Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Max Planck Institute for Human Development

The Max Planck Institute for Human Development is dedicated to the study of human development and education. Researchers of various disciplines – including psychology, education, sociology and medicine, as well as history, economics, computer science and mathematics – work together on interdisciplinary projects at the Berlin Institute. The research questions they examine include how people make effective decisions even under time pressure and information overload, which effects the institution of school has on students’ development and learning processes, how the interaction between behaviour and brain function changes over a person’s lifespan, as well as how human emotions change in a historical context and how they have affected the course of history itself.


Lentzeallee 94
14195 Berlin
Phone: +49 30 82406-0
Fax: +49 30 8249939

PhD opportunities

This institute has several International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS):
IMPRS on Adapting Behavior in a Fundamentally Uncertain World
IMPRS on the Life Course: Evolutionary and Ontogentic Dynamics
IMPRS for Moral Economies of Modern Societies

In addition, there is the possibility of individual doctoral research. Please contact the directors or research group leaders at the Institute.

Obesity seen as self-inflicted

Obesity seen as self-inflicted

February 05, 2018
Representative survey in Germany, the UK, and the US more
Frequent family meals promote good nutritional health in children
Meta-analysis of 57 studies with more than 200,000 participants worldwide more
Risk preference is a relatively stable personality trait
Large-scale study casts light on the nature of risk preferences more
Life in the city: Living near a forest keeps your amygdala healthier
MRI study analyzes stress-processing brain regions in older city dwellers more
Memory for details matures gradually
High-resolution imaging provides new insights into the development of the human brain more
Starting school boosts development
Positive effects on children’s ability to concentrate and control their behavior more
Older people make riskier choices than younger adults—and worse decisions more
Helping pays off: People who care for others live longer
Study investigates the relationship between caregiving and lifespan more
'Brexit will be more complicated than many believe'
Jürgen Basedow explains why the UK can expect long, drawn-out negotiations - and why little is likely to change in the short run more
Decision-making research in children: Rules of thumb are learned with time
Study investigates how 9-, 12-, and 17-year-olds deal with simple decision rules more
To help or not to help?
Emergency situations amplify individual tendencies to behave egoistically or prosocially more
What causes mass panic in emergency situations?
Study investigates crowd behaviour under stress in a virtual environment more
Daring more democracy!
A conversation about the rights of children and democracy in schools with Lothar Krappmann, who worked at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Freie Universität in Berlin until 2001. more
Diagnoses: When are several opinions better than one?
Researchers investigate the effects of collective intelligence and the conditions for its emergence more

Rituals of degradation have been used throughout the ages as a means of exercising authority. Judges made a public show of people by having them placed in the pillory, teachers made unruly pupils the object of ridicule with dunce caps. Such practices have been consigned to the past, but modern society has developed new methods for publicly stigmatizing outsiders, as our author describes.

Decisions follow a script all their own. Sometimes current facts play a role, sometimes utility is the driving force – and sometimes they are rooted deep in human evolutionary history. Ralph Hertwig, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, studies the dynamics of choice, uncertainty and risk. And he advises grandparents to help look after their grandchildren.

Music arouses emotions. But exactly what people feel when listening to a piece of music and how they express these feelings is influenced mainly by the times they live in and their culture. A research group led by Sven Oliver Müller at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin has carried out research on the changing emotions in Europe’s musical life, focusing in particular on the impact of music’s communal spirit.
“I think, therefore I am” – René Descartes’ thinking gave him the certainty that he did, in fact, exist. At the same time, he was aware that he was thinking, and he was able to contemplate his own thoughts. Scientists call this reflection on one’s own thinking “metacognition” – a skill that so-called lucid dreamers have, as well. Elisa Filevich and Simone Kühn at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin are studying which brain regions are particularly pronounced in lucid dreamers, and whether it is the same ones that are also related to metacognition.
Shooting sprees shock us and spark bewilderment and fear. At the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, a Minerva project is examining the link between possession of firearms, violence and emotions, based on the example of shooting sprees. Historian Dagmar Ellerbrock has already addressed the controversial topic of “youth and weapons” in previous studies.

