One of the key developments in economics in recent years has been the growing influence of behavioural economics. We considered some of the insights of behavioural economics in a blog in 2016 (A nudge in the right direction?). As the post stated, ‘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.’ The post quoted from a Livemint article (see first linked article below):
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, people use heuristics. A heuristic technique is any approach to problem-solving, such as deciding what to buy, which is practical and sufficient for the purpose, but not necessarily optimal. For example, people may resort to making the best guess, or to drawing on past experiences of similar choices that turned out to be good or bad. On other accasions, when people are likely to face similar choices in the future, they resort to trial and error. They try a product. If they like it, they buy it again; if not, they don’t.
On other occasions, they may use various rules of thumb: buying what their friends do, or buying products on offer or buying trusted brands. These rules of thumb can lead to estimates that are reasonably close to the utility people will actually get and can save on time and effort. However, they sometimes lead to systematic and predictable misjudgements about the likelihood of certain events occurring.
In traditional models of consumer choice, individuals aim to maximise their utility when choosing between goods, or bundles of goods. The context in which the choices are offered is not considered.
Yet, in real life, we see that context is important; people will often make different choices when they are presented, or framed, in different ways. For example, people will buy more of a good when it is flagged up as a special offer than they would if there is no mention of an offer, even though the price is the same.
The recognition that framing is important to choices has led to the development of nudge theory. Indeed, it underpins many marketing techniques. These seek to persuade people to make a particular choice by framing it in an optimistic way or presenting it in a way that makes it easy to decide.
Governments too use nudge theory. In the UK, the Coalition government (2010–15) established the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (also unofficially known as the Nudge Unit) in the Cabinet Office in 2010. A major objective of this team is to use ideas from behavioural economics to design policies that enable people to make better choices for themselves.
The podcast linked below, looks at the use of nudge theory. The presenter, Mary Ann Sieghart looks at how we are being encouraged to change our behaviour. She also looks at the work of UCL’s Love Lab which researches the way we make decisions. As the programme notes state:
Mary Ann is grilled in UCL’s Love Lab to find out how she makes decisions; she finds taking the pound signs off the menu in a restaurant encourages her spend more and adding adjectives to the food really makes it taste better.
Walking through the Nudge Unit, she hears how powerful a tiny tweak on a form or text can get be, from getting people back to work to creating a more diverse police force. Popular with the political left and right, it has been embraced around the world; from Guatemala to Rwanda, Singapore to India it is used to reduce energy consumption, encourage organ donation, combat corruption and even stop civil wars.
But the podcast also looks at some of the darker sides of nudging. Just as we can be nudged into doing things in our interests, so too we can be nudged to do things that are not so. Politicians and businesses may seek to manipulate people to get them to behave in ways that suit the government or the business, rather than the electorate or the consumer. The dark arts of persuasion are also something that behavioural economists study.
The articles below explore some of the areas where nudge theory is used to devise policy to influence our behaviour – for good or bad.
- New frontiers of human behaviour
Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
- It’s been 10 years since behavioral economics hit the mainstream
Quartz, Dan Kopf (13/10/18)
- What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept
Independent, Ben Chu (9/10/17)
- Is Nudge Theory The Answer To Our Single-Use Plastics Problem?
HuffPost, Ollie Boesen (15/6/18)
- Re-enrolment key to ‘nudge’ UK into saving: survey
Investment and Pensions Europe Magazine (IPE), Elizabeth Pfeuti (22/10/18)
- Applying nudge strategies to higher education
Times Higher Education, Ben Castleman (6/7/18)
- Want to nudge others to install solar? Actions speak louder than words
Phys.org, Kevin Dennehy (25/10/18)
- DNA test and phone app to ‘nudge’ Waitrose shoppers towards healthier food
Imperial College London News, Caroline Brogan (12/10/18)
- “Nudge theory” explored to boost medication adherence
AMA Wire, Sara Berg (29/6/18)
- Simple ‘nudge’ letters can boost school attendance, new research suggests
The Seattle Times, Neal Morton (5/7/18)
- Using Behavioral Nudges to Treat Diabetes
Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport, James Guszcza and Greg Szwartz (10/10/18)
- Why nudge theory works until a kick in the backside is needed.
