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Main areas of research: Experimental, Behavioural and Neuroeconomics; Fairness and Reciprocity
Ernst Fehr is an Austrian economist and specialist in behavioural economics. He has been able to show through extensive empirical studies that people are in no way as rational and self-serving as the standard “Homo Economicus” model assumes. His work was instrumental in affecting a fundamental change in economic thought.
Fairness, altruism or the desire for compensatory justice: Phenomena like these that serve to humanize social interactions have until recently been almost completely ignored by economic theories. Ernst Fehr criticizes the neoclassical dogma of the consistent rational behaviour of a “Homo Economicus” that is exclusively driven by the principle of personal gain and utility maximization. In doing so, he was instrumental in affecting a fundamental transformation that today is referred to as the “psychological shift in economics." Fehr was able to demonstrate in numerous behavioural studies that humans are in no way only governed by the pursuit of material gains when acting as economic subjects but rather often undertake to attain a fair balance of interests even when it is disadvantageous to themselves. He is intensely interested in the role that the principle of solidarity plays in economic decisions and in the cooperation found in small groups. In addition to laboratory experiments, Fehr carries out controlled field studies as well. During tests with indigenous peoples from the Amazon basin and Papua New Guinea he explored the extent to which “fair” conduct or sanctions against anti-social contemporaries are culturally determined. In order to track down the evolutionary roots of cooperation and “pro-social behaviour”, he organized experiments with children and chimpanzees. His institute has acquired its own brain scanner to facilitate his investigations into the neurobiological bases of human behaviour.
As a wanderer between different worlds, Ernst Fehr has succeeded in bridging such diverse disciplines as economics, sociology, psychology, biology, ethnology and neuroscience. His insights into the basics of human social behaviour help explain why the real economy oftentimes acts differently from the ways found in many economic textbooks. This work has also led Fehr to derive practical recommendations for influencing human behaviour not only by utilizing prohibitions or monetary incentives but also by more subtle psychological mechanisms.
In 2016, Ernst Fehr held the top spot on lists from the FAZ, NZZ and Austrian “Press” ranking the most influential economists in German speaking countries. In 2008 he was the first economist to be awarded the Marcel Benoist Prize, which is often described as the “Swiss Nobel Prize”. This international recognition translated into numerous expressions of interest from renowned universities, including Princeton University, University of California Berkeley, New York University, Cambridge University and Oxford University. His continued presence at his Zurich location for more than two decades has led to its becoming a centre of modern experimental economic research.
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