RESEARCH UNIT INTERDISCIPLINARY PUBLIC POLICY
UNDERSTANDING AND IMPROVING INDIVIDUAL AND INSTITUTIONAL DECISION-MAKING
Public institutions can only use their various policy instruments productively if they are able to adequately assess the effect they have on human behavior. Thus, the design of effective institutions and policies requires not only an understanding of the relevant and often interdependent social, economic, political, and legal contexts and mechanisms but it also requires a deep knowledge about how human beings make decisions. In order to obtain the necessary insights, the Interdisciplinary Public Policy (IPP) Research Unit constituted at JGU in 2014 incorporates a number of different disciplines: economics, business administration, computer science, political science, sociology, communication studies, psychology and medicine.
The IPP focuses on the following main questions: Under what circumstances should public institutions actively intervene in socio-economic systems? What form should this intervention take, e.g., environmental legislation, interest rate adjustments, measures to promote innovation or education? What would be the effects of intervention in the various forms? Is it feasible to implement the intended changes in view of the given historical, political and institutional situation? In order to find answers to these questions, it is necessary to conduct theoretical and empirical research into the economic, political, socio-psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that determine human decision-making and to undertake practice-oriented projects to investigate the effects of the specific policy measures under study.
Innovative methods of data generation and analysis are the core cross-disciplinary skills available to the research unit. Quantitative and empirical methods as well as an approach inspired by experimental methodology used in the natural sciences not only link the research unit to other disciplines, but also represent a unique feature. The IPP Research Unit collaborates with the Graduate School of Economics, Finance, and Management established in cooperation with the universities of Frankfurt and Darmstadt, innovative Master's degree programs offered by the JGU faculties participating in the IPP Research Unit, and a very active visiting academic program inviting prominent guests to Mainz.
The IPP Research Unit has four research foci and respective working groups:
- Digital Behavior: A direct consequence of digital transformation is a change of the choice environment in which people make decisions, as these decisions increasingly take place in digital instead of analog settings. This includes the whole span of rather simple and regular “low-stakes” decisions like daily consumption choices up to irregular and complex “high-stakes” decisions considering career, habitation, or education. The research group "Digital Behavior" explores the determinants and consequences of behavioral deviations from rationality taking place in digital environments. Doing so, we combine experimental methods from economics and marketing with machine learning techniques from computer science to analyze data sets from the lab and the field featuring applications in education, finance, online shopping, and labor markets.
- Life Chances and Inequality: Some people are healthier than others. These health differences are not only important in their own right, but may also cause disparities in other economic and human capital outcomes. A substantial share of these differences can be traced back to health choices made contemporaneously or much earlier in our lives, as well as to differences in the surroundings we have encountered. To design adequate policies, it is essential to understand the paths that shaped our health: which behaviors affect our health? Are there exposures that can have effects on health that last for many years? How does the health care system affect our health outcomes? This may furthermore require us to understand the biology behind the development of our health. For example: when exposed to adverse circumstances, some people suffer health consequences while others remain relatively unharmed. Why is this so? And how does this inform policy makers?
- Decision Analytics: Policy decisions require large amounts of information, which often come from diverse sources (unstructured data of various origins, e.g., Tweets, news articles, web pages, and types, e.g. texts, images, videos, spoken language, etc.). However, the amount of information increases the cognitive burden of data processing, which might eventually lead to imprecise, biased, or flawed decisions. Moreover, the nature of the data is a problem, as most data is unstructured (such as images or natural language texts), heterogeneous (different origins or properties), and with varying levels of quality or credibility. The aim of this working group is to monitor and explain long-term opinion dynamics through using novel robust opinion mining methods for complex data from diverse domains and languages, to mitigate the negative impact of misleading information (e.g. conspiracy theories) and support reasoned political decision making in times of crises by using automated content analysis methodology, and to use agent-based modeling and simulation to address the challenges of planning and prediction in social systems, i.e. to reduce decision uncertainty. In doing so, the working group uses the most recent content-analytic methods, it develops new content-analytic methods, e.g. from machine learning and statistics, and it collaborates with CASG (https://www.ca-sg.de/)
- The Future of Democracy: Democracy is facing difficult times. In the face of challenges such as mass migration, climate change, digitalization and rising inequality, democratic legislatures and governments struggle to demonstrate their capacity for effective decision-making and problem solving. The rise of populist parties and candidates seems to further curtail institutional capacities both on the national and supranational level. While on the national level, mainstream political parties see their claims to adequately represent and respond to citizens challenged, the global and supranational institutions established to enhance cooperation under conditions of growing interdependence are threatened with disintegration and unilateralism. The working group studies the prospects of national and transnational democracy under these testing conditions, asking whether and how democratic institutions can be expanded and reformed and prove their resilience.