The Guardian, Andrew Rawnsley (22/10/17)
- Why Nudging Your Customers Can Backfire
Harvard Business Review, Utpal M. Dholakia (15/4/16)
- Explain what are meant by ‘bounded rationality’ and ‘heuristics’.
- How may populist politicians use nudge theory in their campaigning?
- 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 we be nudged into using less plastic?
- 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 as nudging? Explain.
- Would you advise all GP surgeries and hospital outpatient departments to text reminders to people about appointments? What should such reminders say? Explain.
We are coming into the big spending season, with Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the run-up to Christmas and then the winter sales. So will we all be rational maximisers and weigh up the utility we expect to receive from items against the price we pay (plus any other cost, such as time spent searching/shopping)? Or will we use a set of heuristics which make life easier and that we have found to be useful in helping us choose – heuristics such as buying things we’ve liked before, or going for things on special offer?
The answer is that we do probably use a set of heuristics, at least for many items. And don’t the retailers and the marketing firms they employ know this!
They will use all sorts of tricks of the trade to persuade us to part with our money. These tricks are designed to nudge us (or push us), without us feeling manipulated or conned – at least until we’ve bought their product.
And the tricks are getting more sophisticated. They include special offers which are not as good as they seem, time-limited offers which stimulate us to buy quickly without carefully thinking about what we’re doing, cunning positioning of products in shops to encourage us to buy things we had not planned to buy, adverts which play to our idealised perceptions or the ‘good life’ or what we would like to achieve, and packaging or display which make the product seem better than it is.
Also we are increasingly faced with targeted advertising where our smart devices capture information about our spending habits and tastes through our previous online spending or our search behaviour. This is then fed to advertisers to tailor adverts specifically to us on our mobiles, tablets, laptops and even, soon, on our smart TVs.
We may have a general desire to maximise utility from our spending, but market failures, such as consumers having imperfect information about products and a present bias (see also) in decision making, make us easy targets for the advertising and marketing industry. They understand the heuristics we use and try to take maximum advantage of them.
How shops use tricks to get you spending The Conversation, Cathrine Jansson-Boyd (16/11/17)
ColourPop looks to Qubit for next-gen personalization guidance Retail Dive, Dan O’Shea (13/6/17)
Channel 4 to offer 100% ad targeting across All 4 platform, seeking partners for linear equivalent The Drum, Jessica Goodfellow (14/11/17)
How Google aims to bring TV advertising into the 21st century The Drum, Ronan Shields (19/10/17)
How to Use Heuristics to Your Marketing Advantage MarketingProfs, Cam Secore (12/11/15)
- Does the use of heuristics contradict the assumption that consumers behave rationally?
- Give some examples of heuristics that you yourself use.
- Other than those identified above and in the first article, what ‘tricks’ might companies play on you to persuade you to buy their products?
- Is advertising personally targeted to individual consumers desirable for them?
- Give some examples of present bias in people’s behaviour.
- What factors should a retailer take into account when deciding whether to make pre-Christmas discounts?
- Explain what is meant by ‘affect heuristic’ and how the advertising industry uses the concept in setting the background to or scenario of an advertisement.
- Have you ever been persuaded into buying something you didn’t want? Why were you persuaded?
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?
In a blog post on 1 May this year, What’s really on offer?, we looked at the ‘super-complaint‘ by Which? to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) about supermarket special offers. The complaint referred to bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys which weren’t cheaper, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Under the rules of super-complaints, the CMA had 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015 to publish a response. It has now done so.
Here is an extract from its press release:
In its investigation the CMA found examples of pricing and promotional practices that have the potential to confuse or mislead consumers and which could be in breach of consumer law. Where there is evidence of breaches of consumer law this could lead to enforcement action.
However, it has concluded that these problems are not occurring in large numbers across the whole sector and that generally retailers are taking compliance seriously to avoid such problems occurring. The CMA also found that more could be done to reduce the complexity in unit pricing to make it a more useful comparison tool for consumers. …Nisha Arora, CMA Senior Director, Consumer, said:
‘We have found that, whilst supermarkets want to comply with the law and shoppers enjoy a wide range of choices, with an estimated 40% of grocery spending being on items on promotion, there are still areas of poor practice that could confuse or mislead shoppers. So we are recommending further action to improve compliance and ensure that shoppers have clear, accurate information.
Although the CMA believes that misleading pricing is not as widespread as consumer groups have claimed, in some cases the supermarkets could be fined. The CMA also says that it will work with the supermarkets to eliminate misleading information in promotions.
