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Posts Tagged ‘Nobel prize’

Nudging mainstream economics

The annual Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, normally known as the Nobel Prize in Economics, has been awarded 49 times since it was founded in 1969. Many well-known economists have been recipients of the award. This year it had been awarded to Richard Thaler for his research in behavioural economics. The award recognises his work in integrating economics with psychology.

Richard H. Thaler has incorporated psychologically realistic assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making. By exploring the consequences of limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control, he has shown how these human traits systematically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes.

In total, Richard Thaler’s contributions have built a bridge between the economic and psychological analyses of individual decision-making. His empirical findings and theoretical insights have been instrumental in creating the new and rapidly expanding field of behavioural economics, which has had a profound impact on many areas of economic research and policy.

Instead of making the assumption that people are rational maximisers, behavioural economists look at how people actually behave and respond to various incentives.

For example, people may be motivated by concepts of fairness and be prepared to make personal sacrifices for the sake of others. Such concepts of fairness tend to depend on the social context in which choices are made and can be influenced by the way choices are framed.

Also people may not weigh up costs and benefits but use simple rules of thumb, or heuristics, when making decisions. This might be an example of rational behaviour when time or information is limited, but the use of such heuristics often becomes engrained in behaviour and the rules become just habit.

People may also suffer from a lack of willpower or ‘present bias’. They may spend more than they can afford because they cannot resist the temptation to have a product. They may overeat because of the short-term pleasure it brings and ignore the long-term effects on their health.

Understanding how people make choices and the temptations to which they succumb can help policymakers devise incentives to change behaviour to achieve various social goals.

One type of incentive is nudging. A well-known example is people’s choice about whether to become an organ donor in the event of their death. If people are required to opt in to such a scheme, they may never get round to doing so. However, if they are required to opt out if they do not want to participate, many more people would thereby be donors and more organs would become available.

Another form of nudge is making desirable things fun. A well-known experiment here was encouraging people to use the stairs rather than the escalator when exiting a subway by making the stairs like a musical keyboard. See here for more examples.

The UK government set up a Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit (now independent of government) to find ways of encouraging people to behave in their own or society’s best interests.

But it is not just governments which use the insights of behavioural economists such as Thaler. The advertising and marketing industry is always examining the most effective means of influencing behaviour. A classic example is the loss leader, where consumers are tempted into a shop with a special offer and then end up buying more expensive items there rather than elsewhere.

Firms and advertisers know only too well the gains from tempting people to buy items that give them short-term gratification – such as putting chocolate bars by the tills in supermarkets.

Understanding consumer psychology helps firms to manipulate people’s choices. And such manipulation may not be in our best interests. If we are being persuaded to buy this product or that, are we fully aware of what’s going on and how our tastes are being affected? Would we, by standing back and reflecting, make the same choices as we do on impulse or out of habit?

And governments too can seek to manipulate people in ways that some may find undesirable. Governments may try to influence us to follow their particular political agenda – as may newspapers. Certainly, during election or referendum campaigns, we are being nudged to vote a particular way.

It is important then for us to understand when we are being nudged or otherwise persuaded. Do we really want to behave in that way? Just as it is important, then, for governments and firms to understand individuals’ behaviour, so too it is important for individuals to understand their own behaviour.

Richard Thaler’s work demonstrates why economics is hard The Economist, RA (11/10/17)
Nobel in Economics Is Awarded to Richard Thaler The New York Times, Binyamin Appelbaum (9/10/17)
The Making of Richard Thaler’s Economics Nobel The New Yorker, John Cassidy (10/10/17)
Nobel prize in economics awarded to Richard Thaler The Guardian, Richard Partington (10/10/17)
Richard Thaler is a controversial Nobel prize winner – but a deserving one The Guardian, Robert Shiller (11/10/17)
What the mainstreaming of behavioural nudges reveals about neoliberal government The Conversation, Rupert Alcock (17/10/17)
This year’s economics Nobel winner invented a tool that’s both brilliant and undemocratic Vox, Henry Farrell (16/10/17)
How a critic of economics became the disciplines Nobel-winning best friend The Guardian, Tiago Mata and Jack Wright (25/10/17)

How Richard Thaler changed economics BBC, More of Less, Tim Harford (14/10/17)


  1. For what reasons may individuals not always weigh up the costs and benefits of purchasing an item?
  2. Give some examples of the use of heuristics in making consumption decisions?
  3. Is the use of heuristics irrational?
  4. Explain how people considering that they have behaved fairly is influenced by the social context of their behaviour?
  5. Find out what is meant by the Dictator Game and how it can challenge the assumption that people behave selfishly. How is the ‘dictator’s’ behaviour affected by the possible payoffs?
  6. Thaler suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. Find out what he meant by this. Do you agree?
  7. Give some examples of ways in which the government can nudge people to persuade them to behave in socially or individually desirable ways.
  8. Find out what is meant by the ‘endowment effect’ and how it influences people’s valuation of items they own.
  9. Why may nudging by governments be undemocratic?
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When recession becomes depression: a case of déjà vu?

