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Posts Tagged ‘rational behaviour’

How behavioural economics can help you stick to New Year’s resolutions

Many or us make New Year’s resolutions: going on a diet, doing exercise, spending more time studying. But few people stick to them, even though they say they would like to. So how can people be motivated to keep to their resolutions? Well, the experiments of behavioural economists provide a number of insights into the problem. They also suggest various incentives that can be used to motivate people to stick to their plans.

Central to the problem is that people have ‘time inconsistency’. They put a higher weight on the benefits of things that are good for them in the future and less weight on these benefits when they have to act now. You might strongly believe that going to the gym is good for you and plan to go next Monday. But when Monday comes, you can’t face it.

Another part of the time inconsistency problem is the relatively high weighting given to short-term gratification – eating chocolates, watching TV, spending time on social media, staying in bed. When thinking about whether you would like to do these things in, say, a couple of days’ time, you put a low weight on the pleasures. But thinking about doing them right now, you put a much higher weight on them. As the well-known saying goes, ‘Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness pays off now’.

So how can people be motivated to stick to their resolutions? Behavioural economists have studied various systems of incentives to see what works. Some of the findings are as follows:

•  People are generally loss averse. To get us to stick to New Year’s resolutions, we could devise a system of penalties for breaking them, such as paying 20p each time you swear!
•  Given people’s time inconsistency, devising a system whereby you get treats after doing something you feel is good for you: e.g. watching TV for 30 minutes after you’ve done an hour’s revision. Rewards should follow effort, not precede them.
•  Having simple clear goals. Thus rather than merely saying ‘I’ll eat less’, you devise a meal plan with menus that meet calorie and other dietary goals. Rather than saying, ‘I’ll exercise more’, you commit to going to the gym at specific times each week and doing a specific amount of each exercise.
•  Ritualising. This is where you devise a regime that is feasible to stick to. For example, you could always write a shopping list to meet your dietary goals and then only buy what’s on that list; or you and your flatmates could have a rota for household chores.
•  Social reinforcement. This is where people have a joint plan and help each other stick to it, such as going to the gym at specific times with a friend or group of friends, or joining a support group (e.g. to lose weight, or give up drinking or smoking).
•  Avoiding temptation. For example, if you want to give up chocolate, don’t have any in the house.
•  Using praise rather than criticism. People generally respond better to positive incentives than negative ones.

Behavioural economists test these different incentive mechanisms to see what works best and then to see how they can be refined. The testing could be done experimentally, with volunteers being given different incentives and seeing how they respond. Alternatively, data could be collected on the effects of different incentive mechanisms that people have actually used, whether at home or at work.

The advertising and marketing industry analyses consumer trends and how people respond to pricing, quality, display, packaging, advertising, etc. They want to understand human behaviour so that they can ‘direct’ it in their favour of their clients. Governments too are keen to find ways of encouraging people to do more of things that are good for them and less of things that are bad.

The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team looks at ways people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour, see the blog A nudge in the right direction?

But back to New Year’s resolutions, have you made any? And, if so, have you thought about how you might stick to them? Have you thought about the incentives?

Dan Ariely talks “Payoff” WUNC 91.5: North Carolina Public Radio, Dan Ariely talks to Frank Stasio (3/1/17)

Articles and blogs
50 New Year’s Resolution Ideas and how to Achieve Each of Them Lifehack, Ivan Dimitrijevic (31/12/16)
5 New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep (With The Help Of Behavioral Science Research) Forbes, Carmen Nobel (3/1/17)
The science behind keeping your New Year’s resolutions BT, SNAP PA (30/12/15)
The Guardian view on New Year resolutions: fitter, happier, more productive The Guardian, Editorial (3/1/17)
The Behavioral Economics of Your New Year’s Resolutions The Daily Beast, Uri Gneezy (5/1/14)
The psychology of New Year’s resolution The Conversation, Mark Griffiths (1/1/16)
Apply Behavioral Economics for a Better New Year Wharton Blog Network, William Hartje (16/1/14)
The Kardashians Can Help Your New Year’s Resolutions Huffington Post, John Beeby (29/12/16)
Using economics to score with New Year resolutions The Hindu, Venky Vembu (4/1/17)
Be It Resolved The New York Times, John Tierney (5/1/12)

Goal-setting site
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’