Worlds of Emotions

Culture & Society
A cultural historian at a psychological research institute? Ute Frevert considers herself an advocate of the humanities – and enjoys putting the concepts and methods of her empirically oriented colleagues from the field of natural sciences to the test time and again. To support her arguments, the Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin occasionally calls on witnesses such as Romeo and Juliet, Frederick the Great, and even Angela Merkel.
Children learn to speak simply by imitating what they hear, but only very few learn to read and write without some instruction. Sascha Schroeder and his REaD research group at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development are investigating just how this works. Through their research, they are creating the basis for effectively supporting children with reading problems.
Our brain is a work in progress. From childhood to old age, it is continually modifying its structure and connectivity to support behavioral flexibility and plasticity (modifiability). Ulman Lindenberger from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin is examining how the brain is rebuilt in the course of development. The brains of children are generally more plastic than those of adults, but recent findings show that structural plasticity isn’t entirely lost in adulthood.
One might presume that feelings are universal. Scholars working with Margrit Pernau at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development would probably beg to differ. Taking India as an example, the group is exploring how the cultural environment has shaped emotions over the course of history.
As a country that prides itself on its education system,
Germany was left reeling by the PISA study.
Researchers conducted the first-ever study of how life longings arise, how they effect us and what their purpose is – and they fathomed a complex and deeply human emotion.
Apart from their immediate consequences, terrorist attacks also have an indirect impact, as they arouse uncertainty and fears in the minds of many people – and thus trigger behaviors that often amplify the damage.
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Brain plasticity and the inverted U: On the time course of experience-dependent plastic brain changes in humans

2017 Wenger, Elisabeth; Lindenberger, Ulman
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development investigate the time course of plasticity. Results show an initial increase followed by decrease of gray matter volume during skill acquisition. These plastic changes would have gone unnoticed, had a standard pretest-posttest design been employed. Such two-occasion designs are inadequate to identify the time course of plastic changes. Future research on human neuroplasticity needs research designs and theories that take the nonlinear dynamics of behavioral and cerebral variability and change into account.


Informed patients through distribution of fact boxes

2016 Gigerenzer, Gerd; Rebitschek, Felix G.
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences

Many doctors do not understand health statistics sufficiently, thus lacking basic knowledge and facts to perform crucial tasks such as properly discussing potential treatment plans with their patients. The current system of training health professionals unfortunately does not aim at rectifying this deficit. An evaluation study has proven the effectiveness of fact boxes, as developed by the Harding Center, in imparting knowledge to patients as a basis for informed decisions. Patients, doctors, and the health care system as a whole benefit from understanding the data provided by fact boxes.


A transnational history of emotions

2015 Pernau, Margrit
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences
Emotions are not the same for all people at all times. They have a history. In the Research Group for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, researchers come together to investigate the history of Europe and India – not only to compare regions, but also to study what is called the provincialisation of Europe: overcoming the perception of Europe as universal, as the norm from which all other regions represent, to a greater or lesser extent, deviations. more

What children read – cognitive consequences and pedagogical challenges

2014 Schroeder, Sascha
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Linguistics Social and Behavioural Sciences

The ability to read is a fundamental prerequisite for participation in modern, information-based societies. Learning to read is a long and complex process, however, and one that not all students master with ease – as studies such as PISA have shown. Individuals with functional illiteracy can find themselves excluded from many areas of life and work. The Max Planck Research Group REaD investigates the underlying structure of students’ reading skills as well as the development of these skills during childhood and adolescence. It aims to find out how reading deficits can be addressed effectively.


