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.

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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"


Paid Vacation Use: The Role of Works Councils

Laszlo Goerke Sabrina Jeworrek

in: Economic and Industrial Democracy, forthcoming


The article investigates the relationship between codetermination at the plant level and paid vacation in Germany. From a legal perspective, works councils have no impact on vacation entitlements, but they can affect their use. Employing data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), the study finds that male employees who work in an establishment, in which a works council exists, take almost two additional days of paid vacation annually, relative to employees in an establishment without such institution. The effect for females is much smaller, if discernible at all. The data suggest that this gender gap might be due to the fact that women exploit vacation entitlements more comprehensively than men already in the absence of a works council.

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Equity Crowdfunding: High-quality or Low-quality Entrepreneurs?

Daniel Blaseg Douglas Cumming Michael Koetter

in: Entrepreneurship, Theory and Practice, forthcoming


Equity crowdfunding (ECF) has potential benefits that might be attractive to high-quality entrepreneurs, including fast access to a large pool of investors and obtaining feedback from the market. However, there are potential costs associated with ECF due to early public disclosure of entrepreneurial activities, communication costs with large pools of investors, and equity dilution that could discourage future equity investors; these costs suggest that ECF attracts low-quality entrepreneurs. In this paper, we hypothesize that entrepreneurs tied to more risky banks are more likely to be low-quality entrepreneurs and thus are more likely to use ECF. A large sample of ECF campaigns in Germany shows strong evidence that connections to distressed banks push entrepreneurs to use ECF. We find some evidence, albeit less robust, that entrepreneurs who can access other forms of equity are less likely to use ECF. Finally, the data indicate that entrepreneurs who access ECF are more likely to fail.

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Wir brauchen eine neue Corona-Strategie

Reint E. Gropp

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 1, 2021


Die gegenwärtige Corona-Strategie der Bundes­regierung, wenn man sie denn so nennen kann, konzentriert sich darauf, besonders gefährdete Personen durch Impfung zu schützen und die Ansteckung aller anderen durch den Lockdown zu vermeiden. Sie ignoriert, dass Menschen im täglichen Leben immer Risiken eingehen und dabei auch Risiken berücksichtigen, die durch das Verhalten anderer entstehen. Sie entscheiden selbst, wie stark sie sich gefährden, je nach ihrer persönlichen gesundheitlichen Situation und Risikoaffinität. Die Möglichkeit, Risiken einzugehen, ist ein inhärenter Teil einer freiheitlichen Gesellschaft: Die Gesellschaft vertraut prinzipiell dem Einzelnen, einigermaßen vernünftige Entscheidungen zu treffen – und die Konsequenzen zu tragen, wenn die Dinge schiefgehen. Der Staat setzt dabei die Rahmenbedingungen, aber niemals mit dem Ziel, das Risiko für den Einzelnen auf null zu drücken. 

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Entry into Self-employment and Individuals’ Risk-taking Propensities

Matthias Brachert Walter Hyll Abdolkarim Sadrieh

in: Small Business Economics, No. 4, 2020


Most of the existing empirical literature on self-employment decisions assumes that individuals’ risk-taking propensities are stable over time. We allow for endogeneity on both sides when examining the relationship between individual risk-taking propensities and entry into self-employment. We confirm that a greater risk-taking propensity is associated with a higher probability of entering self-employment. However, we also find evidence that entering self-employment is associated with a significant and substantial increase in an individual’s propensity to take risks. Our findings add to the growing evidence that risk-taking propensities are not only inborn, but also determined by environmental factors.

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Protest! Die Rolle kultureller Prägung im Volkswagenskandal

Felix Noth Lena Tonzer

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 3, 2020


Die Aufdeckung manipulierter Abgaswerte bei Dieselautos des Herstellers Volkswagen (VW) durch die amerikanischen Behörden im Jahr 2015 brachte einen der größten Unternehmensskandale Deutschlands zutage. Dieser Skandal blieb nicht ohne Konsequenzen. Martin Winterkorn trat von seinem Amt als Vorstandsvorsitzender und Michael Horn als Chef von Volkswagen in den USA zurück. Viele VW-Kunden klagten gegen den Konzern, und in deutschen Großstädten wurde über Dieselfahrverbote diskutiert. Doch gab es auch eine Reaktion auf Konsumentenseite, also seitens der Autokäufer? Und wenn ja, spielen hier gesellschaftskulturelle Unterschiede wie zum Beispiel religiöse Prägung eine Rolle? Diesen Fragen geht ein im letzten Jahr erschienenes Arbeitspapier des IWH nach. Die empirische Analyse beschäftigt sich mit der Frage, ob Konsumenten nach dem VW-Skandal ihr Kaufverhalten stärker anpassen, wenn das gesellschaftliche Umfeld protestantisch geprägt ist. In der wissenschaftlichen Literatur zeigt sich, dass Protestanten mehr Wert auf eine Überwachung und Durchsetzung von Regeln legen, weshalb die Autoren von dieser Religionsgruppe eine ausgeprägtere Reaktion auf den VW-Skandal erwarten. Das Hauptergebnis der Studie legt dann genau diesen Schluss nahe: In den deutschen Regionen, in denen die Mehrheit der Bevölkerung dem protestantischen Glauben angehört, kam es zu signifikant höheren Rückgängen bei VW-Neuzulassungen infolge des VW-Skandals. Der Effekt ist umso stärker, je länger die Region durch protestantische Werte geprägt ist. Offenbar können bestimmte gesellschaftskulturelle Ausprägungen wie Religion und deren Normen ein Korrektiv für Verfehlungen von Unternehmen darstellen und somit verzögerte oder ausbleibende Maßnahmen von Politikern und Regulierern zum Teil ersetzen. 

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