A cash payment is not a ‘nudge’

There’s controversy in the UK over trials of a £200 payment to mothers for breastfeeding their children. Bizarrely, the payment is being described as a ‘nudge’ when it is nothing of the sort. A nudge is a change in the framing of a choice that doesn’t change the choice itself. Interventions that make one option far cheaper than the other through a cash payment are not nudges. The breastfeeding payment is a pure incentive scheme and has nothing to do with behavioural research. Read more

In defence of economists

I see that the Listener (ht Agnitio) has picked up on this piece on psychology today (ht Andrew F), which claims that an education in economics inherently changes our behaviour making economists worse citizens.

At first brush I would like to note that we have a psychology lecturer suggesting that this implies more people should study psychology – it might be the economist in me talking but this sounds a bit like these recommendations are a touch self-interested themselves 😉

But this would be a digression.  While I don’t disagree that economists do need to be humble about the conditional nature of their knowledge (a point that holds equally for other social, and physical, sciences mind you!) I stick by my general conclusion that:

Saying “we shouldn’t look at trade-offs because then we lose our sense of community” sounds strangely like “we shouldn’t study the natural world or we will lose our sense of faith” don’t you think

Read more

Our competitive nature is not natural

The heart of economics is an understanding of human choice. Our theories are almost all constructed on a utilitarian model of preferences and choice so understanding how we can improve that model is crucial to progress. Plenty of work has been done by behavioural empiricists on the heuristics that guide our behaviour and the anomalies in our choices. Now a paper by Leibbrandt, Gneezy, and List demonstrates that preferences also change over time in a predictable way. Read more

Marriage, investment, and sunk costs

At the moment, many of my friends are getting married.  At the same time some of my other friends who are not married are telling me they don’t understand why people get married.

While I am not married, I think the idea of marriage is grand.  I think it is a great way of dealing with a social issue that involves both search and relationship specific investment!

Now, you may think I’m being too romantic here by bringing up terms like “relationship specific investment” – but let us not forget the awesome power of economics for dealing with these ideas.  The question is, given marriage as an institution what specific type of co-ordination failure did marriage turn up to solve?

Read more

Side effects of 9/11

Humans are boundedly rational and use heuristics to make decisions, rather than optimise at every turn. It doesn’t always serve us well:

In the months after the 2001 terror attacks, passenger miles on the main US airlines fell by between 12% and 20%, while road use jumped.

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specialising in risk, has estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the attacks – indirect victims of the tragedy.

Gigerenzer ascribed the extra deaths to people’s poor understanding of danger. “People jump from the frying pan into the fire,” he said.

“We have an evolutionary tendency to fear situations in which many people die at one time. This is likely a hold-over from when we lived in small groups, where the death of a small part of the group could place the lives of everyone else in jeopardy.

“That’s no longer the case, but it is very difficult to elicit the same fear for the same number of deaths spaced over a year.”

Remember, we can “overlabel”

Following the unfortunate death of a woman from drinking far too much Coke, there have been calls to label Coke.  I’m all for information, and that often makes me pro-labeling, but in this case I’m not … it is important to recognise that we are targeting providing information, and so we can “overlabel”.

A label gives information as an abstract concept, but it is costly to interpret and so the existence of a label is often taken as a signal, and used as a rule of thumb.  As a result, too much labeling of things could reduce the true information content – leading to people making more poorly informed decisions.

The solution?  There is a trade-off for the amount we label a given piece of food etc – and we need to accept that.  However, we can also make more detailed information and standards a necessary requirement to be on some sort of central website – so people who do want to take into account greater information can do so at a low cost.  I would also note that people that design easier to interpret labels which don’t sacrifice information are “shifting out the information curve” – this is a real productivity improvement, and these people are cool as a result.

The overall goal of the regulation is to “maximise information” so that people can take costs and benefits into account when they do something.  That should be the guiding principal – not saying people should have one thing or another.

Note:  Look, no need for me to go on about personal responsibility, or insult the woman about her life choice to get this result – which I’ve seen a bunch of.  We don’t know her life, preferences, or situation – so we shouldn’t suddenly decide that since it is a choice we wouldn’t make we should either ban the product or attack the choice.  I’ve noticed a lot of both, and its generally a bit disrespectful, which is also why I delayed this post until people stopped being rude.