The maths behind gut decisions

First carefully weigh up the costs and benefits and then make a rational decision. This may be the way we want it to be. But in reality, invisible emotions, experiences, prejudices and even altruisms also influence our decisions.



In a nutshell

Human decision-making behaviour is far more complex than the traditional economic model of homo economicus, the benefit maximiser, suggests. Who would have thought, for example, that people who are able to determine their own salary do not in fact pay themselves the maximum but a rather moderate amount? That television affects our choice of junior staff or our income and consumption requirements? Or that people with an economic background actually behave differently when making financial decisions? Behavioural economists at the Halle Institute for Economic Research (IWH) are investigating what such irrational factors mean for a society's economic processes, using the (social) psychology toolbox and devising experiments and studies to identify and close the gaps in the homo economicus model.

Our expert for this issue

All experts, press releases, publications and events on "Behaviour"


The world of work is one area where such deviations from the benefit-maximising ideal image are the rule rather than the exception. Companies need productive staff to be successful. In order to maintain or even improve this productivity, however, it is not enough for a firm to focus solely on the remuneration of its workforce according to the motto: the more, the better. Other factors, such as meaningful work or the feeling of being treated fairly, also affect workforce productivity levels.

For example, if employees learn at a later, that a task they have already performed was meaningless, they will make less of an effort with future work. This means that meaningless work not only evokes negative emotions at the time, such as disappointment and replaceability, but also influences future motivation, as IWH behavioural economist, Sabrina Jeworrek and her co-authors discovered with the help of a large-scale experiment. This discovery should not be confused with another, however: employees also definitely want information about their companies' setbacks. If, for example, a campaign has failed in the past, it makes sense to inform the workforce of this and not to conceal this fact. As employees will not be demotivated by this setback, as you might expect – on the contrary. They will try harder next time if they are able to regard the task as a meaningful challenge.
In another study, Jeworrek discovered that employees are less productive if they believe that their employer is treating their colleagues unfairly – even if they themselves are unaffected by this. For this experiment, 195 test subjects were hired for two assignments in a call centre. A section of the workforce was arbitrarily dismissed on grounds of cost savings. "We wanted the situation to be as anti-social and unfair as possible," says Jeworrek. And not only did productivity fall, the test subjects also took longer breaks and left work earlier.

The self-employed do not have the problem of colleagues being unfairly treated. Nevertheless,their behaviour is also affected by hidden factors. Whether they are gripped by entrepreneurial spirit also depends on which TV programmes they watched in their youth, for example. Or whether they have sufficient financial market knowledge. You see,econometric findings suggest that greater financial literacy leads to increased self-employment. So, if politicians want more entrepreneurial activity in Germany, the prevalence of positive role models, the inclusion of a basic grasp of economics in the curriculum and financial information would be a major starting point. As soon as a person becomes self-employed, their character also changes: if a person is self-employed they are more willing to take risks – and also more likely to remain self-employed.

And even the unemployed are influenced by context: IWH economist Steffen Müller discovered that parental unemployment affects children, for example. What is particularly interesting is that boys and girls react differently to parental unemployment. If their father was unemployed, both sons and daughters are more likely to be unemployed in future, but daughters experience a counter-reaction that sons do not: they invest more in their education.

Regardless of whether a person is employed, self-employed or unemployed, their subjective wellbeing heavily depends on how they perceive their position within their social group. This can also affect basic personal attitudes, for example, towards foreigners: if a person compares their income with that of their friends and feels financially inferior, this will have a negative impact on their sympathy towards foreigners – even if this person is actually a higher-earner.

People do not always act and make decisions rationally; they are fallible. Subconscious factors determine the direction of our decisions, and many of these factors are beyond our control. However, being aware of the mechanisms behind this can help us to understand people and their role in the economy, identifying and promoting their potential.

Publications on "Behaviour"


Does Information about Inequality and Discrimination in Early Child Care Affect Policy Preferences?

