Mira Fischer


Welcome to my website!

I am a Research Fellow at WZB Berlin, a Member of the Berlin  School of Economics  and CRC TRR 190 "Rationality and Competition",  and a Research Affiliate at IZA. My research interests are in education, behavioral and organizational economics. I use randomized field and survey experiments as well as econometric identification strategies to study topics including educational incentives and decisions, skill development and well-being, beliefs and preference formation, and the ethics of behavioral policy making.

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WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Reichpietschufer 50

10785 Berlin, Germany

Email: firstname.lastname@wzb.eu


Working Papers

Do Narratives about Psychological Mechanisms Affect Public Support for Behavioral Policies?, with Philipp Lergetporer and Katharina Werner (2024)

Behavioral policy, such as leveraging defaults, is increasingly employed by governments worldwide, but has sometimes faced public backlash, which limits political feasibility. We conducted a survey experiment with a large, representative sample to explore how the narrative describing the psychological mechanism by which a default rule impacts a socially significant outcome affects public approval. Respondents are presented with a vignette in which an unemployed person follows a default to participate in further training. We experimentally vary the narrative about his reasons for doing so. Compared to the baseline condition in which no information on the psychological mechanism is provided, voluntary ignorance, involuntary ignorance, perceived social expectations and perceived social pressure each reduce policy approval. These factors also lead to more negative perceptions of the default rule's impact on the decision maker’s welfare and autonomy. The benign mechanism of deliberate endorsement, however, does not significantly raise approval or perceptions. We show that these findings hold irrespective of assumed preferences and discuss their practical implications.

Keep Calm and Carry On: The Short- vs. Long-Run Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on (Academic) Performance, with Lea Cassar and Vanessa Valero (2022)

Mindfulness-based meditation practices are becoming increasingly popular in Western societies, including in the business world and in education. While the scientific literature has largely documented the benefits of mindfulness meditation for mental health, little is still known about potential spillovers of these practices on other important life outcomes, such as performance. We address this question through a field experiment in an educational setting. We study the causal impact of mindfulness meditation on academic performance through a randomized evaluation of a well-known 8-week mindfulness meditation training delivered to university students on campus. As expected, the intervention improves students' mental health and non-cognitive skills. However, it takes time before students' performance can benefit from mindfulness meditation: we find that, if anything, the intervention marginally decreases average grades in the short run, i.e., during the exam period right after the end of the intervention, whereas it significantly increases academic performance, by about 0.4 standard deviations, in the long run (ca. 6 months after the end of intervention). We investigate the underlying mechanisms and discuss the implications of our results.

Understanding the Response to High-Stakes Incentives in Primary Education, with Maximilian Bach (2020)

This paper studies responses to high-stakes incentives arising from early ability tracking. We use three complementary research designs exploiting differences in school track admission rules at the end of primary school in Germany's early ability tracking system. Our results show that the need to perform well to qualify for a better track raises students' math, reading, listening, and orthography skills in grade 4, the final grade before students are sorted into tracks. Evidence from self-reported behavior suggests that these effects are driven by greater study effort but not parental responses. However, we also observe that stronger incentives decrease student well-being and intrinsic motivation to study.

Salience of Ability Grouping and Biased Belief Formation (2017)

Recent research in economics has found that a higher ordinal rank within one's class affects subsequent skill acquisition positively and has linked this finding to the “big-fish-little-pond-effect”, a popular proposition in psychology claiming that assignment to a peer group with lower skills increases one's confidence in academic ability. Findings from a lab experiment suggest that salience of the group assignment mechanism matters for how ability grouping affects ability beliefs. If the assignment mechanism is non-salient, it does not matter for subjects' confidence whether they are assigned to the weaker or the stronger group, however, when the group assignment mechanism is salient, weaker group assignment makes people less confident. Subjects are on average less confident when the group assignment mechanism is salient than when it is non-salient. This is found to be the case due to weaker group assignment making people more underconfident than stronger group assignment making people overconfident, indicating that people overweigh negative information as compared to positive information. These findings may help to understand the effects of ability grouping in the field and may inform the design of educational and workplace environments.