  1. Explain what is meant by time inconsistent behaviour. Is this the same as giving future costs and benefits a lower weighting than present ones (and hence having to discount future costs and benefits)?
  2. Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
  3. Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
  4. Have you made any New Year’s resolutions, or do you have any plans to achieve goals? Could you alter your own personal incentives and, if so, how, to make it more likely that you will stick to your resolutions/goals?
  5. Give some examples of ways in which the government could ‘nudge’ us to behave in ways that were more in our own individual interests or those of society or the environment?
  6. Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
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Integral ecology: mentally internalising externalities – and more

At the G7 conference in Bavaria on 7 and 8 June 2015, it was agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. But despite this significant objective, there were no short-term measures put in place to start on the process of achieving this goal. Nevertheless, the agreement contained commitments to further developments in carbon markets, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, incentives for the development of green energy and support for developing countries in reducing hydrofluorocarbons.

The agreement also sent a strong message to the 21st United Nations International Climate Change conference scheduled to meet in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The G7 communiqué states that binding rules would be required if the target was to be met.

The agreement should enhance transparency and accountability including through binding rules at its core to track progress towards achieving targets, which should promote increased ambition over time. This should enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway in line with the global goal to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C.

But many environmentalists argue that a more fundamental approach is needed. This requires a change in the way the environment is perceived – by both individuals and politicians. The simple selfish model of consumption to maximise consumer surplus and production to maximise profit should be rejected. Instead, the environment should be internalised into decision making.

What is more, there should be an integral ecology which brings together a wide range of disciplines, including economics, in analysing the functioning of societies and economies. Rather than being seen merely as a resource to be exploited, respect and care for the environment should be incorporated into our whole decision-making process, along with protecting societies and cultures, and rejecting economic systems that result in a growing divide between rich and poor.

In his latest encyclical, On care for our common home, Pope Francis considers integral ecology, not just in terms of a multidiciplinary approach to the environment but as an approach that integrates the objectives of social justice and care for the environment into an overarching approach to the functioning of societies and economies. And central to his message is the need to change the way human action is perceived at a personal level. Decision making should be focused on care for others and the environment not on the selfish pursuit of individual gain.

With a change in heart towards other people and the environment, what would be seen as externalities in simple economic models based on rational self-interested behaviour become internal costs or benefits. Care and compassion become the drivers for action, rather than crude self interest.

A key question, of course, is how we get here to there; how society can achieve a mass change of heart. For religious leaders, such as the Pope, the approach centres on spiritual guidance. For the secular, the approach would probably centre on education and the encouragement for people to consider others in their decision making. But, of course, there is still a major role for economic instruments, such as taxes and subsidies, rules and regulations, and public investment.

G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels by end of centuryEU Observer, Peter Teffer (8/6/15)
Integral Ecology Approach Links ‘Welfare of God’s People and God’s Creation’ Catholic Register (11/6/15)
President’s Corner Teilhard Perspective, John Grim (May 2015)
In his encyclical on climate change Pope Francis reveals himself to be a master of scientific detail Washington Post, Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein and Chris Mooney (18/6/15)
Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action in Draft of Encyclical New York Times, Jim Yardley (15/6/15)
Pope Francis letter on climate change leaked: Draft Vatican encyclical released three days early Independent, Kashmira Gander and Michael Day (15/6/15)
The Pope is finally addressing the gaping hole in the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition Independent, Michael McCarthy (15/6/15)
Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical The Guardian, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and John Hooper (16/6/15)
Explosive intervention by Pope Francis set to transform climate change debate The Observer, John Vidal (13/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Leaked Encyclical Draft Attributes Climate Change To Human Activity Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg (15/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Integral Ecology Huffington Post, Dave Pruett (28/5/15)

Pope Francis: Climate change mostly man-made BBC News, Caroline Wyatt (18/6/15)
Pope urges action on global warming in leaked document BBC News, Chris Cook (16/6/15)


  1. What do you understand by ‘integral ecology’?
  2. Is an integrated approach to the environment and society consistent with ‘rational’ behaviour (a) in the narrow sense of ‘rational’ as used in consumer and producer theory; (b) in a broader sense of making actions consistent with goals?
  3. Can cost–benefit analysis be used in the context of an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to the environment and society?
  4. What types of incentives would be useful in achieving the approach proposed by Pope Francis?
  5. Why do many companies publicly state that they pursue a policy of corporate responsibiliy?
  6. To what extent does it make sense to set targets for the end of this century?
  7. In what crucial ways might GDP need to be adjusted if it is to be used as a measure of the success of the approach to society, the economy and the environment as advocated by Pope Francis?
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Nudging people onto the stairs: fun theory in action

Economics is about choices. But how can people be persuaded to make healthy choices, or socially responsible or environmentally friendly choices? Behavioural economists have studied how people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour. One version of nudge theory is ‘fun theory’. This studies how people can be persuaded into doing desirable things by making it fun to do so.

