Ernst  Fehr

Ernst Fehr, Prof. Dr.

Professor of Economics



Short bio

Ernst Fehr has been Professor of Microeconomics and Experimental Economics at the University of Zurich since 1994. He currently serves as director of the UBS International Center of Economics in So-ciety. He has also been a Global Distinguished Professor at New York University since 2011. He is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ernst Fehr was born in Hard (Vorarlberg, Austria) in 1956. He studied Economics at the University of Vienna, where he later earned his doctorate and completed his habilitation.

Ernst Fehr’s research focuses on the interplay between social preferences, social norms, and strategic interactions in firms, markets, and other social institutions. He has also conducted research on the impact of social preferences on competition and cooperation, as well as on the psychological founda-tions of incentives. More recently, he has worked on the neurobiological foundations of social and economic behavior, the developmental origins of human prosocial behavior, and on interventions to improve children’s motivational and self-regulatory skills. Fehr’s work is characterized by the combi-nation of game theoretic tools with experimental methods and the use of insights from economics, social psychology, sociology, biology, and neuroscience for a better understanding of human social behavior. Ernst Fehr has numerous publications in international top journals including Science, Na-ture, Quarterly Journal of Economics, American Economic Review, Econometrica, Journal of Political Economy, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, and Psychological Science.

Brief listing of research interests

Social preferences, social norms, strategic interaction, psychological foundations of incentives, neu-roeconomics, prosocial behavior, interventions to improve children’s motivational and self-regulatory skills.

Current Projects

Working Memory Training Improves the Performance and Self-regulatory Skills of Primary School Children: Evidence from a Randomized Field Experiment
School performance and self-regulatory skills such as the ability to concentrate and exert impulse control substantially affect important life outcomes such as health, educational attainment, life satis-faction and individual labor market success. In this project we examine whether the daily training of visual-spatial working memory for one hour over roughly 5 weeks improves typical skills acquired in school – such as math or geometry abilities – and self-regulatory skills. Our intervention is informed by the fact that the same prefrontal brain regions that are critically involved in working memory abil-ity are also needed for impulse control and other cognitive control tasks. In contrast to previous stud-ies, we have an unusually large sample of roughly 600 first graders and we measure the impact of the training several times up to one year later. We find that the training causes large and durable (i.e. 12 months after training) improvements in geometry skills (0.2 standard deviations, SDs), attention and impulse control (0.3 SDs) and teacher-assessed self-control abilities (0.4 SDs). Interestingly, with the exception of the direct effect on visual-spatial working memory these effects grow and become (more) significant over time. Our results thus indicate that there are substantial transfer effects of working memory training on other important skill components. In addition, we find that the training also affects brain responses during an attention task.

Selected publications

  • Fehr, E. and Fischbacher, U. (2003) The nature of human altruism. Nature 425, 785-791.
  • Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., and Rockenbach, B. (2008) Egalitarianism in young children. Nature 454, 1079-1084.
  • Cohn, A., Fehr, E., and Maréchal, M.A. (2014) Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry. Nature 516, 86-89.
  • Haushofer, J. and Fehr, E. (2014) On the psychology of poverty. Science 344(6186), 862-867
  • Fehr, E. and Hoff, K. (2011) Tastes, Castes, and Culture: The Influence of Society on Preferences. The Economic Journal 121, F396-F412.
  • Efferson, C., Vogt, S., Elhadi A., Hilal El Fadil, A., and Fehr, E. (2015) Female genital cutting is not a so-cial coordination norm. Science 349(6255), 1446-1447.

Contact info

Ernst Fehr
University of Zurich
Department of Economics
Blümlisalpstrasse 10
8006 Zurich
Tel. +41 (0)44 634 37 01
ernst.fehr [at]