The global economic mood is darkening. Levels of consumer and producer confidence have declined and forecasts of economic growth are being downgraded. Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, stated that “this is the most serious financial crisis we’ve seen, at least since the 1930s, if not ever” (see).

So will slow recovery turn into a second recession (a double-dip)? And will recession turn into depression – the persistence of low or negative growth over a number of years? The following articles consider this frightening prospect and whether there are similarities with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But let’s not be too downhearted. If we all are, the world could end up talking itself into depression. Consumers would seek to claw down their debts and cut back spending; producers would invest less as their confidence wanes; banks would be unwilling to lend. So is there any cause to be cheerful? Well, at least world leaders are increasingly aware of the possibility of world depression and minds are increasingly being focused on how to avoid the situation. The EU summit on 23 October and the G20 summit in Cannes on 3/4 November have EU sovereign debt problems and the global crisis at the centre of their agenda.

But if they do decide to act, what should they do? Is the answer a Keynesian stimulus to aggregate demand through fiscal policy and through further quantitative easing? Or is the approach to act more decisively to reduce sovereign debt and convince markets that governments are serious about tackling the problem – a policy response much more in accordance with new classical thinking and the type of policy that would be recommended by Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics?

Thinking outside the 1930s box BBC News blogs, Paul Mason (7/10/11)
Britain faces slowest recovery in a century Guardian, Katie Allen (12/10/11)
The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good New York Times, Sunday Review, David Leonhardt (8/10/11)
Recovery has ‘stalled’, say leading economists Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (11/10/11)
Nobel prize in economics Republica, Opinion (Nepal), Sukhdev Shah (11/10/11)


  1. In what ways is the current global economic situation similar to that in the early 1930s?
  2. In what ways is it different? Do these differences provide more or less cause for hope for avoiding a global depression?
  3. Explain the following quote from the first article above: “I think that we face the quite real prospect that the market is removed as the determining mechanism for setting the price of capital within the eurozone at the sovereign level.This would put internal credit creation back under the control of the state.”
  4. How is the supply side of the economy relevant to (a) the short-run prospects for economic growth; (b) the long-run prospects?
  5. If technological progess slows down, what will be the implications for employment and unemployment? Explain.
  6. How is policy credibility relevant to the success of the decisions made at G20 and EU summits? (See last aricle above.) How would a Keynesian respond to the analysis of Sargent and Sims?
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The Nobel Prize

Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson shared the 2009 Nobel Prize for Economics (and a prize of $1.4m) on Monday for their work on how economic transactions operate outside markets in common spaces and within companies. Their work includes topics such as the free-rider problem and how this can lead to a sub-optimal over-consumption of a resource. Their work also considers economic governance and how this has led to the increasing popularity of outsourcing for companies.

Despite the prestige of a Nobel Prize, there have been suggestions that a Nobel Prize in Economics should not have been awarded this year, given the inability of economists to predict the financial crisis and mixed opinions about how to prevent another one in the future. What do you think?

US duo wins Nobel for economics Financial Times, Chris Giles (12/10/09)
Two Americans win Nobel economics prize MSNBC, Associated Press (14/10/09)
What this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics says about the Nobel Prize in Economics The New York Times, Steven Levitt (12/10/09)
Humbling year for bickering economists Financial Times, Alan Beattie (11/10/09)


  1. What is market failure and how does the free-rider problem fit in?
  2. Do you think economists were at fault for not foreseeing the financial crisis?
  3. Do you think that the research of Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson was deserving of the Nobel Prize and how important is their research in the context of economic theory?
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Krugman and the Nobel Prize for Economics

The surprise winner of the Nobel prize for economics this year was Paul Krugman: academic, writer and columnist for the New York Times. He is an economist with a gift for explaining economic principles and concepts in clear and simple terms. However, the award was given, not for his writing skills, but for his work on international trade theory and economic geography.

In praise of ….Paul Krugman Guardian (14/10/08)
Hotdog economics Guardian (13/10/08)
Nobel economics prize: And the winner is ….. Guardian (13/10/08)
Academic and columnist Paul Krugman wins Nobel Prize for Economics Times Online (13/10/08)
Bold strokes The Economist (16/10/08)

1. Write a brief paragraph summarising Krugman’s work on trade patterns.
2. Define the term ‘economies of scale’. Explain why this concept was important to Krugman’s work on trade patterns.
3. Assess the extent to which Krugman’s work has helped to explain the impact of free trade and globalisation.
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