Henning Hermes Philipp Lergetporer Fabian Mierisch Guido Schwerdt Simon Wiederhold

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 2, 2024


We investigate public preferences for equity-enhancing policies in access to early child care, using a survey experiment with a representative sample of the German population (n ≈ 4, 800). We observe strong misperceptions about migrant-native inequalities in early child care that vary by respondents’ age and right-wing voting preferences. Randomly providing information about the actual extent of inequalities has a nuanced impact on the support for equity-enhancing policy reforms: it increases support for respondents who initially underestimated these inequalities, and tends to decrease support for those who initially overestimated them. This asymmetric effect leads to a more consensual policy view, substantially decreasing the polarization in policy support between under- and overestimators. Our results suggest that correcting misperceptions can align public policy preferences, potentially leading to less polarized debates about how to address inequalities and discrimination.

read publication


Income Shocks, Political Support and Voting Behaviour

Richard Upward Peter Wright

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 1, 2024


We provide new evidence on the effects of economic shocks on political support, voting behaviour and political opinions over the last 25 years. We exploit a sudden, large and long-lasting shock in the form of job loss and trace out its impact on individual political outcomes for up to 10 years after the event. The availability of detailed information on households before and after the job loss event allows us to reweight a comparison group to closely mimic the job losers in terms of their observable characteristics, pre-existing political support and voting behaviour. We find consistent, long-lasting but quantitatively small effects on support and votes for the incumbent party, and short-lived effects on political engagement. We find limited impact on the support for fringe or populist parties. In the context of Brexit, opposition to the EU was much higher amongst those who lost their jobs, but this was largely due to pre-existing differences which were not exacerbated by the job loss event itself.

read publication


Frühkindliche Betreuung erhöht den Arbeitsmarkterfolg von Müttern ohne Abitur

Henning Hermes Marina Krauß Philipp Lergetporer Frauke Peter Simon Wiederhold

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 3, 2023


In den meisten Ländern wirkt sich die Geburt eines Kindes negativ auf den Arbeitsmarkterfolg von Müttern aus, insbesondere bei Müttern mit niedrigerem Schulabschluss. In diesem Beitrag werden die Ergebnisse eines Feldexperiments in Deutschland vorgestellt, in dem Familien bei der Bewerbung für einen Platz in einer Kindertagesstätte (Kita) unterstützt wurden. Die Ergebnisse zeigen, dass der verbesserte Zugang zu frühkindlicher Betreuung die Wahrscheinlichkeit erhöht, dass Mütter ohne Abitur in Vollzeit arbeiten, und deren Haushaltseinkommen steigert. Um den Arbeitsmarkterfolg von Müttern zu verbessern, sollte die Politik den Zugang zu frühkindlicher Betreuung erleichtern und die Zahl der Kita-Plätze noch weiter erhöhen.

read publication


Cultural Norms and Corporate Fraud: Evidence from the Volkswagen Scandal

Iftekhar Hasan Felix Noth Lena Tonzer

in: Journal of Corporate Finance, October 2023


We examine a corporate governance role of local culture via its impact on consumer behavior following corporate scandals. Our proxy for culture is the presence of local Protestantism. Exploiting the unexpected nature of the Volkswagen (VW) diesel scandal in September 2015, we show that new registrations of VW cars decline significantly in German counties with a Protestant majority following the VW scandal. Further survey evidence shows that, compared to Catholics, Protestants respond significantly more negatively to fraud but not to environmental issues. Our findings suggest that the enforcement culture in Protestantism facilitates penalizing corporate fraud.

read publication


Herding Behavior and Systemic Risk in Global Stock Markets

Iftekhar Hasan Radu Tunaru Davide Vioto

in: Journal of Empirical Finance, September 2023


This paper provides new evidence of herding due to non- and fundamental information in global equity markets. Using quantile regressions applied to daily data for 33 countries, we investigate herding during the Eurozone crisis, China’s market crash in 2015–2016, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and during the Covid-19 Pandemic. We find significant evidence of herding driven by non-fundamental information in case of negative tail market conditions for most countries. This study also investigates the relationship between herding and systemic risk, suggesting that herding due to fundamentals increases when systemic risk increases more than when driven by non-fundamentals. Granger causality tests and Johansen’s vector error-correction model provide solid empirical evidence of a strong interrelationship between herding and systemic risk, entailing that herding behavior may be an ex-ante aspect of systemic risk, with a more relevant role played by herding based on fundamental information in increasing systemic risk.

read publication
  • 1
Mitglied der Leibniz-Gemeinschaft LogoTotal-Equality-LogoSupported by the BMWK