Tom Lane

Changing the world for the better through Behavioural Economics

Assistant Professor in Economics


Can you explain your research?

I’m a Behavioural Economist. Behavioural Economics is a new field in Economics and relatively unique, which involves bringing Psychology into Economics.

Economics is traditionally theoretical and makes assumptions of how people behave. Behavioural Economics tests these assumptions and tries to find out how people make decisions in real life.

My research looks at various topical issues within the realm of Behavioural Economics. One of the topics I’ve done lots of research on is discrimination. My studies have focused on how different groups of people are treated differently based on characteristics such as race and gender, and how this affects their economic outcomes. My other research topics include economic behaviours and happiness, the effects of religion on decision making, and inequality.


What specific projects are you conducting?

On the topic of discrimination, I’m currently working on an experiment to find out whether people can predict the levels of discrimination on the basis of different kinds of identity types. 

I’ve done several projects in the past, and one project led to suggestions about what the society could do to reduce discrimination.

Generally speaking, discrimination is socially unacceptable, and the social norms against discrimination have acted as constraint on discrimination. However, the perception that discrimination is unacceptable has not always existed. Our research found that discrimination would be weaker when social norms oppose it, and stronger when discrimination is regarded as socially appropriate.

If we look at real world cases, since Trump became the President of the United States, problems of racism in America have become worse. The same happened in Britain after the Brexit vote, as it signaled that there wasn’t such a strong social norm against discriminating against certain groups of people, and immediately hate crimes went up.

For policy makers, this research provides policy relevance that in order to curb discrimination, social norms against discrimination have to remain strong.

A paper from the project was published by the Journal of Public Economics, titled On the social inappropriateness of discrimination.

Regarding happiness and economic behaviour, I’ve published a paper in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, which  summarised some interesting findings.

People in general believe that looking after themselves will make them better off than looking after others. Traditional Economics theory has also been based on the idea that people are selfish. But findings I reviewed in this paper have challenged this assumption. Being generous to others actually makes people happier than being selfish. This finding has real-world relevance. If more people were aware of this, people might become more altruistic and charitable.

I’m also designing an experiment with academics from the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law to look at the effect of inequality on group cohesion. The result of the experiment could shed light on how to improve equality and economic productivity. 


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How did you become interested in your area of research?

I like Behavioural Economics because it’s a window to look at the whole of society.

Issues such as discrimination and inequality exist in almost every society. By studying how and why people behave in particular ways, we can learn better how society works and discover solutions to fix the issues.

I believe that with more people finding out about this kind of research, it can have a greater impact on society.


Where would you like to take your research next?

I would like my research on discrimination to be focused more on generating policy advice to stop discrimination. I would like to do experiments with the help of governments, although this can be difficult, to test what policies can work.

On the topic of happiness, I’d be interested to look deeper into the question whether people could be persuaded to be nicer to each other. If they realise that focusing on themselves wouldn’t make them happier, will that change people’s behaviour? The results could encourage people to be more charitable.

Joining UNNC and doing research in China also gives me different ideas and perspectives. The economic behaviours of Chinese people are sometimes different from those of people in western countries. In my future research, I’m interested in exploring more the topic of cultural differences in behaviour.


Apart from doing research, you also have teaching responsibilities. How do you find teaching at UNNC?

I like teaching here. I can get interesting ideas from talking to students, especially from supervising students’ dissertations. Some of the undergraduate works are as good as I would expect from PhD students. Sometimes I discover areas of research that I didn’t know about before, which broadens my knowledge of behavioural economics.