(Ain’t) Misbehaving

Despite having read plenty of the behavioural economics books, of course I had to read by Richard Thaler, one of the first people to introduce and then popularise (through in particular) the introduction of psychological empiricism into economics. Nor do I regret it. It is a very good read. Although it goes over much familiar territory, it’s very interesting to read Thaler’s account of how a highly resistant discipline became accepting and then positively enthusiastic about behavioural models. Too enthusiastic – but more on that later.

[amazon_image id=”B00SSKM714″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics[/amazon_image]

combines a broadly chronological account of Thaler’s career and work with a highly accessible explanation of what behavioural economics is, how it differs from the previously conventional kind, and the evidence from psychology about how people make decisions. The book starts by explaining why economists had adopted an unrealistic model of rational choice, and why it made economics so powerful: “That power derives from the fact that economics has a unified, core theory from which nearly everything follows.” Certainly early resistance to ‘behavioural’ assumptions tended to be that these derived from an ad hoc list of patterns of choice with no theory behind them, never mind that rational choice is ad hoc with respect to the facts. This seems to be hard for some economists still to accept perhaps because – as Thaler recounts – economists make choices far more often in conformity with their own models than do other groups of people. Misbehaving tells of a survey conducted among wine connoisseurs designed to explore how people regard sunk costs and opportunity costs, in which the people who gave the ‘correct’ answer were economists.

The book has lots of examples that will be useful to people teaching behavioural economics, including classroom experiments. I also very much enjoyed all the anecdotes, like the story of a vigorous debate with Richard Posner at a conference on law and economics, or a session on behavioural finance that had smoke coming out of Merton Miller’s ears. Resistance among distinguished economics professors who had built their glittering careers on rational choice models is, of course, entirely rational. Less rational, more human, was the behaviour of a group of University of Chicago economics faculty in selecting their offices in a brand new building.

Behavioural economics is now one of the most popular areas of the subject, and seminars on behavioural papers are packed. Sometimes it seems pretty much everyone I know has a new paper applying behavioural insights to their own sub-field. Perhaps this is just me being contrarian, but the new embrace by economists makes me uneasy. This is not just because of the well-known debate about paternalism (as discussed by Gilles St Paul in or Julian LeGrand and Bill New in ) It is because the sight of economists delighting in a new tool to engineer society is alarming – it’s the same old reductionism in more fashionable clothes. I happened to read this morning this essay by historian Ian Beacock on Arnold Toynbee. This quotation jumped out: “We’ve begun to treat vexing social and political dilemmas as simple design flaws, mistakes to be rectified through a technocratic combination of data science and gadgetry.”

I’m 100% in favour of empiricism. Why would you not do ‘what works’? But the behavioural rules of thumb are in danger of being seen as a new policy gadget.

[amazon_image id=”0691128170″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism[/amazon_image]   [amazon_image id=”0691164371″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Government Paternalism: Nanny State or Helpful Friend?[/amazon_image]

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Growth, happiness and misbehaving

I’m enjoying reading Richard Thaler’s  At about the half way stage, there hasn’t been anything startlingly new in terms of the economic content, as the book is addressing general readers rather than economists who have already read widely on the subject. It is very well written and also interesting to hear from Thaler what it felt like to be one of the pioneers in this field.

[amazon_image id=”B00SSKM714″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics[/amazon_image]

There are also some very interesting new (to me) insights. For instance, I’d never really thought before about the importance of changes from the reference point in prospect theory. Thaler writes: “Kahneman and Tversky recognized that we had to change our focus from levels of wealth to changes in wealth. This may sound like a subtle tweak, but switching the focus to changes as opposed to levels is a radical move….. Changes are the way humans experience life.”

This is the consequence – obvious when you think about it – of the hedonic treadmill, of acclimatising to a situation. Over in the well-being literature, this is often taken as helping explain the Easterlin paradox, the implication being that “we”/policy should help push people off the hedonic treadmill above high-enough income levels, by demoting or even somehow halting growth. But it seems to me to imply the contrary, that it makes growth very important for well-being. Just as some of the empirical work indicates.

I’ll review the book when I’ve finished – which will be at the weekend as I need something smaller to pack in my bag for the train tomorrow.

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Sympathy, empathy and scarce attention

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture by Sendil Mullainathan on his book with Eldar Shafir, . I haven’t read it yet but will certainly do so now.

[amazon_image id=”0141049197″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough[/amazon_image]

The book has been widely reviewed so the main argument is probably well known: people who do not have enough money have their attention focused on immediate problems, to the detriment of thinking about the consequences of short-term actions. The future in general is outside the tunnel of what they have the capacity to pay attention to. “Cognitive bandwidth is a fixed resource.” A lot gets used up by attending to urgent, day-to-day financial problems and needs – about which, slightly paradoxically, the people in this situation are ultra-rational, and very focused on the most cost-efficient decision.

