Research

Here is a list of ongoing research projects (with abstracts):

Moral enhancement should target self-interest and cognitive capacity

Current suggestions for capacities that should be targeted for moral enhancement has
centered on traits like empathy, fairness or aggression. The literature, however, lacks a proper model for understanding the interplay and complexity of moral capacities, which limits the practicability of proposed interventions.

In this paper, I integrate some existing knowledge on the nature of human moral behavior and present a formal model of prosocial motivation. The model provides two important results regarding the most friction-free route to moral enhancement. First, we should consider decreasing self-interested motivation rather than increasing prosociality directly. Second, this should be complemented with cognitive enhancement.

These suggestions are tested against existing and emerging evidence on cognitive capacity, meditation and the effects of psychedelic drugs and are found to have sufficient grounding for further theoretical and empirical exploration. Further, moral effects of the latter two are hypothesized to result from a diminished sense of self with subsequent reductions in self-interest.

Money for nothing? Motivation crowding and economic rationality in the vaccination decision.

Vaccines famously possess public goods characteristics that make them vulnerable to the collective action dilemma. Economists have posited a simple way of solving the problem – economic incentives. However, results from studies on motivation crowding suggest that extrinsic incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivations such as altruism and therefore backfire. It is unresolved whether these problems affect only pure public goods or whether they could also be important when dealing with impure public goods, the class of goods to which vaccines often belong.

This study investigates if vaccines are subject to motivation crowding using two sets of survey experiments. It is found that in the aggregate, introducing economic incentives has positive effects on vaccination propensity. However, extensions reveal that for a certain subset of highly intrinsically motivated individuals, the effect of introducing economic incentives could be substantially weakened, or even negative. Further, the distinction between pure and impure public goods seems to be driving this dynamic, whereby only individuals who have nothing personal to gain from getting vaccinated are adversely affected. This suggests that motivation crowding is a relevant problem only for public goods with no individual utility component and that economic incentives could be a viable intervention to boost uptake of certain vaccines.

When is blood thicker than water? Variations of other-regard in the vaccination decision.

Social proximity and kinship have been shown to heavily influence our tendency to altruistic behavior. Evidence about group formation, the development of prosocial motivation during adolescence as well as on both endocrinological and psychological mechanisms involved in prosociality also highlight the likely inherently parochial character of human altruism. Meanwhile, other-regarding motivations can play a central role in vaccination behavior. It is not well-understood, however, what types of other-regard are involved, and what role they play.

In this study, I use a 2\times 2 factor survey experiment to investigate the differing effects of narrow (family-oriented) versus wide (purely altruistic) other-regard. I find that stimulating either of these types of other-regard leads to increases in vaccination propensity. However, the effects differ markedly between types of subjects: subjects in a settled family constellation display large effects of narrow, but not wide, other-regard, whereas others display the opposite. Wide other-regard therefore appears to be crowded out by narrow when humans enter pair-bonding. To maintain sufficient vaccination uptake, this distinction should be taken into consideration when designing messages to the public.

Democracy and vaccination uptake – a complex friendship

Democracies are generally thought to be better able to handle the provision of public goods than non-democracies. However, vaccines are a type of public good where we might expect this dynamic not to apply. Generally, a high vaccination uptake is net-profitable for the state above a certain level of national wealth, given losses of tax income to disease and health care expenditures. At the same time, democracies may be suspected to be less likely to use coercive means to achieve the goal of high uptake. This leads to the hypothesis that at least among rich countries, democracies may fare worse in terms of vaccination uptake.

In this paper, I test this proposal using a cross-country panel of WHO uptake data. I test both traditional panel models, as well as an IV-approach using regional democratization waves as an instrument for own-country democracy. With both approaches, the theoretical prediction appears to hold up: rich non-democracies do indeed achieve higher uptake than rich democracies.

Not my problem: fairness and fiscal responsibility in the age of austerity.
(with Pär Nyman)

Voter opposition to fiscal consolidation is often attributed to intergenerational exploitation, short-sightedness or lack of information. While these mechanisms are likely at play, the effect of voters’ moral considerations are largely absent from the public finance literature. This study addresses the effects of blame and feelings of responsibility on support for budget consolidations. We argue that voters will feel less responsible for fiscal problems originating from a crisis in the banking sector than if those problems result from a continuous accumulation of deficits, and will therefore be less supportive of austerity measures to repay the resulting debt. Our results, which make use of both cross-country data and a survey experiment, are consistent with this. Since financial crises and many other costly events are practically random, this can have the profoundly counter-intuitive consequence that governments are punished harder for things that are outside of their control.

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