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)
- For what reasons may individuals not always weigh up the costs and benefits of purchasing an item?
- Give some examples of the use of heuristics in making consumption decisions?
- Is the use of heuristics irrational?
- Explain how people considering that they have behaved fairly is influenced by the social context of their behaviour?
- 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?
- Thaler suggested that Brexit could be an example of behavioural economics in action. Find out what he meant by this. Do you agree?
- Give some examples of ways in which the government can nudge people to persuade them to behave in socially or individually desirable ways.
- Find out what is meant by the ‘endowment effect’ and how it influences people’s valuation of items they own.
- Why may nudging by governments be undemocratic?
Earlier this week FIFA, the world governing body of football, announced plans to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams starting in 2026. It is fair to say that this has been met with mixed reactions, in part due to the politics and money involved. However, for an economist one particularly interesting question is how the change will affect the incentives of the teams taking part in the competition.
As a result of the change in the first stage of the competition, teams will be play the two other teams in their group. The best two teams in the group will then progress to the next round with the worst team going home. This is in contrast to the current format where the best two teams from a group of four go through to the next round.
Currently, in the final round of group matches all four of the teams in the group play simultaneously. However, an immediate implication of the new format is that this will no longer be the case. Instead, one of the teams will have finished their group matches before the other two teams play each other. This could have important implications for the incentives of the teams involved. To see this we can recall a very famous match played under similar circumstances between West Germany and Austria at the 1982 World Cup.
The results of the earlier group games meant that if West Germany beat Austria by one or two goals to nil both teams would progress to the next round. Any other result would mean that Algeria progressed at the expense of one of these two teams. The way in which the match played out was that West Germany scored early on and much of the rest of the game descended into farce. Both teams refused to attack or tackle their opponents, as they had no incentive to so (see here for some clips of the action, or lack of!).
There is no evidence to suggest that West Germany and Austria had come to a formal agreement to do this. Instead, the two teams appear to have simply had a mutual understanding that refraining from competing would be beneficial for both of them.
This is exactly what economists refer to as tacit collusion – a mutual understanding that refraining from competition and keeping prices high benefits all firms in the market. Much like the fans who had to sit through the farce of a game (you can hear the frustration of the crowd in the video clip linked to above), the end result is harm to consumers who have to pay the higher prices or go without the product.
For this reason governments use competition policy to try to stop situations arising in markets that make the possibility of tacit collusion more likely. One way in which this is done is by preventing mergers in markets where tacit collusion appears possible and would be facilitated by the reduction in the number of firms as a result of the merger. The equivalent for the World Cup would be preventing a change in the format of the competition.
An alternative approach is to tinker with the rules of the game in order to make collusion harder. FIFA seems to have some awareness of the possibility of doing this as it is suggesting that it may require all tied games to extra-time and then a penalty shoot-out in order to determine a winner. Clearly, this would go at least some way to alleviating concerns about tacit collusion in the final group matches because coordinating on a draw would no longer be possible. In a similar fashion, competition authorities can also intervene in markets to change the rules of the game (see for example the recent intervention in the UK cement industry).
Therefore, more generally, the World Cup example highlights the fact that variations in the structure of markets and the rules of the game can have significant effects on firms’ incentives and this can have important consequences for market outcomes. It will certainly be fascinating to see what rules are imposed for the 2026 World Cup and how the teams taking part respond.
World Cup: Fifa to expand competition to 48 teams after vote BBC News (10/1/17)
How will a 48-team World Cup work? Fifa’s plan for 2026 explained The Guardian, Paul MacInnes (10/1/17)
The Disgrace of Gijón and the 48-team FIFA World Cup Mike or the Don (12/1/17)
- What is the difference between tacit collusion and a cartel?
- Why does a reduction in the number of firms in a market make collusion easier?
- What other factors make collusion more likely?
- How does competition policy try to prevent the different forms of collusion?
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)
stickK ‘Set your goals and achieve them!’
- 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)?
- Give some examples of ways in which your own behaviour exhibits time inconsistency. Would it be accurate to describe this as ‘present bias’?
- Would you describe not sticking to New Year’s resolutions as ‘irrational behaviour’?
- 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?
- 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?
- Do you think it’s desirable that the advertising industry should employ psychologists and behavioural economists to help it achieve its goals?
Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.
People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.
Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:
“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”
Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)
- If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
- Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
- How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
- If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
- How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
- Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.
So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.
And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.
In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.
Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.
Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.
The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)
Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
- Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
- Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125” was not as effective?