Unethical Behavior and Risk – An Interview with a Behavioral Economist Dr. Agne Kajackaite

Dr. Agne Kajackaite is a behavioral economist and head of research group “Ethics and Behavioral Economics” at the Berlin Social Science Center. She has received her PhD from the University of Cologne and before joining the Berlin Social Center in 2017 she was a PostDoc at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In her research she aims to understand unethical behavior, particularly lying behavior, by conducting economic lab experiments. Further topics in her research are cognitive performance, gender, incentives, risk preferences, and ignorance. Her research on the effect of temperature on cognitive performance and gender was covered by The New York Times, The Time, The Guardian, The Atlantic and The Washington Post, among others. Agne has received Vladas Jurgutis Award in 2018 and GLL Award for Promoting the Name of Lithuania Globally in 2019.

Professor Kajackaite, first of all please tell us about your latest study on how temperature affects the cognitive ability of men and women.

There have been many studies showing that women prefer higher indoor temperatures than men, however nobody looked at the effect of these differences in comfort on performance. We show that the battle for the thermostat is not just about the comfort. It is much more – in our experiment, women’s cognitive functioning is the best at high temperatures, whereas men’s at low temperatures. Importantly, the positive effect of increased temperatures on women’s performance is much stronger than the negative effect on men. The most surprising was that the effect of temperature on women is so strong. Especially, the results from the math task were surprising. At low temperatures, men clearly outperform women in a simple math task. However, when we increase the temperature, women become better and better (1.76% increase of solved tasks with each 1 Celsius increase), and at high temperatures women and men perform on the same level – the gender difference disappears.

Women performance based on temperature


Why do people lie more easily about luck than about performance?

It seems that the psychological cost of lying is lower when lying about something that happened randomly than about something that one has worked on/had influence on. If something happened that I had no influence on, I can see it as bad luck and justify my lies by “having a bad day”. If, however, I did something wrong and now I am thinking about lying about it, it is hard to blame bad luck for my situation and lying will be harder on my self-image.


Lying for material advantages

Do people avoid lying in order to get material advantage?

In our experiments, people lie in order to get material advantage.But some people avoid lying in order to get a social image advantage – they want to look as honest people even more than they want the money they could get through lying.

People lie in order to get material advantage. But some people avoid lying in order to get a social image advantage

Please tell us about the differences in the risk taking ability of men and women.

In experiments, women tend to take fewer risks than men. This is a pretty robust result found in hundreds of studies in different countries.


Do people, especially the philanthropists, donate more out of altruism or self interest?

There is both – pure altruism and warm glow altruism

There is both – pure altruism and warm glow altruism coming with a donation. Pure altruism means that I really want to help somebody. Warm glow altruism means that I am getting a nice feeling (warm glow) from making a donation – that is, I am doing a nice thing but at the same time it also makes me feel so good about myself. It is hard to disentangle the both.


What is the motivation to procrastinate or even close their eyes to the tasks at hand?

We are humans and we have self-control issues. Temptations are out there and we fail to resist them more often than we would like to.


Please tell us about your growing up years and what catalysed you into this field you chose as a career?

I always liked science and was an eager learner. People around me seem to have known since I was little that I will be a scientist – I was always in the top of the class and studied very hard. For me it became clear much later that I will be a scientist. It happened when I was 23 and attended my first behavioral economics class at the University of Cologne, Germany. I became passionate about the field at the first sight. So it was not the case that I wanted to be a scientist per se. The way I became a scientist was finding a field/research question I am passionate about.


Our readers are mostly the youth in different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?

Choose to do in life what you love.

Choose to do in life what you love. Do not go for an education that somebody expects you to get. Don’t go for a job that somebody expects you to do. Choose to study what you really love and are passionate about – only then you will be great at what you do!

Photos: From the Archive of Dr. Kajackaite; Shutterstock

Read also:

Breathing Life Back into Our Planet – An Interview with Professor Thomas Crowther

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