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Institutions for Intuitive Man


  • Christoph Engel

    () (Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn)


By its critics, the rational choice model is routinely accused of being unrealistic. One key objection has it that, for all nontrivial problems, calculating the best response is cognitively way too taxing, given the severe cognitive limitations of the human mind. If one confines the analysis to consciously controlled decision-making, this criticism is certainly warranted. But it ignores a second mental apparatus. Unlike conscious deliberation, this apparatus does not work serially but in parallel. It handles huge amounts of information in almost no time. It only is not consciously accessible. Only the end result is propelled back to consciousness as an intuition. It is too early to decide whether the rational choice model is ultimately even descriptively correct. But at any rate institutional analysts and institutional designers are well advised to take this powerful mechanisms seriously. In appropriate contexts, institutions should see to it that decision-makers trust their intuitions. This frequently creates a dilemma. For better performance is often not the only goal pursued by institutional intervention. Accountability, predictability and regulability are also desired. Sometimes, clever interventions are able to get them both. Arguably, the obligation to write an explicit set of reasons for a court decision is a case in point. The judge is not obliged to report the mental processes by which she has taken her decision. Justification is only ex post control. Intuitive decision-making is even more desirable if the underlying social problem is excessively complex (NP hard, to be specific), or ill-defined. Sometimes, it is enough for society to give room for intuitive decision-making. For instance, in simple social dilemmas, a combination of cheater detection and punishing sentiments does the trick. However, intuition can be misled. For instance, punishing sentiments are triggered by a hurt sense of fairness. Now in more complex social dilemmas, there are competing fairness norms, and people intuitively choose with a self-serving bias. In such contexts, institutions must step in so that clashing intuitions do not lead to social unrest.

Suggested Citation

  • Christoph Engel, 2007. "Institutions for Intuitive Man," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2007_12, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
  • Handle: RePEc:mpg:wpaper:2007_12

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Hoffman, Elizabeth & McCabe, Kevin A & Smith, Vernon L, 1998. "Behavioral Foundations of Reciprocity: Experimental Economics and Evolutionary Psychology," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 36(3), pages 335-352, July.
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    4. Engel, Christoph & Weber, Elke U., 2007. "The impact of institutions on the decision how to decide," Journal of Institutional Economics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 3(03), pages 323-349, December.
    5. Gerhard Wegner, 1997. "Economic Policy From an Evolutionary Perspective: A New Approach," Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, vol. 153(3), pages 485-485, September.
    6. Christoph Engel, 2004. "Social Dilemmas, Revisited from a Heuristics Perspective," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2004_4, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    7. Gerd Gigerenzer & Christoph Engel (ed.), 2006. "Heuristics and the Law," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262072750, July.
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    Cited by:

    1. Christoph Engel, 2008. "Preponderance of the Evidence versus Intime Conviction. A Behavioural Perspective on a Conflict between American and Continental European Law," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2008_33, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.
    2. Christoph Engel & Andreas Glöckner, 2008. "Can We Trust Intuitive Jurors? An Experimental Analysis," Discussion Paper Series of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods 2008_36, Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods.

    More about this item


    intuition; consciousness; rational choice; heuristics; ill-defined social problems; institutions;

    JEL classification:

    • B52 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - Current Heterodox Approaches - - - Historical; Institutional; Evolutionary
    • C72 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Game Theory and Bargaining Theory - - - Noncooperative Games
    • D01 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Microeconomic Behavior: Underlying Principles
    • D02 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Institutions: Design, Formation, Operations, and Impact
    • D81 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - Criteria for Decision-Making under Risk and Uncertainty
    • K40 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - General
    • K42 - Law and Economics - - Legal Procedure, the Legal System, and Illegal Behavior - - - Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law

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