Three questions on Behavioral Economics
1.) What is behavioral economics? How is it different from standard economics?
In general, both standard and behavioral economics are interested in the same questions and topics. The choices people make, the effects on incentives, the role of information etc. However, unlike standard economics, behavioral economics does not assume that people are rational. Instead, behavioral economists start by figuring out how people actually behave, often in a controlled lab environment in which we can understand behavior better, and use this as a starting point for building our understanding of human nature. As a consequence of this different starting point, behavioral economists usually come to different conclusions about the logic and efficacy of almost anything, ranging from mortgages to savings to healthcare in both the personal and business realms.
2.) Even if consumers make mistakes from time to time, wouldn’t the market fix these?
I always found the appeal to the market gods a bit odd. Why would the market fix mistakes instead of aggravating them? When the Chicago economists sometimes (reluctantly) admits that people make mistakes, they claim that people make different types of mistakes that will eventually cancel each other out in the market. Behavioral economics argues that, instead, people will often make the same mistake, and the individual mistakes can aggregate in the market. Let’s take the subprime mortgage crisis, which I think is a great example (but a very sad reality) of the market working to make the aggregation of mistakes worse. It is not as if some people made one kind of mistake and others made another kind. It was the fact that so many people made the same mistakes, and the market for these mistakes is what got us to where we are now.
3.) Isn’t behavioral economics a depressing view of human nature?
It is true that from a behavioral economics perspective we are fallible, easily confused, not that smart, and often irrational. We are more like Homer Simpson than Superman. So from this perspective it is rather depressing. But at the same time there is also a silver lining. There are free lunches!
Take the physical world for example. We build products that work with our physical limitations. Chairs, shoes, and cars are all designed to complement and enhance our physical capabilities. If we take some of the same lessons we’ve learned from working with our physical limitations and apply them to things that are affected by our cognitive limitations—insurance policies, retirement plans, and healthcare—we’ll be able to design more effective policies and tools, that are more useful in the world. This is the promise of behavioral economics – once we understand where we are weak or wrong we can try to fix it and build a better world.
Take again the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Imagine that we understood how difficult it is for people to calculate the correct amount of mortgage that they should take, and instead of creating a calculator that told us the maximum that we can borrow, it helped us figure out what we should be borrowing. I suspect that if we had this type of calculator (and if people used it) much of the sub-prime mortgage catastrophe could have been avoided. This of course is one idea to fix one problem, and there are many ways to think about how to improve our lives along many of the decisions we make every day. This is why I think that behavioral economics is so optimistic, useful, and important for our personal life and for society.
The Long-Term Effects of Short-Term Emotions
The heat of the moment is a powerful, dangerous thing. We all know this. If we’re happy, we may be overly generous. Maybe we leave a big tip, or buy a boat. If we’re irritated, we may snap. Maybe we rifle off that nasty e-mail to the boss, or punch someone. And for that fleeting second, we feel great. But the regret—and the consequences of that decision—may last years, a whole career, or even a lifetime.
At least the regret will serve us well, right? Lesson learned—maybe.
Maybe not. My friend Eduardo Andrade and I wondered if emotions could influence how people make decisions even after the heat or anxiety or exhilaration wears off. We suspected they could. As research going back to Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory suggests, the problem with emotional decisions is that our actions loom larger than the conditions under which the decisions were made. When we confront a situation, our mind looks for a precedent among past actions without regard to whether a decision was made in emotional or unemotional circumstances. Which means we end up repeating our mistakes, even after we’ve cooled off.
I said that Eduardo and I wondered if past emotions influence future actions, but, really, we worried about it. If we were right, and recklessly poor emotional decisions guide later “rational” moments, well, then, we’re not terribly sophisticated decision makers, are we?
To test the idea, we needed to observe some emotional decisions. So we annoyed some people, by showing them a five-minute clip from the movie Life as a House, in which an arrogant boss fires an architect who proceeds to smash the firm’s models. We made other subjects happy, by showing them—what else?—a clip from the TV show Friends. (Eduardo’s previous research had established the emotional effects of these clips).
Right after that, we had them play a classic economics game known as the ultimatum game, in which a “sender” (in this case, Eduardo and I) has $20 and offers a “receiver” (the movie watcher) a portion of the money. Some offers are fair (an even split) and some are unfair (you get $5, we get $15). The receiver can either accept or reject the offer. If he rejects it, both sides get nothing.
Traditional economics predicts that people—as rational beings—will accept any offer of money rather than reject an offer and get zero. But behavioral economics shows that people often prefer to lose money in order to punish a person making an unfair offer.
Our findings (published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes) followed suit, and, interestingly, the effect was amplified among our irritated subjects. Life as a House watchers rejected far more offers than Friends watchers, even though the content of the movie had nothing to do with the offer. Just as a fight at home may sour your mood, increasing the chances that you’ll send a snippy e-mail, being subjected to an annoying movie leads people to reject unfair offers more frequently even though the offer wasn’t the cause of their mood.
Next came the important part. We waited. And when the emotions evoked by the movie were no longer a factor, we had the participants play the game again. Our fears were confirmed. Those who had been annoyed the first time they played the game rejected far more offers this time as well. They were tapping the memory of the decisions they had made earlier, when they were responding under the influence of feeling annoyed. In other words, the tendency to reject offers remained heightened among our Life as a House group—compared with control groups—even when they were no longer irritated.
So now I’m thinking of the manager whose personal portfolio loses 10% of its value in a week (entirely plausible these days). He’s frustrated, angry, nervous—and all the while, he’s making decisions about the day-to-day operations of his group. If he’s forced to attend to those issues right after he looks at his portfolio, he’s liable to make poor decisions, colored by his inner turmoil. Worse, though, those poor decisions become part of the blueprint for his future decisions—part of what his brain considers “the way to act.”
That makes those strategies for making decisions in the heat of the moment even more important: Take a deep breath. Count backward from 10 (or 10,000). Wait until you’ve cooled off. Sleep on it.
If you don’t, you may regret it. Many times over.