Simple heuristics in a complex social world

2014 Hertwig, Ralph; Hoffrage, Ulrich
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences
Our social environments and the problems they entail can be utterly complex. But what does this mean for our decision behavior? Do complex problems necessarily require complex cognitive machinery? Researchers of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development show that also in social environments decision-making can benefit from simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, as well as from relying on just a few good pieces of information. more

Emotional formations of musical experience

2013 Zalfen, Sarah
Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development investigate the historical development of the emotions triggered by music in the 19th and 20th centuries. Focusing on emotions as a public form of communication, they aim to decipher the emotional structure of communities: What role did and does music play in the development and cohesion of communities? The focus is less on the physiological effects of music than on how they are appropriated by groups. more

A lifespan perspective on the development of episodic memory

2013 Brod, Garvin; Shing, Yee Lee; Fandakova, Yana; Werkle-Bergner, Markus; Lindenberger, Ulman
Cognitive Science Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development directly compare episodic memory performance in children, younger adults, and older adults. The studies reveal that children and older adults differ in the mechanisms that support episodic memory even when performance levels are similar. In a two-component model of episodic memory the researchers attempt to capture these age-graded differences in underlining mechanisms, and demonstrate its utility for developmental research. more

Launching the Century of the Patient

2012 Gigerenzer, Gerd; Muir Gray, J. A.
Cognitive Science
Efficient health care needs well-informed doctors and patients. Our current health care system does not accomplish either. Many doctors and even more patients do not understand the medical information and research findings that are available. At the Ernst Strüngmann Forum “Better Doctors, Better Patients, Better Decisions: Envisioning Health Care 2020,” experts from ten countries developed ideas for a health care system of the future: better health care for less money through better information. more

Good Mood, Bad Mood – Does Age Matter?

2012 Riediger, Michaela
Cognitive Science
On average, older adults report better emotional well-being in their everyday lives than younger adults. The underlying mechanisms still remain largely unknown. Studies at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development show that motivational processes play a role in this respect. Older adults experience motivational conflicts in their everyday life less frequently than younger people. Also, older adults attempt to optimize their well-being more often than younger individuals, whereas adolescents are more often inclined to subdue positive, or even intensify negative feelings than adults. more
Regarding technology as providing opportunities for the future of aging may initially seem a strange notion. Opinions that older adults do not want to have anything to do with technology and that technological change places unreasonable demands on them and does not make their life easier, continue to be widespread. The opportunities that modern information technology can open up for the future of aging have only recently attracted research interest. more

Public Knowledge of Benefits of Breast and Prostate Cancer Screening in Europe

2010 Feufel, Markus; Gigerenzer, Gerd
Medicine Social and Behavioural Sciences
Researchers of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin asked more than 10,000 individuals in nine European countries about their knowledge of the benefits of early detection screening for cancer. It turns out that Europeans are poorly informed optimists when it comes to early detection screening. more

The History of Emotions

2010 Frevert, Ute
In the new Center for the History of Emotions historians, psychologists and educational researchers, but also ethnologists, sociologists, and scholars of literature, art, and music explore the emotional orders of the past and provide answers to the following questions: What is the logic of investigating emotions at an Institute for Educational Research? Why is research being conducted into the history of emotions? Do emotions have a history at all? And what new, important insights can this research bring? more

Empathy in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions

2009 Dziobek, Isabel
Cognitive Science Medicine
Empathy is a multidimensional construct entailing cognitive and emotional components. Despite a paucity of research, individuals on the autism spectrum are generally believed to lack empathy. In a study researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development used a new, photo-based measure, the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET), to assess empathy multidimensionally. Results suggested that while individuals with autism are impaired in cognitive empathy, they do not differ from control persons in emotional empathy. more

Striking a balance: Occupational Engagement and Emotional Distancing in Teachers

2009 Klusmann, Uta; Kunter, Mareike
Cultural Studies Social and Behavioural Sciences
Teachers’ occupational stress is a subject of much discussion, both among the general public and in the scientific community. The COACTIV study of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development was the first to show that teachers’ experience of stress is associated with student ratings of instructional quality, with stressed teachers scoring much lower. Moreover, the data indicate that personal resources, e.g. adaptive self-regulation, are associated with lower experience of stress. more

Goal Orientations across the Lifespan

2008 Ebner, Natalie; Riediger, Michaela
Behavioural Biology Social and Behavioural Sciences
Normative beliefs about the lifespan influence individuals’ perceptions and actions. In a recent study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development researchers used a recognition-memory paradigm in which participants are presented adult faces of various ages along with two developmental goal orientations, growth and loss-prevention, and are later asked to recognize the initially presented faces and the developmental goal orientations with which they were associated. more

Can forgetting be helpful?

