Professor Coffman researches and teaches at the intersection of Economics and Psychology. He uses novel experimental methods to uncover the underlying reasons for why we act the way we do in certain economic contexts. One line of research is particularly interested in moral perceptions of economic transactions — what is it about the behaviors of firms, business partners, employees, agents, etc. that makes us punish or reward them (e.g., continue doing business with them). One series of experiments show that we are less keen on blaming someone who misbehaved via an intermediary. We don’t think as badly about a firm when they have an outsider come in to do the firing, nor do we blame Apple quite as much when they outsource production of iPods to factories that use coal technology rather than producing the carbon dioxide themselves.
Another line of his research is particularly interested in how very poor families in developing countries make the decision whether to send their child to work or to school. At a certain age and certain level of poverty, this is a very difficult and important question for the household to answer. A series of experiments in Brasilia, Brazil (with Leonardo Bursztyn), showed that a great majority of very poor parents desperately want their adolescent children to go to school; it is the children that do not want to go, and the parents cannot make them go because they have no way of knowing if the child attends regularly.