What do people strive for in their activities?

Autonomy within the institute, the possibility of researching independently with their own team – this is precisely the opportunity that presented itself for Susann Fiedler at the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods. She is Head of the Gielen-Leyendecker Research Group, which is named after its patron and is advancing the young psychologist’s career in leaps and bounds.

Susann Fiedler’s research strategy was a perfect fit for the criteria of the Gielen-Leyendecker Foundation. The behavioural psychologist seeks answers to questions that have been asked since ancient times but are now being considered empirically using new approaches: What do people strive for in their activities? Are they really only out for their own good as suggested by classical economic theory? Is it possible to train people to be altruistic? Can they be influenced at all?

Fiedler’s research links economic game theory with the internal world of the human mind. The cognitive processes involved in economic decision-making are examined in experiments, in which test subjects’ eye movements are recorded and analysed using eye tracking. Thanks to the insights from cognition research, conclusions about thought processes can be drawn from this information. This research is complex because people bring certain decision premises with them based on their personalities, genes and experiences. “Whether the decisions are about risks, voluntary work, or whether or not to support a colleague in one’s team, the way people make decisions and the information they draw on to do this depend on the particular situation,” explains Fiedler.

The knowledge about the decision-making process could help to support people with decision-making in the future and prevent them from making mistakes, says the 29-year-old scientist who once did basic training with the Bundeswehr and is the only psychologist working at the otherwise economics- and law-oriented institute.

After all, there is a lot of money at stake: the Gielen-Leyendecker Foundation is providing € 550.000 for the first five years of the research group’s activity. “I have had good experience with the funding of young scientists, in particular, and know that the donation is put to good use,” says Adelheid Wiemer-Kruel.