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Sigrid Suetens

Sigrid Suetens was appointed as Professor of Behavioral Economics at the Department of Economics on February 1. In 2016, she received an ERC grant for her research on discrimination in ethnically diverse societies.

Curiosity is my main motive. I try to discover underlying mechanisms by deconstructing social interaction and decisions.

What is the main goal of your research?

The general theme of my research is trying to understand what factors drive people to cooperate in order to achieve better outcomes for the group, for example, better collaboration with colleagues, interaction with neighbors, and employer-employee relations, but also economic interaction, for instance, between a seller and a buyer. This always requires a basis of trust: if you buy something, you must be able to rely on the seller delivering the product. Conversely, a seller must be able to rely on the buyer paying for the product. Much social interaction is based on a relationship of trust and there is always a risk that the other person may violate that trust. That is what I am trying to understand: what are the factors that ensure that such a trust relationship can work in the long run?

In my present research, I focus on the question of how this works in ethnically diverse groups. People from immigrant backgrounds have a harder time in the job market, are at a greater risk of poverty, and earn less for the same work if they do have a job. I am studying whether something goes wrong early in the trust relationship.

How does your research contribute to solving societal problems?

I conduct research focusing, among other things, on the question of how to reduce discrimination. This is important research that contributes to our goal of helping society to run as smoothly as possible. At the moment, I am trying to find out whether contact with the unknown can help people to embrace the unknown. More concretely: I am conducting research into the interaction between asylum seekers living in asylum seekers centers and local residents. The more asylum seekers there are in a particular community and the longer they are there, the greater the chance that the local population will come into contact with them. The first results show that the attitudes of the local population toward immigrants improve as they are in contact with asylum seekers for longer periods of time. For this study, I have contacts with COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) and Vluchtelingenwerk (Dutch Council for Refugees).

What is your main motivation?

Curiosity, mainly. I try to discover underlying mechanisms by deconstructing social interaction and decisions. I am always on the lookout for patterns. Sometimes you see the same patterns emerge in different situations. It is exciting to discover and to investigate it further.

Who is your role model?

I don’t really have a role model. I do think it is important to be surrounded by inspiring colleagues, which is the case, luckily. As a novice PhD student, I was not working in an environment of experimental or behavioral economics but we did discuss these approaches during lunch breaks. Out of curiosity, I started to read about experimental and behavioral economists and came across Richard Thaler’s column series Anomalies, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In these columns, Thaler discussed research showing that the traditional economic models based on the rationality of economic agents sometimes get it wrong. I thought this was fascinating so I went on to do research in this area myself.

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