I came across the first video below a couple of days ago. It looks at a highly successful experiment at the Odenplan underground station in Stockholm to persuade people to make the healthy choice of using the stairs rather than the escalator. It made doing so fun. The stairs were turned into a musical keyboard, complete with sound. Each stair plays a piano note corresponding to its piano key each time someone treads on it. As you go up the stairs you play an ascending scale.

After installing the musical staircase, 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator.

The fun theory initiative is sponsored by Volkswagen. The Fun Theory website is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’

VW held a competition in 2009 to encourage people to invent fun products designed to change people’s behaviour. There were over 700 entries and you can see them listed on the site. The 13 finalists included the musical staircase, traffic lights with quiz questions on the red, a Connect Four beer crate, fun tram tickets (giving entry to an instant-win lottery), a pinball exercise machine, a speed camera lottery where a winner is chosen from those abiding by the speed limit, a jukebox rubbish bin (which plays when people add rubbish), a one-armed vending machine, a fun doormat, car safety belts linked to a car’s entertainment system, car safety belt with a gaming screen which turns on when buckled, a bottle bank arcade system and the world’s deepest bin (or at least one which sounds as if it is). The winner was the speed camera lottery.

The fun theory site

Fun theory videos
Piano Staircase – Odenplan, Stockholm (on Vimeo)
The Speed Camera Lottery (on, Kevin Richardson)
Garbage Jukebox (on YouTube)
The World’s Deepest Bin (on Vimeo)
Bottle Bank Arcade (on YouTube)


  1. Does fun theory rely on rational choices?
  2. Other than through having fun, how else may people be nudged into changing their behaviour?
  3. Go through some of the entries to the Fun Theory Award and choose three that you particularly like. Explain why.
  4. Invent your own fun theory product. You might do this by discussing it groups and perhaps having a group competition.
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Money can’t buy me love

Australia is a rich country. It is one of the few to have avoided a recession. This has been the result partly of successful macroeconomic policies, but largely of the huge mining boom, with Australia exporting minerals to China and other fast growing Asian economies.

But has this growth brought happiness? Are Australians having to work harder and harder to pay for their high standard of living? Indeed, do higher incomes generally result in greater happiness? The following articles explore this issue, both in an Australian context and more broadly. They look at some recent evidence.

For example, in one study, Canadian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese university students were asked what they held to be most important for assessing the worth of their lives. The crucial finding was that although higher incomes may be a contributing factor to increased happiness and well-being, especially for poorer people, other factors are more important. These include developing fulfilling personal relationships, whether with partners, family members or friends; gaining knowledge and wisdom; having enjoyable hobbies; having financial security (as opposed to higher incomes); having a worthwhile career; living a moral life; helping other people.

The question then arises whether our economic systems and incentives are geared towards achieving these outcomes. Or are we encouraged to consume more and more and to seek higher and higher incomes to feed our addiction to consumption?

Is there an information problem here? Do many individuals perceive that money will buy them happiness, whereas, in reality, money can’t buy them love?

Australia: Where the good life comes at a price BBC News Magazine, Madeleine Morris (24/2/13)
Australia has the know-how to boost wellbeing Sydney Morning Herald, Matt Wade (8/9/12)
Money can’t buy you the good life Independent, Roger Dobson (24/2/13)
The 10 Things Economics Can Tell Us About Happiness The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (31/5/12)
Yes, Money Does Buy Happiness: 6 Lessons from the Newest Research on Income and Well-Being The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (10/1/13)
The fact is, the richer you are, the happier you are The Telegraph, Allister Heath (5/2/13)
Money buys happiness? I wouldn’t bank on it The Telegraph, Christopher Howse (6/2/13)
Who Says Wealth Doesn’t Buy Happiness? The Wealthy Do CNBC, Robert Frank (4/2/13)
More Proof That Money Can’t Buy Happiness Business Insider, Aimee Groth (28/1/13)
Money Changes Everything The New York Times, Adam Davidson (5/2/13)
Why are the Chinese so sad? Maclean’s (Canada), Mitch Moxley (4/2/13)