"The E-word – On the Public Acceptance of Experiments" (with E. Grewenig, P. Lergetporer, K. Werner, and H. Zeidler), Economics Letters, 235, 2024

Randomized experiments are often viewed as the “gold standard” of scientific evidence, but people's skepticism towards experiments has compromised their viability in the past. We study preferences for experimental policy evaluations in a representative survey in Germany (N > 1,900). We find that a majority of 75 % supports the idea of small-scale evaluations of policies before enacting them at a large scale. Experimentally varying whether the evaluations are explicitly described as “experiments” has a precisely estimated overall zero effect on public support. Our results indicate political leeway for experimental policy evaluation, a practice that is still uncommon in Germany.

"When, and Why, do Teams Benefit from Self-Selection" (with R. M. Rilke and B. B. Yurtoglu), Experimental Economics, 2023

We investigate the effect of team formation and task characteristics on performance in high-stakes team tasks. In two field experiments, randomly assigned teams performed significantly better than self-selected teams in a task that allowed for an unequal work distribution. The effect was reversed if the task required the two team members to contribute more equally. Investigating mechanisms, we observe that teams become more similar in ability and report to cooperate better when team members can choose each other. We show how different levels of skill complementarity across tasks may explain our results: If team performance largely depends on the abilities of one team member, random team assignment may be preferred because it leads to a more equal distribution of skills across teams. However, if both team members’ abilities play a significant role in team production, the advantage of random assignment is reduced, and the value of team cooperation increases.

Information about past performance has been found to sometimes improve and sometimes worsen subsequent performance. We hypothesize that two factors may help to explain this puzzle: which aspect of one's past performance the information refers to and when it is revealed. In a field experiment, students received information about their absolute rank in the last math exam (level feedback), their change in ranks between the second last and the last math exam (change feedback), or no feedback. Feedback was given either 1-3 days (early) or immediately (late) before the final math exam of the semester. Both level feedback and change feedback significantly improve students' grades in the final exam when given early and tend to worsen them when given late. The largest effects are found for negative change feedback and are concentrated on male students, who adjust their ability beliefs downwards in response to feedback.

"Confidence in Knowledge or Confidence in the Ability to Learn: An Experiment on the Causal Effects of Beliefs on Motivation" (with D. Sliwka), Games and Economic Behavior, 111, 2018: 122-142 (non-paywalled version here)

Previous research has shown that feedback about past performance has ambiguous effects on subsequent performance. We argue that feedback affects beliefs in different dimensions – namely beliefs about the level of human capital and beliefs about the ability to learn – and this may explain some of the ambiguous effects. We experimentally study the causal effects of an exogenously administered change in beliefs in both of these dimensions on the motivation to learn. We find that confidence in the ability to learn raises incentives, while confidence in the level of human capital lowers incentives for individuals with high levels of human capital.

"Support for Free-market Policies and Reforms: Does the Field of Study Influence Students’ Political Attitudes?” (with B. Kauder, N. Potrafke, and H.W. Ursprung), European Journal of Political Economy, 48, 2017: 180-197 (non-paywalled version here)

Since opinion leaders are usually university graduates, the field of study has an influence on public support for economic policies and policy reforms intended to enhance efficiency because advocating such policies often requires appreciation of the beneficial roles of markets and economic freedom. We investigate whether the field of study influences German university students' political attitudes. We disentangle self-selection from learning effects and reveal systematic differences between incoming students' political attitudes across eight fields of study. In a second step we explore how the students' political attitudes change as they progress in their academic training. Only studying economics has an unambiguous pro-market influence on political attitudes: by the time of graduation, economics students are some 6.2 percentage points more likely than they were in their initial year of study to agree with free-market policy positions. Studying humanities and natural sciences has a pro-leftist influence.

