievement. To shed light on mechanisms, I exploit idiosyncratic assignment of students to study groups and find that the effects on social behaviors are largely driven by personal interactions between wealthy and poor students, rather than by changes in teacher behavior or curriculum.

Estimating Social Preferences and Gift Exchange at Work [New Version: June 2016]

(with Stefano DellaVigna, John List and Ulrike Malmendier)

Abstract: We design a model-based field experiment to estimate the nature and magnitude of workers' social  references towards their employers. We hire 446 workers for a one-time task. Within worker, we vary (i) piece rates; (ii) whether the work has payoffs only for the worker, or also for the employer; and (iii) the return to the employer. We then introduce a surprise increase or decrease in pay (`gifts') from the employer. We find that workers have substantial baseline social preferences towards their employers, even in the absence of repeated-game incentives. Consistent with models of warm glow or social norms, but not of pure altruism, workers exert substantially more effort when their work is consequential to their employer, but are insensitive to the precise return to the employer. Turning to reciprocity, we find little evidence of a response to unexpected positive (or negative) gifts from the employer. Our structural estimates of the social preferences suggest that, if anything, positive reciprocity in response to monetary `gifts' may be larger than negative reciprocity. We revisit the results of previous field experiments on gift exchange using our model and derive a one-parameter expression for the implied reciprocity in these experiments.

[AEA Pre-Registration] Note: This includes a full pre-registration of the structural model.

Self-Control and Demand for Preventive Health: Evidence from Hypertension in India [August 2017]

(with Liang Bai, Benjamin Handel and Ted Miguel)

Abstract: Self-control problems constitute a potential explanation for the under-investment in preventive health care observed in low-income countries. A commonly proposed policy tool to solve such problems is offering consumers commitment devices. We conduct a field experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of theoretically-motivated commitment contracts in increasing preventive doctor visits by hypertensive patients in rural India. We document varying levels of takeup of the different commitment contracts, but find no effects on actual doctor visits or individual health outcomes. Thus, a substantial number of individuals pay for commitments, but then fail to follow through on the specified task, losing money without experiencing any health benefit. We develop and structurally estimate a pre-specified model of consumer behavior under present bias with varying levels of naivete. The results are consistent with a large share of individuals being partially naive about their own self-control problems; in other words, they are sophisticated enough to demand some commitment, but overly optimistic about whether a given commitment is sufficiently strong to be effective. The results suggest that commitment devices may in practice be welfare diminishing, at least in some contexts, and serve as a cautionary tale about the role of these contracts in the health care sector. 

[AEA Pre-Registration] Included theoretical model and (reduced form) pre-analysis plan

Work in Progress:

Behavioral Development Economics  [slides]
Chapter under preparation for the Handbook of Behavioral Economics 
(with Michael Kremer)

The Effect of Research Information on Policy Making: Evidence from Brazil

(with Jonas Hjort, Diana Moreira and Juan Santini) 

The Endowment Effect and Collateralized Loans

(with Michael Kremer and Kevin Carney)

The Economic and Behavioral Effects of Poor Sleep Among the Urban Poor

(with Frank Schilbach and Heather Schofield)

From Another Life:

Interactions between Organizations and Networks in Common-Pool Resource Governance, with Arun Agrawal, Dan Brown, Rick Riolo and Derek Robinson, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 25, January 2013, Pages 138–146

Preservation or degradation? Communal management and ecological change in a southeast Michigan forest, with Fred Nelson, Elisa Collins, Alain Frechette, Cynthia Koenig, Mosé Jones-Yellin, Brihannala Morgan, Gita Ramsay, and Claudia Rodriguez, Biodiversity and Conservation, October 2008, Volume 17, Issue 11, pp 2757-2772


Fearless Sidekick -- Kirby passed in Aug 2016