In addition it recommends that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) publishes guidelines for supermarkets on displaying unit prices in a consistent way. It also recommends that legislation should be simplified on how items should be unit-priced.
The following articles look at the implications of the CMS’ findings.
Some UK supermarket promotions are misleading, watchdog says Financial Times, Andrea Felsted (16/7/15)
Shoppers beware: Grocers ‘confusing’ consumers with special offers, unit pricing, says government investigation International Business Times, Graham Lanktree (16/7/15)
Supermarket pricing: CMA finds ‘misleading tactics BBC News, Brian Milligan (16/7/15)
How special are special offers? BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (16/7/15)
Response to super-complaint: link to elements of report CMA (16/7/15)
- Give some examples of the types of promotion used by supermarkets?
- In what ways might such promotions be misleading?
- How is competition from Aldi and Lidl affecting pricing and promotions in the ‘big four’ supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons)?
- What cost and other advantages do Aldi and Lidl have over the big four? How might the big four reduce costs?
- Are misleading promotions systemic across the industry?
- How can behavioural economics help to explain consumers’ response to promotions in supermarkets?
- What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?
For years, the UK consumer organisation, Which?, has exposed misleading supermarket pricing practices. These include bogus price reductions, ‘cheaper’ multi-buys, smaller pack sizes and confusing special offers. Claiming that these practices are still continuing, Which? has made a super-complaint (available to designated consumer bodies) to the competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
Commenting on this action, Which? executive director, Richard Lloyd said:
“Despite Which? repeatedly exposing misleading and confusing pricing tactics, and calling for voluntary change by the retailers, these dodgy offers remain on numerous supermarket shelves. Shoppers think they’re getting a bargain but in reality it’s impossible for any consumer to know if they’re genuinely getting a fair deal.
We’re saying enough is enough and using one of the most powerful legal weapons in our armoury to act on behalf of consumers by launching a super-complaint to the regulator. We want an end to misleading pricing tactics and for all retailers to use fair pricing that people can trust.”
The CMA will consider the issues raised under the super-complaint to establish whether any of them are significantly harming the interests of consumers. It will publish a response within 90 days from the receipt of the complaint on 21 April 2015. The possible outcomes include:
||recommending the quality and accessibility of information for consumers is improved
||encouraging businesses in the market to self-regulate
||making recommendations to government to change the legislation or public policy
||taking competition or consumer enforcement action
||instigating a market investigation or market study
||a clean bill of health
Some 40% of groceries are sold on promotion. Supermarkets are well aware that consumers love to get a bargain and use promotions to persuade consumers to buy things they might not otherwise have done.
What is more, consumer rationality is bounded by the information and time available. People are often in a hurry when shopping; prices change frequently; people are often buying numerous low-value items; and they don’t know what competitors are charging. People may thus accept an offer as genuine and not spend time investigating whether it is so. Supermarkets know this and use all sorts of tactics to try to persuade people that they are indeed getting a bargain.
Supermarkets Face Super-Complaint On Pricing Sky News (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets face possible probe over pricing practices Reuters, Neil Maidment (21/4/15)
Which? launches ‘super-complaint’ against supermarkets BBC News, Stephanie McGovern (21/4/15)
UK supermarkets dupe shoppers out of hundreds of millions, says Which? The Guardian, Rebecca Smithers (21/4/15)
Supermarkets face inquiry into ‘rip-offs’ The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
15 supermarket rip-offs that led to an inquiry The Telegraph, Dan Hyde (21/4/15)
What does Which?’s supermarket pricing complaint mean for you? The Guardian (21/4/15)
Supermarkets hit back over Which? report on pricing Financial Times (21/4/15)
Which? ‘super-complains’ about misleading supermarket pricing practices Which? (21/4/15)
CMA case page
Groceries pricing super-complaint Competition and Markets Authority (21/4/15)
- Give examples of supermarket offers that are misleading.
- Why are supermarkets able to ‘get away with’ misleading offers?
- How can behavioural economics help to explain consumer behaviour in supermarkets?
- Identify some other super-complaints have been made to the CMA or its predecessor, the Office of Fair Trading. What were the outcomes from the resulting investigations.
- What is meant by ‘heuristics’? How might supermarkets exploit consumers’ use of heuristics in their promotions?