The scale of the effect of this attentional tunneling on the quality of other decisions is large – almost as big as not having slept at all at night. All the time. And the decisions adversely affected cover all aspects of life, not just financial choices like whether or not to take out that pay day loan: how to parent, whether to keep up a course of medicine, and so on.

There are other kinds of scarcity that create the same kind of tunnel vision – including time scarcity. Prof Mullainathan drew this analogy, saying he’d tried it on hedge fund managers to see if it helped them understand the psychology of poverty. Someone with no money opting for a payday loan is like someone with no time not having time to do a piece of paperwork and ending up spending more time sorting out the resulting hassle. However, he added: “Different forms of scarcity have different optionality. Poverty is relentless. I can’t decide to change my poverty-life balance.”

The next question of course is what conclusions to draw from the insight about scarcity (of money) gobbling up people’s cognitive bandwidth. One conclusion is that expecting people on low incomes to fill out long forms to get benefits – or do anything – is a regressive attentional tax. Just as the cockpit of a plane is designed and engineered to be as fault-tolerant as possible, we should do the same with any engagement between people and government (or businesses, or school…..). Another that occurs to me is whether it’s possible to design some simple financial planning aids or reminders.

Interestingly, Prof Mullainathan said: “People who care about poverty tend to feel sympathy. But sympathy is a distancing emotion. We need to feel empathy.” It reminded me of Julia Unwin’s excellent book , which is exactly about the emotional reaction we have to poverty and why that actually makes it harder for well-meaning policy people to do anything about it.

[amazon_image id=”B00I124BLS” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Fight Poverty? (Perspectives)[/amazon_image]

 

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Nanny state or government Mad Men?

 by Julian Le Grand and Bill New has landed on my desk and it looks a very interesting assessment of the trade-off between good ‘outcomes’ from nudge policies and the infantilization of individual choice – a useful counterbalance to the series of books from Cass Sunstein advocating nudging. (Gilles St Paul has a counter-nudge book too, .)

Although recognising the power of the argument that governments (and others) can’t avoid ‘nudging’ because the status quo is a choice architecture anyway, I lean towards being very uneasy about the enthusiasm for policymakers using behavioural techniques (familiar to ad men and Mad Men) to manipulate behaviour. So I’m looking forward to this new book.

[amazon_image id=”0691164371″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Government Paternalism: Nanny State or Helpful Friend?[/amazon_image]

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Oh so happy….

Maybe the universe is trying to send me a message. Last week I read a self-help book (about how to solve problems) that I’d been sent,  by David Niven. This past couple of days I’ve read Paul Dolan’s . Although somewhat sceptical about happiness economics, I’d heard him talk about his work and thought it sounded interesting. Well, the first half of the book is indeed interesting – more below – but the second half is a self-help manual. Who knows what it says about me, but I’m just not interested. As far as I can tell, not having read many of them, it seems thoroughly sensible.

[amazon_image id=”0141977531″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life[/amazon_image]

Back to the first half of the book. There are several things about Dolan’s approach that make it far more plausible than the conventional approach to happiness. One is that he defines ‘happiness’ as the combination of pleasure and a sense of purpose, and not just the first of these as is standard. This must surely be right; and he argues that the evidence indicates people need a mix of both. You then have to read the rest of the book remembering that ‘happiness’ is not just ‘pleasure’.

Another is that he distinguishes people’s retrospective evaluation of their ‘happiness’ from their experience through time, and argues – again, I think convincingly – that the latter is more reliable for empirical research. He therefore prefers the data collected from the day reconstruction method as coming closer to experienced ‘happiness’ rather than the surveys that ask people to evaluate their state: “overall, would you say on a scale of one to six that ….” The evidence suggests that: “The circumstances of your life (income, marital status, age etc) matter much more to your evaluating self, and what you do matters more to your experiencing self.” So for example, unemployment clearly leads to lower evaluations of happiness but makes little difference to people’s DRM responses because mostly being at work is not a pleasurable experience (although it does give people a sense of purpose).

The third point he makes is that: “Your happiness is determined by how you allocate your attention.” Attention is a scarce resource. In place of the conventional approach which seeks to relate inputs (income, health, sunshine, marriage) to the final output, happiness, Dolan sees these inputs as stimuli in competition for your attention, with attention determining how they affect your ‘happiness’. The same inputs (income, health, sunshine, marriage) can lead to a different output depending on your attentional ‘production function’. He suggests that you can change your production function by directing your attention differently (and in the second half offers advice about how to do it). As he notes: “There are surprisingly few researchers who think about happiness in terms of your time use.” But time is the ultimate scarce resource.

This seems plausible, although I don’t know enough of the psychology literature – dating back to  – to really evaluate it. It strikes a chord with me though since attending a couple of years ago a fascinating workshop in Toulouse on the attention question, when it was clear from the way the cognitive scientists and psychologists talked that a standard economics model of competition subject to a budget constraint (brain energy) could offer real insight into thinking about attention.

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