Armin Falk is Professor of Economics at the University of Bonn and Chief Executive Officer of briq. His main fields are behavioral, experimental and labor economics. Falk’s research focuses on determinants and consequences of time, risk and social preferences, sources of inequality, early childhood development, and the malleability of moral behavior. He has received two ERC grants and was awarded the Gossen Prize in 2008, the Leibniz Prize in 2009, as well as the Yrjö Jahnsson Award in 2011. As organizer or keynote speaker, he has been involved in numerous conferences and summer schools. He is Fellow of the European Economic Association, Director of the Bonn Laboratory for Experimental Economics, and affiliated with Hausdorff Center for Mathematics, Institute for New Economic Thinking, Institute of Labor Economics (IZA), German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Centre for Economic Policy (CEPR), CESifo, and the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
Standard consumption utility is linked in time to a consumption event, whereas the timing of prosocial utility flows is ambiguous. Prosocial utility may depend on the actual utility consequences for others – it is consequence-dated – or it may be related to the act of giving and is thus choice-dated. Even though most prosocial decisions involve intertemporal trade-offs, existing models of other-regarding preferences abstract from the time signature of utility flows, limiting their explanatory scope. Building on a canonical intertemporal choice framework, we characterize the behavioral implications of the time structure of prosocial utility. We conduct a high-stakes donation experiment that allows us to identify non-parametrically and calibrate structurally the different motives from their unique time profiles. We find that the universe of our choice data can only be explained by a combination of choice- and consequence-dated prosocial utility. Both motives are pervasive and negatively correlated at the individual level.
We study response behavior in surveys and show how the explanatory power of self-reports can be improved. First, we develop a choice model of survey response behavior under the assumption that the respondent has imperfect self-knowledge about her individual characteristics. In panel data, the model predicts that the variance in responses for different characteristics increases in self-knowledge and that the variance for a given characteristic over time is non-monotonic in self-knowledge. Importantly, the ratio of these variances identifies an individual’s level of self-knowledge, i.e., the latter can be inferred from observed response patterns. Second, we develop a consistent and unbiased estimator for self-knowledge based on the model. Third, we run an experiment to test the model’s main predictions in a context where the researcher knows the true underlying characteristics. The data confirm the model’s predictions as well as the estimator’s validity. Finally, we turn to a large panel data set, estimate individual levels of self-knowledge, and show that accounting for differences in self-knowledge significantly increases the explanatory power of estimates. Using a median split in self-knowledge and regressing risky behaviors on self-reported risk attitudes, we find that the R2can be multiple times larger for above- than below-median subjects. Similarly, gender gaps in risk attitudes are considerably larger when restricting samples to subjects with high self-knowledge. These examples illustrate how using the estimator may improve inference from survey data.
Inequality of opportunity strikes when two children with the same academic performance are sent to different quality schools because their parents differ in socio-economic status. Based on a novel dataset for Germany, we demonstrate that children are significantly less likely to enter the academic track if they come from low socio-economic status (SES) families, even after conditioning on prior measures of school performance. We then provide causal evidence that a low-intensity mentoring program can improve long-run education outcomes of low SES children and reduce inequality of opportunity. Low SES children, who were randomly assigned to a mentor for one year are 20 percent more likely to enter a high track program. The mentoring relationship affects both parents and children and has positive long-term implications for children’s educational trajectories.
Falk, A., Kosse, F., Schildberg-Hörisch, H. & Zimmermann, F. Self-assessment: The role of the social environment.
This study presents descriptive and causal evidence on the role of the social environment in shaping the accuracy of self-assessment. We introduce a novel incentivized measurement tool to measure the accuracy of self-assessment among children and use this tool to show that children from high socioeconomic status (SES) families are more accurate in their self-assessment, compared to children from low SES families. To move beyond correlational evidence, we then exploit the exogenous variation of participation in a mentoring program designed to enrich the social environment of children. We document that the mentoring program has a causal positive effect on the accuracy of children’s self-assessment. Finally, we show that the mentoring program is most effective for children whose parents provide few social and interactive activities for their children.
Why does patience vary across individuals and countries? We provide evidence on a widely-hypothesized mechanism, namely that higher longevity fosters patience. Using data on patience for 80,000 individuals in 76 countries, this paper relates exogenous variation in longevity across gender-age-country cells to variation in patience. We find that a ten-year increase in life expectancy implies a 5-percentage point higher discount factor. This relationship emerges for various sub-samples and is unaffected by other determinants including lifetime experiences regarding economic development, institutional quality, or violence. We provide a model to discuss the implications for the emergence of poverty traps.
