Calling Behavioral Economics a Fad

Josh Hendrickson and Brian Albrecht have a Substack called Economic Forces that is a source of economics news and examples. We have linked to EF before at EWED.

Albrecht just published an op-ed titled “Behavioral Economics Is Fine. Just Keep It Away from Our Kids”. I’ll to respond to this, just as I responded to that other blog. I think the group of people who are pitting themselves against “behavioral economics” is small. They might even think of themselves as a minority embattled against the mainstream. So, why bother responding? That’s what blogs are good for.

I agree with Albrecht’s main point. The first thing an undergraduate should learn in economics classes is the classic theory of supply and demand. Even in its simplest form, the idea that demand curves slope down and supply curves slope up is powerful and important.*

Albrecht points out that there are some results that have been published in the behavioral economics literature that turned out not to replicate or, in the recent case of Dan Ariely, might be fraudulent. Then he makes a jump from there by calling the behavioral field of inquiry a “fad”. That’s not accurate. (See Scott Alexander on Ariely and related complaints.)

In his op-ed, Albrecht names the asset bubble as a faddish behavioral idea. Vernon Smith (with Suchanek and Williams) published “Bubbles, Crashes and Endogenous Expectations in Experimental Spot Asset Markets” in Econometrica in 1988. Bubbles have been replicated all around the world many times.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the “dot com” bubble had an element of speculation that became irrational at a certain point. This is not a niche topic or a very rare occurrence. Bubbles are observed in the lab and out in the naturally occurring economy.

Should we start undergrads on bubbles before explaining the normal function of capital markets? No. Lots of people think that stock markets generally work well, communicate reliable information, and should be allowed to function with minimal regulation.  Behavioral Finance is usually right where it should be in the college curriculum, which is to be offered as an upper-division elective class for finance and economics majors. I am not going to do research on this, but I looked up courses at Cornell, and there it is: Behavioral Economics is one of many advanced elective classes offered for economics students. I don’t know how they teach ECON101 at Cornell, but it would seem like they are binning most of the behavioral content into later optional courses.

In a social media exchange, Albrecht pointed me to one of the posts by Hendrickson on how they handle the situations where it seems like economic forces are not explaining everything. Currently, for example, it seems like the labor market is not clearing right now because firms want to hire but wages are not rising. The quantity supplied seems lower than the quantity demanded at the market wage. Hendrickson claims that this market condition is temporary. He says that firms are cleverly paying bonuses to attract workers so that they won’t have to lower wages in the future when conditions return to normal post-Covid. This would be a perfect time to discuss downward nominal wage rigidity, a pervasive behavioral phenomenon.** It has been studied extensively in lab settings. Nominal wage rigidity has implications for monetary policy. Wage rigidity might be a “temporary” thing, but it helps to explain unemployment. Some of the research done by behavioral economists in this area follow the Akerlof 1982 paper on the gift exchange model. It was published 40 years ago by a Nobel prize winner and cited extensively.*** The seminal lab study of that theory is Fehr et al. 1993. There have been hundreds of replications of the main result that people will trade out of equilibrium due to positive reciprocity.

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Behavioral Economist at Work

A blog post titled “The Death of Behavioral Economics” went viral this summer. The clickbait headline was widely shared. After Scott Alexander debunked it point-by-point on Astral Codex Ten, no one corrected their previous tweets. I recommend Scott’s blog for the technical stuff. For example, there is an important distinction between saying that loss aversion does not exist versus saying that its underlying cause is the Endowment Effect.

The author of the original death post, Hreha, is angry. Here’s how he describes his experience with behavioral economics.

I’ve run studies looking at its impact in the real world—especially in marketing campaigns.

If you read anything about this body of research, you’ll get the idea that losses are such powerful motivators that they’ll turn otherwise uninterested customers into enthusiastic purchasers.

The truth of the matter is that losses and benefits are equally effective in driving conversion. In fact, in many circumstances, losses are actually *worse* at driving results.

Why?

