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International Max Planck Research School

on Adapting Behavior in a Fundamentally Uncertain World


Research Statement

The program of the IMPRS-uncertainty is best characterised by a triangle. At each corner, one of the disciplines has its core competence. Psychologists are the specialists in the cognitive processes underlying human behaviour, including behaviour under conditions of highly actual or perceived uncertainty. Uncertainty as a subjective state leads to a slow down in decision and action. Economists are the specialists of restrictions, and of conflicts resulting from them. Strategic interaction frequently leads actors into an impasse although there would be room for gains from cooperation. In problems of strategic interaction, one rational actor optimises against one or more other rational actor/s who themselves optimise against her/him. Legal scholars are the specialists of institutions. The layered character of the legal order has broadened the scope of the discipline. Constitutional law, European Community law or the law of the World Trade Organisation force legal scholars to compare governance by law to alternative formal, informal and mixed institutions.

By themselves, no one of these disciplines is competent enough to generate a truly meaningful understanding of behaviour in a fundamentally uncertain world. While there is important generic knowledge of how participants react to perceived fundamental uncertainty in psychology, most of this knowledge is confined to (experimental) situations that are free from strategic interaction, and from institutional embeddedness. Likewise, while there is substantial theoretical and experimental knowledge about strategic interaction in economics, it normally has been generated assuming a fairly certain world, and with a psychologically naïve model of individuals. Finally lawyers, and their companions from institutional analysis and design, have generated a vast body of knowledge on the comparative performance of institutions. Most of this knowledge has an interdisciplinary base, be that in economics or, less frequently, psychology. However, as a rule, the more conceptually rigorous this work is, the stricter the assumptions about the situation. This gives short shrift to the role of law and institutions in helping people navigate in contexts of high perceived uncertainty. This state of affairs makes each of the three disciplines a natural complement of the two others.

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