2007 Gaissmaier, Wolfgang
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science
Cognitive limitations, such as forgetting, are often regarded as severe liability of the human mind. In contrast to that view, the article argues that these limitations are integral to the proper functioning of human thought. To understand when and why cognitive limitations can be helpful, researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development take an ecological perspective and argue the success of human behavior depends on the interplay between the human mind and the environment. more

Teacher competence and instruction: Results from the COACTIV project

2007 Kunter, Mareike
Cultural Studies Mathematics Social and Behavioural Sciences
The aim of the COACTIV project („Professional Competence of Teachers, Cognitively Activating Instruction, and the Development of Students’ Mathematical Literacy“) is to investigate mathematics teachers’ competence and the way it relates to instructional processes. Teacher competence is a multi-dimensional construct that encompasses aspects of teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and psychological functioning. By assessing these aspects in a sample of mathematics teachers, and linking these aspects to features of classroom instruction, as well as to the development of students’ mathematical literacy, COACTIV aims to provide unique insights into the prerequisites of students’ mathematical learning. First results are reported here. more
Does an engaged and active lifestyle in old age alleviate intellectual decline? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development approached this question by applying a structural equation model for testing dynamic hypotheses to eight-year longitudinal data from the Berlin Aging Study (n = 516; age range = 70–100+years). Results reveal that, within a bivariate system of perceptual speed and social participation, prior scores of social participation influence subsequent changes in perceptual speed, while the opposite does not hold. Results support the hypothesis that an engaged and active lifestyle in old and very old age has beneficial effects on intellectual development in old age. more

Cognitive mechanisms in mate choice

2005 Pachur, Thorsten; Wittig, Jutta; Dieckmann, Anja; Todd, Peter
Behavioural Biology Cognitive Science Evolutionary Biology
From a cognitive perspective, mate choice consists of three interrelated subtasks: (a) identifying features that are relevant for choosing a good mate, (b) integrating the features into a single attractiveness judgment, and (c) searching for possible partners. Computer simulations show that simple cognitive mechanisms can solve these tasks quickly and successfully. For instance, in a sequential search process such mechanisms lead to good mate choices by generating an aspiration level based on the quality of a small number of previously encountered candidates and on the feedback obtained on one’s own mate value. This aspiration level is then used to gauge the quality of future candidates; the first candidate subsequently encountered that exceeds this aspiration level is chosen. An empirical study of “fastdating” provides support for some of the predictions of the simulations and interestingly, also shows that stated preferences often do not match the features that underlie the actual mate choices. more
Intelligence cannot make up for lack of knowledge: this is also true for school mathematics. Part of the mental framework that is essential for acquiring mathematical competencies is determined, in the individual, even before school starts, but passing from intuitive mathematics to cultural mathematics requires the support of school settings. All children - even the less gifted - should learn early on that there is more to numbers than mere counting and that describing changing sets is not the only use addition and subtraction may be put to. Good mathematical competencies at the end of schooling are the result of an early start and an intelligent exercise procedure engaging pupils in intellectually stimulating tasks. more

Transformation of the secondary school system and academic careers: The success of the vocational gymnasium in Baden-Württemberg

2004 Trautwein, Ulrich; Watermann, Rainer; Nagy, Gabriel; Luedtke, Oliver
Social and Behavioural Sciences
In educational studies such as TIMSS and PISA, German pupils have not measured up well against their counterparts in other countries. A relatively small percentage of them graduates from secondary school with a diploma that entitles them go to university. A sluggish, old-fashioned German school system, resistant to modernization, is thought to be the culprit. A study of school performance alled "Transformation of the secondary school system and academic careers" (TOSCA), however, shows that successful strides are being made toward modernizing our school system. Schools are responding to the need for higher-quality education in today's industrialized countries, and the pupils' performance is keeping pace. more
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