Because loss-focused messaging often comes across as gimmicky and spammy. It makes you, the advertiser, look desperate. It makes you seem untrustworthy, and trust is the foundation of sales, conversion, and retention.

He’s trying to sell things. I wade through ads every day and, to mix metaphors, beat them off like mosquitoes. Knowing how I feel about sales pitches, I don’t envy Hreha’s position.

I don’t know Hreha. From reading his blog post, I get the impression that he believes he was promised certain big returns by economists. He tried some interventions in a business setting and did not get his desired results or did not make as much money as he was expecting.

According to him, he seeks to turn people into “enthusiastic purchasers” by exploiting loss aversion. What would consumers be losing, if you are trying to sell them something new? I’m not in marketing research so I should probably just not try to comment on those specifics. Now, Hreha claims that all behavioral studies are misleading or useless.

The failure to replicate some results is a big deal, for economics and for psychology. I have seen changes within the experimental community and standards have gotten tougher as a result. If scientists knowingly lied about their results or exaggerated their effect sizes, then they have seriously hurt people like Hreha and me. I am angry at a particular pair of researchers who I will not name. I read their paper and designed an extension of it as a graduate student. I put months of my life into this project and risked a good amount of my meager research budget. It didn’t work for me. I thought I knew what was going to happen in the lab, but I was wrong. Those authors should have written a disclaimer into their paper, as follows:

Disclaimer: Remember, most things don’t work.

I didn’t conclude that all of behavioral research is misleading and that all future studies are pointless. I refined my design by getting rid of what those folks had used and eventually I did get a meaningful paper written and published. This process of iteration is a big part of the practice of science.

The fact that you can’t predict what will happen in a controlled setting seems like a bad reason to abandon behavioral economics. It all got started because theories were put to the test and they failed. We can’t just retreat and say that theories shouldn’t get tested anymore.

I remember meeting a professor at a conference who told me that he doesn’t believe in experimental economics. He had tried an experiment once and it hadn’t turned out the way he wanted. He tried once. His failure to predict what happened should have piqued his curiosity!

There is a difference between behavioral economics and experimental economics. I recommend Vernon Smith’s whole book on that topic, which I quoted from yesterday, for those interested.

The reason we run experiments is that you don’t know what will happen until you try. The good justification for shutting down behavioral studies is if we get so good at predicting what interventions will work that the new data ceases to be informative.

Or, what if you think nudges are not working because people are highly sensible and rational? That would also imply that we can predict what they are going to do, at least in simple situations. So, again, the fact that we are not good at predicting what people are going to do is not a reason to stop the studies.

I posted last week about how economists use the word “behavioral” in conversation. Yesterday, I shared a stinging critique of the behavioral scientist community written by the world’s leading experimental researcher long before the clickbait blog.

Today, I will share a behavioral economics success story. There are lots of papers I could point to. I’m going to use one of my own, so that readers could truly ask me anything it. My paper is called “My reference point, not yours”.

I started with a prediction based on previous behavioral literature. My design depended on the fact that in the first stage of the experiment, people would not maximize expected value. You never know until you run the experiment, but I was pretty confident that the behavioral economics literature was a reliable guide.

Some subjects started the experiment with an endowment of $6. Then they could invest to have an equal chance of either doubling their money (earn $12) or getting $1. To maximize expected value, they should take that gamble. Most people would rather hold on to their endowment of $6 than risk experiencing a loss. It’s just $5. Why should the prospect of losing $5 blind them to the expected value calculation? Because most humans exhibit loss aversion.

I was relying on this pattern of behavior in stage 1 of the experiment for the test to be possible in stage 2. The main topic of the paper is whether people can predict what others will do. High endowment people fail to invest in stage 1, so then they predict that most other participants failed to invest. The high endowment people failed to incorporate easily available information about the other participants, which is that starting endowments {1,2,3,4,5,6} were randomly assigned and uniformly distributed. The effect size was large, even when I added in a quiz to test their knowledge that starting endowments are uniformly distributed.

Here’s a chart of my main results.

