An Investigation into the Effect of Organisational Culture on Behaviour & Preferences

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Political Economy


Behavioural and experimental economics has been successful in bringing fresh insights to mainstream economic theory. The literature has identified the (non-)existence of preferences that lie outside of the traditional model of economic man, and investigated the impact of immediate context on behaviour (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981; Zizzo, 2010). What is missing from a lot of the literature, however, is a satisfactory explanation of what mechanisms bring about these exotic preferences. Rather than only considering preferences as ex-ante determinants of career choice (the 'mission-matching' hypothesis), our research question concerns whether the culture of the organisation (the public sector) changes the preferences of recruits over time. In general terms, our hypothesis is that preferences are not exogenous or individualistic but are in part learned in through organisational membership.
The effect of 'culture' has been considered in literature on Political Economy and Economic History on a national level. We believe that Nunn's (2012) notion of culture as "heuristics or 'rules of thumb' that have evolved given our need to make decisions in complex and uncertain environments" may be just as important at the level of the workplace as the nation. At the most basic level, individuals in different organisation are required to learn starkly contrasting skills and behaviours and interact with a variety of people in distinct ways (think of investors and teachers). Moreover, organisational characteristics may cause members of separate organisations to experience similar situations in contrasting ways. It is these rules, interacting with the responsibilities of the role, which generate 'organisational culture'. Indeed, it is these "decision making heuristics or 'rules of thumb' that have evolved" (Nunn, 2012) within an organisation, and their effects on individual behaviour within the workplace and beyond, that we are interested in.
Our proposed method for measuring the hypothesised evolution of preferences is to run incentivised lab-in-field economic experiments on individuals at intervals in their career progression. It would be problematic to obtain robust estimates using observational data due to poor availability. Moreover, the project considers behaviour that lies outside traditional economic theory so we cannot employ the technique of testing predictions derived from basic microeconomic models. For both of these reasons, an experimental methodology has been selected.
We would begin by running experiments on students within different University departments. The idea is that students within different departments are like employees of different companies in that they have experiences that are unique to their course and/or department, and are also rewarded or punished for certain preferences in ways that will be peculiar to their own subject choice. Our experiments would build on existing methodologies to elicit, for example, pro-social motivation (Banuri & Keefer, 2016) or tastes for risk (Eckel & Grossman, 2008). However, we would run the experiments at intervals throughout the students' academic progression. The data from treatment and control groups could then be fed into an econometric model which tests for significant changes in behaviour over time.
The University experiments act as a good first step: they are feasible for a PhD project and have additional benefits in their own right (they are cheap, and provide access to hundreds of professions on one campus). Crucially, evidence from the University experiments would also be used to motivate engagement with external organisations. If we can demonstrate that pro-social motivation, corruptibility, or other behaviours are directly impacted by organisational culture within Universities, then we believe that external organisations will have an incentive to let us run experiments on their members.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
2103033 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2018 30/03/2025 Oliver Bartrum