Professor Sebastian Goerg, who leads the Economics professorship located at TUM Campus Straubing, discusses his team’s research and teaching efforts to contribute to our understanding of effective incentives for transitions towards greener and more sustainable policies.
What is the main goal of your current research?
In our research, we are trying to understand incentives that motivate individuals to make certain decisions. We are doing so to learn how to make it easier for people to make, for example, more sustainable decisions. These can be, for example, understanding factors that could boost support for policy measures like a carbon dioxide tax. While most of our research is focused on individuals, we then aggregate that data from larger samples to try to find patterns. Ultimately, we try to understand how likely a certain intervention could change a certain population’s decisions or behavior.
To do these studies, we use experimental economics methods. We do either classical laboratory experiments, where participants would type something, or click a button, or answer surveys. For example, we could examine the impact of having a website’s green option for energy contracts pre-selected for the consumer versus not and then extrapolate how large of an effect that shift would have. We also do field experiments where we observe people closer to their natural environment, such as monitoring what could increase completion of tasks at a workplace or what kind of products people choose. In either case, we manipulate the setting to trigger a change in behavior or decisions and then measure that change.
What do you aim for students to learn in your classes?
In basic courses, I would like them to understand that the solutions to many economic questions are not always obvious and that they need to stay open to different possibilities and solutions. Instead of being either extremely skeptical of market economy or totally convinced that markets are the only way to get efficient allocations, I would like them to understand that the truth is somewhere in the middle. There are situations in which markets work very nicely and there are also situations in which markets completely fail and must be regulated.
In the upper courses, for example behavioral economics, I would like the students to understand that human behavior is complex and just because we do not understand people’s behavior in some situations, it does not mean that it is irrational. There is usually an underlying logic to decisions and we have tools with which we can try to understand them.
How can working across disciplines contribute to your work?
I have previously worked with psychologists, evolutionary biologists, political scientists, and legal scholars. Interdisciplinary research is fun because even if you have been working on a particular topic for a long time, working with someone from a different discipline on this topic will give you a new perspective. This is because every field examines topics from very different perspectives. They also examine tiny different aspects of the same problem. Interdisciplinary research might also direct you to a topic that is under-researched in your own discipline.
What do you see as the social relevance of your research?
While our research is basic, it could make us understand, and therefore feed into, for example, policies for a more sustainable future. These policies could be, for example, around labels or representation on products that would help consumers make sustainable choices; the type of information we present to consumers; or even classical monetary incentives such as using a tax. My research, with its focus on individuals, can inform policies that aim to affect individuals’ decisions.
In our research, I hope that we can create better ways to help people make more sustainable decisions voluntarily. I think that is important because if we enforce certain decisions, then we risk losing societal support that we need to tackle the big changes.
How do you see your work contributing to responsible innovation and research?
As we as a society are looking at motivations and incentives to create a more sustainable future, we should also examine social implications of such changes. For example, as our economy is in the midst, or in the beginning, of a transition out of fossil fuels towards a bio economy, we are working on understanding attitudes towards this transition. By examining how the measures would impact the individual, we can see that this transition will have trade-offs and will impact regions differently. Within Europe, for example, support for green measures and industries is vastly diverse, depending on the types of jobs that exist in different regions.
And so, regions that have more jobs based on classical fossil fuels have lower support for these policies, probably because they anticipate negative effects for their livelihood. The next step is then to examine if there is something we can do about this; how we can even out the impacts and make sure that the people who will be negatively affected by this transition are still supporting it. Now is the time to start thinking about how we can all transition together. My research would provide some insights on how to keep up support for greener policies.