Investing always maximizes expected value, for everyone. The $1 endowment people think that only a quarter of the other participants fail to invest. The $6 endowment people predict that more than half of other participants fail to invest.

Does this help Mr. Hreha get Americans to buy more stuff at Walmart, for whom he consults? I’m not sure. Sorry.

My results do not directly imply that we need more government interventions or nudge units. One could argue instead that what we need is market competition to help people navigate a complex world. The information contained in prices helps us figure out what strangers want, so we don’t have to try to predict their behavior at all.

Here’s the end of my Conclusion

One way to interpret the results of this experiment is that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is costly. We often speak of it as a moral obligation, especially to consider the plight of those who are worse off than ourselves. Not only do people usually decline to do this for moral reasons, they fail to do it for money. Additionally, this experiment shows that, if people are prompted to think about a specific past experience that someone else had, then mutual understanding is easier to establish.

I’m attempting to establish general purpose laws of behavior. I’ll end with a quote from Scott Alexander’s reply post.

A thoughtful doctor who tailors treatment to a particular patient sounds better (and is better) than one who says “Depression? Take this one all-purpose depression treatment which is the first thing I saw when I typed ‘depression’ into UpToDate”. But you still need medical journals. Having some idea of general-purpose laws is what gives the people making creative solutions something to build upon.

Behavioral Economics Conversation: Cutler and Glaeser

I haven’t written a formal response, yet, to the “behavioral economics is dead” claim going around Twitter. I’m too busy doing my referee reports on behavioral papers to write in depth about why behavioral is not dead. Incidentally, I’m not loving the most recent paper I was sent, so maybe that’s a point in the column of Team Death. I’ll write a few posts intersecting with the arguments being had.

First, I’ll point out two places in a CWT discussion of health and cities where the phrase “behavioral” was used. This is obviously a current conversation. David Cutler probably wouldn’t say that behavioral economics is his field, but here’s how he describes puzzles in decision making over health issues. (bold emphasis mine)

Everything that we know in healthcare is that people have difficulty choosing on the basis of price and quality. It goes back a little bit to some of the behavioral issues that we were talking about, but I think it’s slightly different. If you go to the doctor, and the doctor says you should take medication X, and you go to the pharmacy, and the pharmacy says that’ll be $30, a fair number of people will walk away and say, “I don’t have $30.”

What we would hope they would do is go to their doctor and say, “Doctor, is there any way that there could be a cheaper medicine that might work because $30 is hard for me this month?” In practice, people are extremely uncomfortable doing that. They really don’t like to go to their doctor and say, “Doctor, how do I trade off the money here versus the medicine?”

David Cutler

The previous issues Cutler mentioned had to do with time preference and delayed gratification. The turmoil over dieting alone is evidence that people don’t always make the best decisions.

Here’s the second of two appearances of the word “behavioral”, in response to Tyler’s question about how to make cities healthier.

I certainly join the crowd of economists who have argued that congestion pricing is the best way to deal with urban traffic jams. There’s no reason not to charge people for the social cost of their actions on that. And giving away street space for free is just crazy, especially since we now have technologies that can handle this.

And if we introduce autonomous vehicles without congestion pricing, you have just lowered the cost of sitting in traffic, which means the first-order behavioral response is that more people will sit in traffic, and our congestion will get even worse unless we introduce this from the beginning. So I think pricing is really good.

Ed Glaeser

In the second use of the word, it sounds like an individually-rational decision to sit in your autonomous vehicle and read blogs until your arrive at your destination. Maybe we can use mechanism design to reduce traffic congestion and improve life for all.

Whether or not you think behavioral economics is dead, economists are going to keep using the word “behavioral” for a long time.

I did a quick Ngram to get a sense of how common the word is, although this does not restrict the search to books about economics. Ngrams are easier to interpret if there is a comparison word. I choose the word “clustering” because it’s also a relatively new technical term. Both words were quite rare before 1930.

If you missed the small discussion about behavioral econ, Mike Munger did a link round-up here. Tomorrow’s post will be Vernon Smith’s view of behavioral economics.

