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Experimental & Political Economics

Experimental & Political Economics

Experimental & Political Economics

Programme director: Prof. dr. J.H. Sonnemans

Programme design


Improving the understanding of the behavioural determinants and consequences of economic decision making by (a) focusing on political economic issues, (b) allowing for bounded rationality, and (c) using laboratory experimentation as a research method.


Political decision making plays an important role in economies. Governments, for example, are essential for the functioning of markets. While they may be called upon to correct for market failures, they also have their own dynamics. Positive welfare effects of policies cannot be taken for granted. It is therefore important to study political decision making and the way in which policies can be applied beneficially. These observations provide the motivation for the first project: 'Economics of political decision making', a long standing project at the FEB dating back to 1983. It is related to public choice and the more recent upsurge in political economics.

Economic models, when pertaining to political decision making, typically make strong assumptions about the rationality, sophistication, and selfishness of individual behaviour. Experimental and other empirical evidence suggests, however, that the predictive power of the standard ‘homo economicus' model is often disappointing and depends on the institutional character of the decision making environment. There is a need for greater knowledge and a more satisfactory treatment of the bounds on rationality generated by the nature of cognition and emotion, and the influence of institutions. This motivates the second project: 'Bounded rationality and institutions', which fits into the emerging field of behavioural economics.

For the advancement of theory, empirical feedback is crucial. This may hold in particular for new research areas, when sorting out the most promising ways to proceed. Empirical analysis is seen as an important ingredient of this programme. For many of the issues studied in the aforementioned two projects, however, adequate field data are hard to come by or even nonexistent. Laboratory experimentation is a helpful complementary research method, especially in these cases, for exploration or the testing of models focusing on fundamental behavioural aspects or mechanisms. This motivates the third project: 'Experimental economics', which is stimulated by, and provides feedback for, the other two projects.

Institutional embedding

The research of this programme is carried out within the Center for Research in Experimental Economics and political Decision-making (CREED), a research institute of the FEB. CREED was established in 1991 by a PIONIER-grant from the Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Scientific Research (NWO) for the development of experimental economics in the Netherlands. An important facility is the CREED-laboratory for experimental economics, one of the few dedicated computer laboratories in Europe. Its focus on political decision making and experimental economics distinguishes CREED internationally.


I Economics of political decision making

This project is concerned with the demand for and the endogenous supply of government policies, the ways in which coordination takes place through the political decision-making process, and the effects thereof on the economy. Major research topics are:

  • Political participation and influence (voting, activity and influence of interest groups);
  • Interaction between the public sector and the private sector (e.g. the development of social capital and its importance for the provision of public goods);
  • Political economy of public and private institutions (e.g. issues of fiscal federalism).

II Bounded rationality and institutions 

In this project fundamental aspects of individual decision making, with economic relevance, are investigated. More particularly, attention is focused on the impact of cognitive limitations and emotions. In addition, responses to the complexity and institutional characteristics of the decision environment are studied. Among the topics investigated are:

  • Group formation in complex environments (e.g. development of political preferences through social interaction, development of interest groups);
  • Economic significance and modelling of emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, happiness);
  • Performance of various auction formats;
  • Irrationalities in risk attitudes, and efficiency gains by avoiding or reckoning with these.

III Experimental economics

The main purpose of laboratory experiments in economic research is to create a (political) economic process in a laboratory environment which allows for sufficient control and accurate measurement. Experiments are used for three purposes: (a) the testing of behavioural assumptions and predictions of existing (competing) theories; (b) the searching for facts that are instrumental in the construction of descriptive and explanatory theories; and (c) the evaluation of (new) institutions to assist policy makers. Research in this project is particularly stimulated by, and provides feedback for, the aforementioned two projects. Major lines of research are:

  • Voting and electoral competition (behaviour of voters and political candidates/parties);
  • Lobbying and political pressure (ways and means, and determinants of effectiveness);
  • Emotions and economic behaviour (impact, and modelling);
  • Markets and institutions (functioning of markets and, the design of, institutions);
  • Evolution of cooperation (development of cooperative behaviour over time);
  • Biases in risk attitudes.