First World Happiness Report Launched at the United Nations The Earth Institute, Columbia University (2/4/12)
World Happiness Report The Earth Institute, Columbia University, John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs (eds.) (2/4/12)
Well-being evidence for policy: A review New Economics Foundation, Laura Stoll, Juliet Michaelson and Charles Seaford (3/4/12)


  1. Distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Is higher income a necessary or sufficient condition (or both or neither) for an increase in happiness? Does a person’s circumstances affect the answer to this question?
  2. Explain what is meant by ‘rational behaviour’ at the margin in the traditional economic sense?
  3. If a person always behaved rationally, would they be happier than if they did not? Explain.
  4. Explain how information asymmetry between the two or more parties involved in a transaction may make people worse off, rather than better off, even though they were behaving rationally.
  5. Explain what is meant by diminishing returns to income.
  6. Do richer countries get happier as they get richer?
  7. How would you set about measuring happiness?
  8. What do you understand by the term ‘hedonic elevation and decline’? Does this provide an accurate description of you own purchasing behaviour? If so, explain whether or not you would like to change this behaviour.
  9. When people make economic decisions, these are normally made with bounded rationality. How may this affect the desirability of the outcomes of the decisions?
  10. In explaining bankers’ behaviour, Christopher Howse (author of the second Telegraph article above) states: ‘It’s the power game that keeps them happy, not the money itself. When I say “keeps them happy” I mean “feeds their addiction”. It is a negative kind of satisfaction. A morning spent without the distraction of making big bucks is a morning left exposed to the empty horror of being a little rational animal on the bare surface of the Earth lost in space.’ Do you agree? Explain why or why not.
  11. When people are addicted to something, would doing more of it be classed as irrational? Explain.
  12. Why are the Chinese so sad?
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Is consumer behaviour affected by the method of payment used?

A recent article on this blog discussed the likelihood that we will soon move to a cashless society. It is therefore interesting to consider the implications that this might have for consumer behaviour. We might expect the form of payment to make no difference to a rational consumer. However, there is considerable evidence to suggest that this is not the case.

One reason why people appear to spend more freely on credit cards is payment decoupling – you get utility from the item purchased before you pay the cost. However, more recent evidence suggests that this is not the only relevant factor. It appears that the degree of transparency of the payment method also has an effect. Psychologists quoted in the above article conclude from their experimental evidence that:

Payment modes differ in the transparency with which individuals can feel the outflow of money. ….with cash being the most transparent payment mode.

This effect also appears to make people spend cash less freely.

The author of the above article spent some time experimenting with trying to make all his purchases using cash. He found that by doing so, he was able to reduce his spending by about 10%. However, this seems likely to become harder to do in the future and, as the article concludes, it is already difficult to purchase some items with cash.

Why does foreign money seem like play money? Science Codex (04/06/07)


  1. What type of products is it already difficult to purchase with cash?
  2. How did the psychologists test the transparency of payment methods?
  3. Do you think the consumer behaviour described above is likely to persist in the long-run?
  4. Might firms be able to take advantage of the consumers behave described above?
  5. Do you think the transparency of foreign currencies is the main reason why people spend more when they are abroad?
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Thinking at the margin

A key economic principle is that rational decision making requires thinking at the margin. This involves a comparison of the additional (or marginal) benefits and costs of an activity.

An example of such rational behaviour would be deciding to drink one more beer or spending one more hour studying only if the additional benefits were greater than the additional costs. The optimum is where marginal benefit equals marginal cost.

And this applies to firms too. A firm maximises its profits by producing the output at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost.

However, a recent book by the American business guru Clayton Christensen argues that thinking in this way can be a problem. A recent article in the Guardian describes a story he tells of the time he refused to play for his university basketball team in a national final which took place on a Sunday and therefore conflicted with his religious beliefs. His decision involved sticking to his principles rather than thinking at the margin. For him, whilst the marginal cost of sacrificing these principles just once may well have been small compared to the resulting benefits, the eventual cost would be much higher.