One Year of EWED Blogging

We would like to thank the readers and subscribers who have joined us since we started blogging in August of 2020. This has been a great experience. Special thanks to people who have linked to us. Most of our web traffic comes from the United States, but I am pleased to report that we receive visitors from almost every nation in the world.

We believe that the world is better when people keep learning. Reading and writing blogs is a good way to learn. All of the EWED writers have benefitted from reading other blogs. We want to put new facts and analysis into the pool.

Our three most-viewed posts so far for the year 2021 are

  1. Academic Publishing: How I think we got here by Mike Makowsky
  2. Coase and COVID by Jeremy Horpedahl
  3. GDP Growth in 2020 by Jeremy Horpedahl

Looking back to 2020, the most-viewed post was my Complacency and American Girl Dolls.

In winter of 2021 we got some new graphics, like the one below. The importance of the shipping container cannot be understated, for economic growth and trade. Every blog post individually is like one box, not very important on its own, a piece of the essential human discourse.

I see blogging as a complement to both research articles and Twitter. Blogs get published much faster than journal articles and they allow more depth than tweets. By writing a new post every day we stay accountable both to ourselves and to our readers.

The various EWED writers represent a range of opinions, but we all agree that blogging is a way to make “small steps toward a much better world”.

Informational Diabetes

We all recognize that in the Internet Age, it is easy to communicate and to access information.

For the infovores, this is a cause for celebration.

Others worry that this leads to “information overload”, and to the spread of “disinformation” and “misinformation”. While this is clearly true, complaints about it typically seem to come from elites longing for the days when they had the only microphone, before the Revolt of the Public. Its hard to banish “misinformation” without screening out differences of opinion and correct contrarians even if you want to- and for some, such “collateral damage” would in fact be the main goal. But clearly something is wrong with the current information environment.

In a recent podcast appearance, Balaji Srinivasan used a metaphor I like better- Informational Diabetes:

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Learning is FUNdamental

Two items came across my radar this week that were absolutely not boring and also got me thinking. Up front, the links are Alexander the Grate on CWT and a guest Slow Boring on Chad.

Something that stood out to me about the two sources above are that the entertainment aspect made more people push through to the end and learn as a result. Right now, after my kids are asleep, I’m splitting my time between reading The Property Species and watching The Good Place on Netflix. The Property Species is really good, but it’s not catnip for my brain like The Good Place.

My son was home for most of the past week, so one of the things I forced him to do was read out loud. He needs to learn to read, and I know reading simple books out loud is good for him. It was clear that he would have chosen a painful burn over learning in this way.

Alexander the Grate is homeless, but I learned that he prefers the term No Fixed Address (NFA). He and Tyler discuss what it is like to live in DC as a homeless person. Policy is mixed in with interesting stories.

Matt Y’s guest on Slow Boring, Jeff Maurer, delivers information on Chad. As he points out, 16 million people live in Chad, so we should educate ourselves about the political situation and how our own policies would affect the fate of the citizens. He, the self-proclaimed Lady Gaga of Chad, is irreverent for a cause.

CEA on Inflation Today and WWII

This week the Biden Council of Economic Advisers blogged about “Historical Parallels to Today’s Inflationary Episode”.

Consumer demand in 2021 is roaring back after pandemic shutdowns. Demand for airline travel is exceeding expectations. Car dealer lots are empty.

The authors argue that, of all the periods of rapid inflation in American history, the boom after WWII has the most parallels to today.

During WWII, Americans were obviously in war mode. Price controls and supply shortages led to deprivation on the Homefront. Families had trouble buying cars, just like today.

Instead of focusing on consumer or industrial durable goods, manufacturing capabilities were concentrated on military production. Today’s shortage of durable goods is similar—a national crisis necessitated disrupting normal production processes. Instead of redirecting resources to support a war effort, however, manufacturing capabilities were temporarily shut down or reduced to avoid COVID contagion.

