Despite having read plenty of the behavioural economics books, of course I had to read Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics by Richard Thaler, one of the first people to introduce and then popularise (through Nudge 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.
Misbehaving 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 The Tyranny of Utility or Julian LeGrand and Bill New in Government Paternalism: Nanny State of helpful Friend?) 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.