We study the production and circulation of arguments justifying actions on the basis of morality. By downplaying externalities, exculpatory narratives allow people to maintain a positive image while acting selfishly. Conversely, responsibilizing narratives raise both direct and reputational stakes, fostering prosocial behavior. These rationales diffuse along a linear network, through both costly signaling and strategic disclosure. The norms that emerge reflect local correlation in agents’ incentives (reputation versus influence concerns), with low mixing generating both a polarization of beliefs across groups and less moral behavior on average. Imperatives (general precepts) constitute an alternative mode of moral influence. We analyze their costs and benefits relative to those of narratives, and when the two will be used as substitutes or complements.
We examine to what extent a personís moral preferences can be inferred from observing their choices, for instance via experiments, and in particular, how one should interpret certain behaviors that appear deontologically motivated. Comparing the performance of the direct elicitation (DE) and multiple-price list (MPL) mechanisms, we characterize in each case how (social or self) image motives ináate the extent to which agents behave prosocially. More surprisingly, this signaling bias is shown to depend on the elicitation method, both per se and interacted with the level of visibility: it is greater under DE for low reputation concerns, and greater under MPL when they become high enough. We then test the modelís predictions in an experiment in which nearly 700 subjects choose between money for themselves and implementing a 350€ donation that will, in expectation, save one human life. Interacting the elicitation method with the decision's level of visibility and salience, we find the key crossing effect predicted by the model. We also show theoretically that certain "Kantian" postures, turning down all prices inthe offered range, easily emerge under MPL when reputation becomes important enough.
Dohmen, T., Falk, A., Huffman, D., & Sunde, U. The robustness and pervasiveness of sub-additivity in intertemporal choice.
A large literature has used choice experiments involving time-dated monetary rewards, to test whether time discounting is exponential or hyperbolic, with mixed results. One explanation, proposed by the psychologist Daniel Read (2001), is that the observed choice patterns reflect a type of framing effect, known as sub-additivity, rather than hyperbolic or exponential discounting. An alternative explanation, however, has emerged from a recent literature in economics, which points out various confounds that might affect the traditional intertemporal choice experiment, as well as challenges of inference from typically small or idiosyncratic samples. This paper makes two main contributions: (1) It re-visits the sub-additivity hypothesis, but using a design that addresses the key methodological confounds; (2) it uses large representative samples, to assess the pervasiveness and importance of anomalous choice patterns like sub-additivity. The analysis finds intertemporal choices that are consistent with sub-additivity, and rules out explanations based on confounds. Furthermore, subadditivity is pervasive, being observed across all sub-populations studied in the analysis, and constituting the majority choice pattern at the individual level. The results underline that sub-additivity is an important feature of intertemporal choice, they raise caveats about how intertemporal choice experimens have often been interpreted, and they suggest some directions for methodological improvements.
This paper studies the causal effect of status differences on moral disengagement and violence. To measure violent behavior, in the experiment, a subject can inflict a painful electric shock on another subject in return for money. We exogenously vary relative status in the realm of sexual attractiveness. In three between-subject conditions, the assigned other subject is either of higher, lower or equal status. The incidence of electric shocks is substantially higher among subjects matched with higher- and lower-status others, relative to subjects matched with equal-status others. This causal evidence on the role of status inequality on violence suggests an important societal cost of economic and social inequalities.
This study provides insights on the role of early childhood family environment within the process of preference formation. We start by presenting evidence showing that breastfeeding duration is a valid measure of the quality of early childhood environment. In the main analysis, we then investigate how early childhood environment affects the formation of fundamental economic preferences such as time, risk, and social preferences. In a sample of preschool children we find that longer breastfeeding duration is associated with higher levels of patience and altruism as well as lower willingness to take risk. Repeating the analysis on a sample of young adults indicates that the observed pattern is replicable and persists into adulthood. Importantly, in both data sets our findings are robust, when controlling for cognitive ability and parental socio-economic status. We can further rule out that the results are purely driven by nutritional effects of breastfeeding. Altogether, our findings strongly suggest that early childhood environment as measured by breatsfeeding duration systematically and persistently affects preference formation.
Falk, A., & Zimmermann, F. Beliefs and utility: Experimental evidence on preferences for information.
Beliefs are a central determinant of behavior. Recent models assume that beliefs about or the anticipation of future consumption have direct utility-consequences. This gives rise to informational preferences, i.e., preferences over the timing and structure of information. Using a novel and purposefully simple set-up, we experimentally analyze preferences for information along four dimensions. We find evidence that the majority of subjects prefers receiving information sooner. This preference, however, is not uniform but depends on context. When the environment allows subjects to not focus attention on (negative) consumption events, later information becomes more attractive. We also identify an aversion towards piecemeal information. Variations in prior distributions do not seem to affect information preferences.