Remember when oil had a negative price in 2020? While people in the US were staying home, many were building up personal savings. As soon as the “war” ends, consumers compete as buyers and drive up the prices of the limited available goods.

They present the post-war inflationary episode as dramatic but temporary, because it only lasted for two years. It’s short compared to inflation of the late ‘70’s. They are standing behind the Powell “transitory” story, in their conclusion.

On the other hand, they say that the most comparable moment in history to today involved the price level spiking 20% and taking two years to come down. I’m pondering a very expensive repair on our car, just make sure I don’t have to buy a new one soon.

Paul Fain Highlights Illiteracy

Paul Fain writes a newsletter called The Job. The newsletter typically presents a few paragraphs one topic and then provides summaries and links to relevant news and current research. I subscribe because I write on and teach labor economics. The title of the letter this week is “Skills and Employability”.

As federal and state governments mull big spending on skills training, some experts say more resources should go toward boosting the literacy and numeracy of Americans without college degrees.

And despite the widespread belief that a quality liberal education in a college degree program is the best way to develop the sort of highly sought skills that pay off in the job market, many college degree holders also lack proficiency in literacy and numeracy.

Fain’s cites a recent essay by Irwin Kirsch calling for more opportunities for illiterate adults to achieve literacy, so that they can take advantage of continuing professional education. Kirsch is calling for more education so that the adults can do yet more education. I’m an educator and find myself sympathetic to Kirsch’s plan.

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Joy’s Cartoon is in a French Textbook

This is my day in the sun. A decade ago, I started ecoNomNomNomics.com. Back then, I knew that my dream job was “economics professor”, but I was years away and also thousands of miles away from where I am now. I have barely updated the site since 2011, but every now and then new people find it. My hope has always been that it would be both helpful and happy.

A French publisher reached out to me and asked for permission to use one of my cartoons in their workbooks that will reach actual French students. I was delighted to say yes.

Allons-y! With their permission, I reproduce the page that has my picture:

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Thank you Tyler and Alex

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have done really good work on saving America and beyond from Covid and from bad Covid takes. It’s worth saying this in more places.

Here is Alex on how great Tyler’s work has been on advancing disease-fighting science. Here is Ezra Klein (NYT) on how Alex’s advocacy.

Recall how this all started, as per the Econtalk podcast record in March 2020:

Tyler Cowen: I have been hunkered down at home every day, with some quick trips outside, typically to use the printer at work or maybe to refresh some grocery supplies as quickly as I can. But, , I wake up; I get onto my sofa; I get into information-absorption mode, and just let it rip until it’s time to go to bed at night. And, I’ve been blogging and writing about this the whole time, and really not doing very much else. Although I am spending more time cooking.

So, what I see as the data come in is we ought to have greater concern as to the possible risks here, for this being a very large scale negative event.

… And in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been busier in my entire life. Reading materials, writing, passing along advice, just processing information. Every day feels like an enormous rush of things I have to do, even though in the sense of my physical surroundings it’s quite static.

No one had all the right answers in the Spring of 2002. How many people devoted themselves to figuring it out? Who was reading dense medical research papers instead of watching extra Netflix, after being forced into semi-quarantine? There have been many heroes of the pandemic (see data heroes). The Marginal Revolution blogging team is certainly among them.

I have a virtual heap of notes on pieces I would like to write. I made notes a few years ago for an essay with the working title “Tyler Cowen as pro life economist” (which has nothing to do with abortion, by the way). I was going to construct an original argument and pull together disparate facts. Someday, maybe I will write it, but now I’ll be leading with the example of the pandemic response. It’s so obviously “a matter of life and death”. If they caused the vaccine to arrive a month sooner, then we can count the lives saved.

I didn’t plan to phrase it this way, in my original essay, but everything is life and death to economists. Occupational licensing is life and death. Deflation is life and death, because if economic output is lost due to deflation that will be someone’s prescription payment and someone else’s ability to live a full life. Economic growth is life and death. Tyler is one of the few people pointing out that it’s not only today’s low-income people but also future generations that will have longer fuller lives if economic growth is higher.