Christensen also suggests that similar arguments can apply to firm decision making. The above article provides an example he uses of decisions made by executives at the Blockbuster video chain. When smaller rivals started offering movies by mail, Blockbuster instead continued to invest in its existing video store business model. This eventually proved disastrous for the company. The explanation given for this is that building on previous investments made more sense than setting up a mail-order arm which would cannibalise their existing business. On the other hand, an alternative explanation may be that executives at Blockbuster were irrationally allowing sunk costs to affect their decision making.

Clayton Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Harvard Business School, Clayton Christensen (9/5/12)
Clay Christensen’s life lessons BloombergBusinessweek, Bradford Wieners (3/5/12)
Bust Blockbuster goes on the block Guardian, Ben Child (4/4/11)


  1. Can you think of a situation where you have decided to stick to your principles rather than think at the margin?
  2. Why does a firm maximise profit by producing the output at which marginal revenue is equal to marginal cost?
  3. What do you think are the main costs of setting up a mail-order business?
  4. Are these costs mainly fixed or variable costs?
  5. Why is it irrational to take sunk costs into account when making a decision?
  6. Can you think of a situation where you have been influenced by sunk costs?
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Is a nudging enough?

In 2009, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness was published. This book by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein examines how people are influenced to make decisions or change behaviour.

According to Thaler and Sunstein, people can be ‘nudged’ to change their behaviour. For example, healthy food can be placed in a prominent position in a supermarket or healthy snacks at the checkout. Often it is the junk foods that are displayed prominently and unhealthy, but tasty, snacks are found by the checkout. If fashion houses ceased to use ultra thin models, it could reduce the incentive for many girls to under-eat. If kids at school are given stars or smiley faces for turning off lights or picking up litter, they might be more inclined to do so.

The UK government has been investigating the use of ‘nudges’ as a way of changing behaviour, and the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has been considering the question. It has just published its report, Behaviour Change. The summary of the report states that:

The currently influential book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocates a range of non-regulatory interventions that seek to influence behaviour by altering the context or environment in which people choose, and seek to influence behaviour in ways which people often do not notice. This approach differs from more traditional government attempts to change behaviour, which have either used regulatory interventions or relied on overt persuasion.

The current Government have taken a considerable interest in the use of “nudge interventions”. Consequently, one aim of this inquiry was to assess the evidence-base for the effectiveness of “nudges”. However, we also examined evidence for the effectiveness of other types of policy intervention, regulatory and non-regulatory, and asked whether the Government make good use of the full range of available evidence when seeking to change behaviour.

The report finds that nudges

… used in isolation will often not be effective in changing the behaviour of the population. Instead, a whole range of measures – including some regulatory measures – will be needed to change behaviour in a way that will make a real difference to society’s biggest problems.

So is there, nevertheless, a role for nudges in changing behaviour – albeit alongside other measures? Read the report and the articles below to find out!

Lords report calls for regulation over persuasion to improve public health Wales Online, David Williamson (19/7/11)
Government’s ‘nudge’ approach to health is not enough, according to House of Lords and Work Foundation HR Magazine, David Woods (20/7/11)
How can I tell if I’ve been nudged Independent, Natalie Haynes (20/7/11)
Healthier behaviour plans are nudge in the wrong direction, say peers Guardian, Sarah Boseley (19/7/11)
‘Nudge’ is not enough, it’s true. But we already knew that Guardian, Jonathan Rowson (19/7/11)
Nudge not enough to change lifestyles – peers BBC News, Nick Triggle (19/7/11)
Why a nudge is not enough to change behaviour BBC News, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
House of Lords findings: why green Nudges are not enough The Green Living Blog, Baroness Julia Neuberger (19/7/11)
Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee publish report on Behaviour Change YouTube, Baroness Julia Neuberger (14/7/11)

Press Release Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (online version) (19/7/11)
Behaviour Change Lords Science and Technology Select Committee (PDF version) (19/7/11)


  1. When may a nudge (a) be enough, (b) not be enough to change behaviour?
  2. What instruments does the government have to change behaviour?
  3. Distinguish between a ‘technical’ and an ‘adaptive’ solution to changing behaviour. Give examples.
  4. Why might adaptive solutions provide more of a challenge to policymakers than technical solutions.
  5. Can a nudge ever be transformative?
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The economics of love, marriage and dirty dishes

Economics is about choice – and choices occur in all parts of our lives. One area is personal relationships. Are we making the best of our relationships with family, friends and sexual partners? Increasingly economists are examining human behaviour in such contexts and asking what factors determine our decisions and whether such decisions are rational.