Altmann, S., Falk, A., & Grunewald, A. Incentives and information as driving forces of default effects.
The behavioral relevance of non-binding defaults is well established. While most research has focused on decision makers’ responses to a given default, we argue that this individual decision making perspective is incomplete. Instead, a comprehensive understanding of default effects requires to take account of the strategic interaction between default setters and decision makers. We analyze theoretically and empirically which defaults emerge in such interactions, and under which conditions defaults are behaviorally most relevant. Our analysis demonstrates that the alignment of interests between default setters and decision makers, as well as their relative level of information are key drivers of default effects. In particular, default effects are more pronounced if the interests of the default setter and decision makers are more closely aligned. Moreover, decision makers are more likely to follow default options the less they are privately informed about the relevant decision environment.
Falk, A., Becker, A., Dohmen, T. J., Huffman, D., & Sunde, U. The preference survey module: A validated instrument for measuring risk, time, and social preferences.
This paper presents an experimentally validated survey module to measure six key economic preferences – risk aversion, discounting, trust, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity – in a reliable, parsimonious and cost-effective way. The survey instruments included in the module were the best predictors of preferences revealed in incentivized choice experiments. We also offer a streamlined version of the module that has been optimized and piloted for applications where time efficiency and simplicity are paramount, such as international telephone surveys.
Dohmen, T., Enke, B., Falk, A., Huffman, D., & Sunde, U. Patience and comparative development. (R&R Review of Economic Studies)
This paper studies the role of heterogeneity in time preference for comparative development. The empirical analysis is based on a simple OLG model in which patience drives the accumulation of physical capital, human capital, productivity improvements, and hence income. Based on a globally representative dataset on patience in 76 countries,we study the implications of themodel through a combination of reduced-form estimations and simulations. In the data, patience is strongly correlated with income levels, income growth, and the accumulation of physical capital, human capital, and productivity. These relationships hold across countries, subnational regions, and individuals. In the reduced-form analyses, the quantitative magnitude of the relationship between patience and income strongly increases in the level of aggregation. A simple parameterized version of the model generates comparable aggregation effects as a result of production complementarities and equilibrium effects, and illustrates that variation in preference endowments can account for a considerable part of the observed variation in per capita income.
Falk, A. (2020). Facing Yourself - A Note on Self-image. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (forthcoming).
The concern for a positive self-image is a central assumption in a large class of signaling models. In this paper, we exogenously vary self-image concerns by manipulating self-directed attention and study the impact on moral behavior. The choice context in the experiment is whether subjects inflict a painful electric shock on another subject to receive a monetary reward. In the main treatment, subjects see their own face on the decision screen in a real-time video feed. In three control conditions, subjects see either no video at all or a neutral video, or they see themselves in a mirror. We find that the exogenous increase in self-image
concerns significantly reduces the fraction of subjects inflicting pain. The finding emphasizes the importance of self-awareness for moral decision making with implications for theory as well as practical applications to promote socially desirable outcomes.
Falk, A., Kosse, F., Pinger, P., Schildberg-Hörisch, H., & Deckers, T. (2020). Socio-economic status and inequalities in children’s IQ and economic preferences. Journal of Political Economy (forthcoming).
This paper explores inequalities in IQ and economic preferences between children from high and low socio-economic status (SES) families. We document that children from high SES families are more intelligent, patient and altruistic, as well as less risk-seeking. To understand the underlying causes and mechanisms, we propose a framework of how parental investments as well as maternal IQ and economic preferences influence a child’s IQ and preferences. Within this framework, we allow SES to influence both the level of parental time and parenting style investments, as well as the productivity of the investment process. Our results indicate that disparities in the level of parental investments hold substantial importance for SES gaps in economic preferences and, to a lesser extent, IQ. In light of the importance of IQ and preferences for behaviors and outcomes, our findings offer an explanation for social immobility.
Habersaat, K., Betsch, C., Danchin, M., Sunstein, C., Böhm, R., Falk, A., Brewer, N. T., Omer, S. B., Scherzer, M., Sah, S., Fischer, E. F., Scheel, A. E., Fancourt, D., Kitayama, S., Dubé, E., Leask, J., Dutta, M., MacDonald, N. E., Temkina, A., Lieberoth, A., Jackson, M., Lewandowsky, S., Seale, H., Fietje, N., Schmid, P., Gelfand, M., Korn, L., Eitze, S., Felgendreff, L., Sprengholz, P., Salvi, C., & Butler, R. (2020). Ten considerations for effectively managing the COVID-19 transition. Nature Human Behaviour, 4, 677-687.
