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"


Compensation Regulation in Banking: Executive Director Behavior and Bank Performance after the EU Bonus Cap

Stefano Colonnello Michael Koetter Konstantin Wagner

in: Journal of Accounting and Economics, forthcoming


The regulation that caps executives’ variable compensation, as part of the Capital Requirements Directive IV of 2013, likely affected executive turnover, compensation design, and risk-taking in EU banking. The current study identifies significantly higher average turnover rates but also finds that they are driven by CEOs at poorly performing banks. Banks indemnified their executives by off-setting the bonus cap with higher fixed compensation. Although our evidence is only suggestive, we do not find any reduction in risk-taking at the bank level, one purported aim of the regulation.

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Oxytocin, Empathy, Altruism and Charitable Giving: Experimental Evidence from Blood Donations

Irena Jukić Dejan Kovač Danijela Vuletić Čugalj

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 4, 2023


We conducted a field experiment in the natural setting of blood donations to test how oxytocin relates to empathy and altruism. We randomly assigned blood donors in the Croatian Institute for Transfusion Medicine to three groups with the aim to induce different levels of empathy by showing a neutral video to the donors from the control group and an emotional to the donors from the first and second treatment groups. In addition to watching the emotional video, donors from the second treatment group are given a gift which relates to the emotional story from the video. We find no effect of our treatment on induced levels of oxytocin. Null effects of our treatments could be explained by the above average baseline levels of oxytocin and inability of our treatments to provoke emotional stimuli in blood donors. Nonetheless, for our empathy measures we find the effect of gift exchange on empathic concerns, but not on perspective taking. After our experimental treatments, we followed the return of our blood donors for a whole year. We find that only variable which consistently predicts return for blood donation in stated period is the number of previous donations. From policy perspective it is an important finding. Especially for hospitals and other blood providers when faced with time and resource constraints.

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Climate Change Concerns and Information Spillovers from Socially-connected Friends

Maximilian Mayer

in: IWH Discussion Papers, No. 2, 2023


This paper studies the role of social connections in shaping individuals’ concerns about climate change. I combine granular climate data, region-level social network data and survey responses for 24 European countries in order to document large information spillovers. Individuals become more concerned about climate change when their geographically distant friends living in sociallyconnected regions have experienced large increases in temperatures since 1990. Exploring the heterogeneity of the spillover effects, I uncover that the learning via social networks plays a central role. Further, results illustrate the important role of social values and economic preferences for understanding how information spillovers affect individual concerns.

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The Effect of Community Managers on Online Idea Crowdsourcing Activities

Lars Hornuf Sabrina Jeworrek

in: Journal of the Association for Information Systems, No. 1, 2023


In this study, we investigate whether and to what extent community managers in online collaborative communities can stimulate community activities through their engagement. Using a novel data set of 22 large online idea crowdsourcing campaigns, we find that moderate but steady manager activities are adequate to enhance community participation. Moreover, we show that appreciation, motivation, and intellectual stimulation by community managers are positively associated with community participation but that the effectiveness of these communication strategies depends on the form of participation managers wish to encourage. Finally, the data reveal that community manager activities requiring more effort, such as media file uploads vs. simple written comments, have a stronger effect on community participation.

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Wie stark beeinflussen menschliche Entscheidungen im Forschungsprozess die Qualität der empirischen Ergebnisse?

Michael Koetter Shuo Xia

in: Wirtschaft im Wandel, No. 4, 2022


Wie bedeutend ist das menschliche Element für die Genauigkeit empirischer Erkenntnisse in den Wirtschaftswissenschaften? Die Unsicherheit empirischer Schätzungen wird üblicherweise als ein statistisches Phänomen betrachtet. Unbekannte Parameter einer Grundgesamtheit werden anhand einer Stichprobe geschätzt, deren Erzeugung zu so genannten Standardfehlern führt. Forschende treffen jedoch viele unbeobachtete Entscheidungen, die nicht per se richtig oder falsch sind, sich aber auf das Ergebnis der Schätzung auswirken. Beispiele hierfür sind die Wahl der Software, die Art der Datenbereinigung oder die Spezifikation der Kontrollvariablen, um nur einige zu nennen. Wir haben an einem großen crowd-basierten Feldexperiment teilgenommen, bei dem sich herausstellte, dass dieser evidenzgenerierende Prozess von Forscher zu Forscher stark variiert, wodurch eine neue Art von Unsicherheit entsteht: so genannte Nicht-Standardfehler (NSE). 164 Teams von Finanzökonominnen und Finanzökonomen testeten sechs Hypothesen an einer identischen Stichprobe von Finanzmarktdaten. Das wichtigste Ergebnis ist, dass die Nicht-Standardfehler beträchtlich sind und die gleiche Größenordnung haben wie die Standardfehler, dass sie aber nach einem anonymen Begutachtungsprozess deutlich abnehmen. Wer sich von Wirtschaftsforschern beraten lässt, sollte sich daher darüber im Klaren sein, dass die Entscheidungen der einzelnen Forschenden die empirische Evidenz mit einer nicht unerheblichen Unsicherheit behaften. Gleichzeitig scheint eine der Veröffentlichung vorausgehende Begutachtung der Ergebnisse durch wissenschaftliche Kollegen (peer-review) die Anfälligkeit für diese Art von Unsicherheit zu verringern.

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