A recent book looks at the economics of marriage and goes under the title of ‘Spousonomics‘. Its authors, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson, use economics “to master love, marriage and dirty dishes”. As they say:

Every marriage is its own little economy, a business of two with a finite number of resources that need to be allocated efficiently.

They look at ways in which such resources can be allocated efficiently. They also look at apparently irrational behaviour and seek to explain it in terms of various ‘failures’ (akin to market failures). They also examine how these failures can be rectified to improve relationships.

So is this economics stepping on the toes of relationship counsellors and psychologists? Or is this the legitimate domain of economists seeking to understand how to optimise in the context of scarce resources – including time and patience?

Spousonomics gets to heart of the matter Belfast Telegraph (19/1/11)
Run your marriage with ‘Spousonomics’: A new book says applying economic rules with transform your relationship Mail Online, Lydia Slater (31/1/11)
Spousonomics: How Economics Can Help Figure Out Your Marriage Book Beast (31/1/11)
Spousonomics Lesson #1: Loss Aversion YouTube (15/1/11)
Economist’s Explanation For Why Getting Married Isn’t Rational Huffington Post, Dan Ariely (15/1/11)
How Economics Saved My Marriage Newsweek, Paula Szuchman (30/1/11)
Want your marriage to profit? New York Post, Sara Stewart (29/1/11)

Spousonomics: blog, Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson


  1. How would you define ‘rational behaviour’ in a personal relationship?
  2. Why may marriage be a better deal generally for men than for women?
  3. Give some examples of asymmetry of information in marriage and why this may lead to bad decision making?
  4. Give some examples of risk averse and risk loving behaviour in personal relationships?
  5. Why are many actions in marriage apparently irrational? Could such actions be explained if the concept of ‘irrationality’ is redefined?
  6. Why may a simple demand curve help to explain why sexual relationships tend to wane in many marriages?
  7. Why does moral hazard occur in marriage? Does a combination or moral hazard and asymmetry of information help to explain divorce?
  8. Should marriage guidance counsellors study economics?!
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Confusing the consumer

You will probably have come across the concept of consumer sovereignty. In the mythical world of perfect markets, producers are at the beck and call of consumers. Firms that are not responsive to consumer demand go out of business. In other words, in order to survive they have to respond to any shifts in consumer demand. These in turn can be the result of changes in tastes, changes in income, changes in the prices of other goods, and so on.

Of course, the real world is not perfect, but it is still often assumed that consumers are powerful in influencing what firms sell and at what prices. Well, firms would much rather be in a position of manipulating consumer tastes and hence the huge amounts spent on advertising and marketing.

And it doesn’t end there. Firms use many pricing practices which, to put it mildly, try to confuse consumers or lure them into buying things by making them think they are getting something much cheaper than they really are. Take the case of airline tickets. Some budget airlines offer tickets at extremely low prices, such as 99p. But if you select such a flight, by the time you get to the final screen where taxes, charges, supplements, luggage, etc. are added, the price could exceed £100! And ask yourself this, when you buy something with 20% off, or when you buy ‘three for the price of two’ how rational was your decision? Did you really want the product? Was the offer really ‘genuine’?

The Office of Fair Trading has recently completed two investigations into pricing. As it stated 14 months ago when the investigations were launched:

The first, into online targeting of advertising and prices will cover behavioural advertising and customised pricing, where prices are individually tailored using information collected about a consumer’s internet use. It is expected that this study will be completed by spring 2010.

The second, into advertising of prices, will consider various pricing practices which may potentially mislead consumers. The study will look in particular, but not exclusively, at how these practices are used online.

The following articles look at some of the practices that firms use to drive sales – practices that deliberately attempt to manipulate the consumer. The assumption of ‘perfect knowledge’ by consumers may be a long way from the truth.