Becker, A., Enke, B., & Falk, A. (2020). Ancient origins of the global variation in economic preferences. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 110, 319-323.
Using novel globally representative preference data, this paper shows that the structure and timing of the migratory movements of our very early ancestors have left a footprint in the contemporary cross-country distributions of risk, time, and social preferences. Across a wide range of regression specifications, differences in preferences between populations are significantly increasing in the length of time elapsed since the respective groups shared common ancestors, as proxied by genetic, linguistic, and predicted migratory distance data. The results are strongest for risk aversion and the prosocial traits altruism, positive reciprocity, and trust; similar, but weaker, findings hold for patience and negative reciprocity. These patterns point to the very long-run roots of the global variation in preferences and associated economic behaviors.
Falk, A., & Graeber, T. (2020). Delayed negative effects of prosocial spending on happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(12), 6463-6468.
Governments around the world increasingly acknowledge the role of happiness as a societal objective and implement policies that target national wellbeing levels. Knowledge about the determinants of happiness, however, is still limited. A longstanding candidate is prosocial behavior. Our study empirically investigates the causal effect of prosocial behavior on happiness in a high-stakes decision experiment. While we confirm previous findings of a positive effect in the short term, our findings distinctly show that this effect is short lived and even reverses after some time. This study documents that prosocial behavior does not unequivocally increase happiness because prosocial spending naturally requires giving up something else, which may decrease happiness in its own right.Does prosocial behavior promote happiness? We test this longstanding hypothesis in a behavioral experiment that extends the scope of previous research. In our Saving a Life paradigm, every participant either saved one human life in expectation by triggering a targeted donation of 350 euros or received an amount of 100 euros. Using a choice paradigm between two binary lotteries with different chances of saving a life, we observed subjects intentions at the same time as creating random variation in prosocial outcomes. We repeatedly measured happiness at various delays. Our data weakly replicate the positive effect identified in previous research but only for the very short run. One month later, the sign of the effect reversed, and prosocial behavior led to significantly lower happiness than obtaining the money. Notably, even those subjects who chose prosocially were ultimately happier if they ended up getting the money for themselves. Our findings revealed a more nuanced causal relationship than previously suggested, providing an explanation for the apparent absence of universal prosocial behavior.
Falk, A., Neuber, T., & Szech, N. (2020). Diffusion of being pivotal and immoral outcomes. Review of Economic Studies, 87(5), 2205-2229.
We study how the diffusion of being pivotal affects immoral outcomes. In our main experiment, subjects decide about agreeing to kill mice and receiving money versus objecting to kill mice and foregoing the monetary amount. In a baseline condition, subjects decide individually about the life of one mouse. In the main treatment, subjects are organized into groups of eight and decide simultaneously. Eight mice are killed if at least one subject opts for killing. The fraction of subjects agreeing to kill is significantly higher in the main condition compared with the baseline condition. In a second experiment, we run the same baseline and main conditions but use a charity context and additionally study sequential decision making. We replicate our finding from the mouse paradigm. We further show that the observed effects increase with experience, i.e., when we repeat the experiment for a second time. For both experiments, we elicit beliefs about being pivotal, which we validate in a treatment with non-involved observers. We show that beliefs are a main driver of our results.
Kosse, F., Deckers, T., Pinger, P., Schildberg-Hörisch, H., & Falk, A. (2020). The formation of prosociality: Causal evidence on the role of the social environment. Journal of Political Economy, 128(2), 434-467.
This study presents descriptive and causal evidence on the role of social environment for the formation of prosociality. In a frst step, we show that socio-economic status (SES) as well as the intensity of mother-child interaction and mothers' prosocial attitudes are systematically related to elementary school children's prosocialty. In a second step, we present evidence on a randomly-assigned variation of the social environment, providing children with a mentor for the duration of one year. Our data include a two-year follow-up and reveal a significant and persistent increase in prosociality in the treatment relative to the control group. Moreover, enriching the social environment bears the potential to close the observed gap in prosociality between low and high SES children. A mediation analysis of the observed treatment effect suggests that prosociality develops in response to stimuli in the form of prosocial role models and intense social interactions.
Behavioral Labor Economics
Empirical Measurement of Preferences
Theory of the Firm and the Labor Market
Microeconomics and Game Theory
Management and Economics