Effects of German Universities’ Excellence Initiative on Ability Sorting of Students and perceptions of Educational Quality” (with P. Kampkötter), Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 173(4), 2017: 662-687 (non-paywalled version here)

We investigate potential spillover effects from the German Excellence Initiative on university education. Using data from a representative student survey, we find that winning the competition allows universities to enroll significantly better high-school graduates in three subsequent admission terms. We then investigate a possible channel explaining the effect on admissions by studying whether the excellence label improves students' perception of educational quality. We find that the label significantly improves students' ratings of a university's educational quality and their job market expectations immediately following the award. However, ratings largely return to previous levels when students are surveyed three years later, although the status persists.

Ist sanfter Paternalismus ethisch vertretbar? Eine differenzierende Betrachtung aus Sicht der Freiheit” (with S. Lotz), Sozialer Fortschritt/German Review of Social Policy, 63(3), 2014: 52-58

-- English version -- : Is Soft Paternalism Ethically Legitimate? - The Relevance of Psychological Processes for the Assessment of Nudge-Based Policies, Cologne Graduate School Working Paper, 5(2), 2014

In this article we develop a taxonomy of behavioral policy measures proposed by Thaler and Sunstein (2008). Based on this taxonomy, we discuss the ethical legitimacy of these measures. First, we explain two common reservations against nudges (choice architecture) rooted in utilitarian and Kantian ethics. In addition to wellbeing, we identify freedom of action and freedom of will (autonomy) as relevant ethical criteria. Then, using practical examples, we develop a taxonomy that classifies nudges according to the psychological mechanisms they use and separately discuss the legitimacy of several types of behavioral policy measures. We hope to thereby make a valuable contribution to the debate on the ethical legitimacy of behavioral policy making.

Selected Work in Progress

The effect of failure in a high-stakes application procedure on perceived procedural efficiency, with Robert Stüber

Effects of failure in a high-stakes application procedure on confidence in abilities and willingness to compete, with Robert Stüber

Some of my Presentations to Watch and Listen to Online

Discussion of Michael Sanders's Keynote at the 1st Behavior Change Science & Policy Symposium in Helsinki, May 2019: "Policy Experiments and Behaviorally Informed Policies"

ESA Junior Faculty Webinar,  July 2020:  "Two Field Experiments on Self-selection, Collaboration Intensity and Team Perfomance"

Introduction to Ernst Fehr's WZB Distinguished Lecture in Social Sciences, October 2020

Radio interview with Deutschlandfunk (in German), March 2023: "Achtsamkeitsübungen verbessern Noten von Studierenden" [Mindfulness exercises improve students' grades]


Contributions to Education Policy (in German)

Fischer, M. & Geis, W.: Bestimmungsgrößen der Bildungsmobilität in Deutschland, IW-Trends, 1/2013 [Determinants of educational mobility in Germany, IW-Trends – Quarterly for Empirical Economic Research of the Cologne Inst. for Econ. Research]

Anger, C., Fischer, M. Geis, W., Lotz, S., Plünnecke A. & Schmidt, J.: Gesamtwirtschaftliche Effekte einer Ganztagsbetreuung von Kindern von Alleinerziehenden, Gutachten des Instituts der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln in Kooperation mit dem Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend (BMFSFJ) und dem Deutschen Roten Kreuz, 2012 [Macroeconomic effects of day care for children of single parents, Report to the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth and the German Red Cross]

Anger, C., Esselmann, I., Fischer & M. Plünnecke, A.: Bildungsmonitor 2012. Infrastruktur verbessern – Teilhabe sichern – Wachstumskräfte stärken, Forschungsbericht des Instituts der deutschen Wirtschaft Köln im Auftrag der Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft, 2012 [Education Monitor 2012. Improving the infrastructure – securing participation – fostering growth, Report]