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.