Shoppers lose out on ‘billions’ because of ‘deceitful’ marketing The Telegraph, Harry Wallop (2/12/10)
OFT warns retailers about ‘misleading’ price offers BBC News (2/12/10)
OFT cracks down on price gimmicks Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (2/12/10)
We’re all gulled by special offers BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (2/12/10)

OFT publications
OFT warning on misleading pricing practices, OFT Press Release 124/10 (2/12/10)
OFT launches market studies into advertising and pricing practices, OFT Press Release 126/09 (15/10/09)
Advertising of Prices, Office of Fair Trading, OFT1291 (December 2010)
Advertising of Prices, Office of Fair Trading, project page
Advertising of Prices Study Overview, Office of Fair Trading, video


  1. Explain each of the different types of pricing practice investigated by the OFT.
  2. Which of the pricing practices are the most misleading for customers?
  3. What is meant by ‘invisible price increases’? How can they be used to mislead the consumer?
  4. Why do certain pricing practices make it hard for the Office for National Statistics to work out the rate of inflation?
  5. Explain the new framework the OFT is adopting for ‘prioritising enforcement action’.
  6. If we end up buying something that we didn’t really intend to buy, does this mean that we were being irrational?
  7. Is advertising generally in or against the interest of consumers? Explain your answer
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A new felicific calculus?

Happiness and unhappiness are central to economists’ analysis of consumer behaviour. If we define ‘utility’ as perceived happiness, standard consumer theory assumes that rational people will seek to maximise the excess of happiness over the costs of achieving it: i.e. will seek to maximise consumer surplus. In fact, this analysis can be traced back to the work of the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham reffered to it as hedonic or felicific calculus (see also and also).

Now, of course, whether people actually behave in this way is an empirical question: one that behavioural and experimental economists have been investigating over a number of years. Nevertheless, it remains central to neoclassical analysis of ‘rational behaviour’.

But if happiness is central to a large part of economic analysis, how is happiness to be measured? At a micro level, this has proved problematic as it is virtually impossible to have inter-personal comparisons of utility. As a result, consumer theory uses indifference analysis, characteristics analysis, revealed preference and other approaches to analyse consumer demand.

But what about at the macro level? How is a nation’s happiness or well-being to be measured? There is general acceptance that GDP is a relatively poor proxy for national well-being and is more a measure of production. There have been various indices developed over the years (see, for example, Box 14.7 on ISEW in Economics, 7th edition) as alternatives to GDP. None has been adopted by governments, however, with the exception of a Gross National Happiness index in Bhutan.

Recently, however, there has been renewed interest in developing an index of well-being. In France, President Sarkozy commissioned two Nobel economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to examine the issues in developing such a measure. In the light of the Stiglitz/Sen report, David Cameron has asked the Office of National Statistics to measure the UK’s general well-being. The articles below look at the difficulties that could arise in producing an index of well-being, of meauring the elements and in using it for policy.

UK Prime Minister Cameron Moves on UK Happiness Index Triple Pundit, Kristina Robinson (17/11/10)
David Cameron’s happiness index finds support despite impending decade of austerity Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (16/11/10)
How can we measure happiness? Telegraph, Philip Johnston (16/11/10)
David Cameron aims to make happiness the new GDP Guardian, Allegra Stratton (14/11/10)
An unhappiness index is more David Cameron’s style Guardian, Polly Toynbee (16/11/10)
Happiness is a warm baguette? The Economist (13/1/08)
‘Stiglitz-Sen Moving in the Right Direction, but Slowly’ IPS, Hazel Henderson (18/9/09)
The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P. New York Times Magazine (13/5/10)
Happiness doesn’t increase with growing wealth of nations, finds study Guardian, Alok Jha (13/12/10)
Should governments pursue happiness rather than economic growth? The Economist (25/11/10)
M&S’s Sir Stuart Rose among UK’s expert happiness panel BBC News (27/1/11)

The Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi report
Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Jean-Paul Fitoussi (September 2009)


  1. What are the shortcomings of using GDP as a measure of a nation’s well-being?
  2. Summarise the main findings of the Stiglitz/Sen/Fetoussi report.
  3. What items would be included in a happiness or well-being index that (a) are not included in GDP; (b) not included in Stiglitz and Sen’s proposed net national product measure? How would such an index be compiled?
  4. Would it be satisfactory to compile such an index purely on the basis of survey evidence? Why might such evidence prove unreliable?
  5. What are the political advantages and disadvantages of using such an index?
  6. Is utilitarianism the best basis for judging the progress of society?
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