The briq scholarship program supports about 25 Ph.D. students at the Bonn Graduate School of Economics. Some of them are directly involved in briq research activities. In a series of short portraits, the briq newsroom introduces our student fellows and what they do. One of them is Luca Henkel, who has been at briq since July 2017.
What is your favorite research area?
I’m generally interested in individual decision-making: how do people make choices under various circumstances and situations, and what drives them? In particular, I’m interested in the determinants of moral decision-making and decision-making under uncertainty. The former concerns situations where individual choices might have consequences for other living creatures, while the latter concerns situations where the consequences of decisions are not known with certainty in advance. What makes it particularly interesting for me is that those situations relate to almost all relevant decisions made by individuals in reality.
What is your approach to these questions?
I’m most excited about combining theoretical insights with experimental evidence. That is, bringing together economic modeling and experimental methods to gain new insights into the process of human decision-making in different contexts.
Can you give an example?
In a joint paper with my advisor Armin Falk, as well as Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirole, we use a model to show that individuals’ answers in morally sensitive choices can generally differ from their preferences or “true” moral types if people have reputational concerns. By reputational concerns we mean the desire of people to see themselves, and be seen by others, as a “good person.” As the model makes clear, such tendencies interact with different methods of asking moral questions, generating interesting predictions on the frequency of moral behavior.
How did you test those predictions?
We conducted an experiment where participants face moral choices that have the following options: one option is to trigger a donation to help patients suffering from tuberculosis. The other is to take money for themselves. In one condition, participants made this choice privately, while in another, their choices were observed by multiple other persons.
What was the outcome of the experiment?
We indeed find evidence for the predictions by the model. We compare two methods commonly used to infer moral preferences from choices. In one method, participants make multiple choices for different sums of money, and only one is potentially implemented with real consequences. In the other method, participants face a single choice for a fixed monetary amount. Presenting multiple choices leads to more donation decisions compared to a single choice – but only if choices are observed by other persons. If choices are made in private, the opposite is true: then presenting a single choice generates more donations.
What do these findings tell us?
The results may give guidance for the design of questions and choices when the aim is to maximize moral or prosocial behavior such as donations. At the same time, they provide a caveat for those experiments and contingent-valuation surveys that aim at categorizing people by their “true” moral types.