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?
Before the referendum, economists overwhelmingly argued that the economic case for the UK remaining in the EU was much stronger than that for leaving. They warned of serious economic consequences, both short term and long term, of a Brexit vote. And yet, by a majority of 51.9% to 48.1% of the 72.1% of the electorate who voted, the UK voted to leave the EU.
Does this mean that economists failed to communicate to the electorate? Were the arguments presented poorly or in too academic a way?
Or did people simply not believe the economists’ forecasts, being cynical about the ability of economists to forecast? During the campaign, on several occasions I heard people repeating the joke that economists had successfully predicted five out of the last two recessions!
Did they not believe the data that immigrants from other EU countries to the UK contribute more in taxes they draw in benefits and that overall they make a net positive contribution to output per head? Or perhaps they believed the claims that immigrants imposed a net cost on the economy.
Or were there ‘non-economic’ issues that people found more persuasive, such as questions of sovereignty or national identity? Or was the strain on local resources, such as health services, schools and housing, blamed on immigration itself rather than on a lack of spending on additional resources – the funding for which could have come from the extra GDP generated by the immigration?
Or were there so many lies told by politicians and those with vested interests that people simply didn’t know whom to believe?
Economists will, no doubt, do a lot of soul searching over the coming months. One such economist is Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose article is linked below.
We economists must face the plain truth that the referendum showed our failings Institute for Fiscal Studies newspaper articles. Paul Johnson (28/6/16)
- In what ways could economists have communicated better to the general public during the referendum campaign?
- For what reasons may people distrust economists?
- Were economists hampered in delivering their message by ‘balanced reporting’?
- Comment on Paul Johnson’s statement that, ‘The most politically engaged of us spend decades working out how to tweak tax policy, or labour market policy, or competition policy to deliver small benefits. How many times over would our work have been repaid if we had simply convinced a few more people of the basics?’
- Do economists, or at least some of them, need to become more ‘media savvy’?
- How could institutions, such as the Royal Economic Society and the Society of Business Economists, do more to help economists collectively to communicate with the general public?
- Give some examples of the terminology/jargon we use which might be inappropriate for communicating with the general public. Suggest some alternative terms to the examples you’ve given.
In the following article, Joseph Stiglitz argues that power rather than competition is a better starting point for analysing the working of capitalism. People’s rewards depend less on their marginal product than on their power over labour or capital (or lack of it).
As inequality has widened and concerns about it have grown, the competitive school, viewing individual returns in terms of marginal product, has become increasingly unable to explain how the economy works.
Thus the huge bonuses, often of millions of pounds per year, paid to many CEOs and other senior executives, are more a reflection of their power to set their bonuses, rather than of their contribution to their firms’ profitability. And these excessive rewards are not competed away.
Stiglitz examines how changes in technology and economic structure have led to the increase in power. Firms are more able to erect barriers to entry; network economies give advantages to incumbents; many firms, such as banks, are able to lobby governments to protect their market position; and many governments allow powerful vested interests to remain unchecked in the mistaken belief that market forces will provide the brakes on the accumulation and abuse of power. Monopoly profits persist and there is too little competition to erode them. Inequality deepens.
According to Stiglitz, the rationale for laissez-faire disappears if markets are based on entrenched power and exploitation.
Monopoly’s New Era Chazen Global Insights, Columbia Business School, Joseph Stiglitz (13/5/16)
- What are the barriers to entry that allow rewards for senior executives to grow more rapidly than median wages?
- What part have changes in technology played in the increase in inequality?
- How are the rewards to senior executives determined?
- Provide a critique of Stiglitz’ analysis from the perspective of a proponent of laissez-faire.
- If Stiglitz analysis is correct, what policy implications follow from it?
- How might markets which are currently dominated by big business be made more competitive?
- T0 what extent have the developments outlined by Stiglitz been helped or hindered by globalisation?
Research published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that graduates from wealthier family backgrounds earn significantly more than those from poorer backgrounds. If you compare the 20% of graduates from the richest backgrounds with the remaining 80%, the average earnings gap in 2012/13, 10 years after graduation, was £8000 per year for men and £5300 for women. Even when you take graduates in similar degrees from similar universities, there is still a gap of around 10% between those from richer and those from poorer backgrounds.
The research also shows that in 2012/13, 10 years after graduation, the median earnings for economics graduates was the second highest of any subject (just behind graduates in medicine) and that at the 90th percentile economics graduates had the highest earnings (£93 900 for women and £121 400 for men) of any subject. In fact, graduates in economics were the only males at this percentile earning over £100 000. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) As the Press Release to the IFS working paper states:
For males, it is estimated that approximately 12% of economics graduates earned above £100 000 some ten years after graduation; by contrast, 6% of those studying medicine or law earned more than £100 000.
For females, it is estimated that approximately 9% of economics graduates earned above £100 000 some ten years after graduation; by contrast, just 1% of those studying medicine and 3% of those studying law did so.
For some subjects, graduates earned little more than non-graduates.
Those studying the creative arts had the lowest earnings, and indeed earned no more on average than non-graduates.
The research also shows that earnings vary substantially by gender and university. For those earning £8000 or more, the median earnings for male graduates 10 years after graduation was £30 000 (compared with £21 000 for non-graduates), whereas for women it was £27 000 (compared with £18 000 for non-graduates).
Earnings are substantially higher for graduates from some universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE. “At the other end of the spectrum, there were some institutions (23 for men and 9 for women) where the median graduate earnings were less than those of the median non-graduate ten years on.” Differences in graduate earnings by university tend to compound the difference by students’ family background as those from poorer backgrounds disproportionately attend universities with lower average graduate earnings by discipline.
The following articles consider the findings and their implications for higher education policy
Graduates from wealthy backgrounds reap earnings benefits Times Higher Education, John Morgan (13/4/16)
Graduate Earnings Guided By Parents’ Wealth, Institute For Fiscal Studies Report Finds Huffington Post, George Bowden (13/4/16)
Graduates from poorer backgrounds earn less than richer peers on same course, major international study finds Independent. Oliver Wright (13/4/16)
Richer students have higher graduate income, study finds The Guardian (13/4/16)
Want a Higher Salary? It Helps If You’re a Man With Rich Parents Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (13/4/16)
Economics graduates are in the money Why Study Economics? Economics in Action blog (15/4/16)
What and where you study matter for graduate earnings – but so does parents’ income IFS Press Release (13/4/16)
How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background IFS Working Paper W16/06, Jack Britton, Lorraine Dearden, Neil Shephard and Anna Vignoles (13/4/16)
Free Online Statistics – Students & qualifiers Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA)
Applications and acceptances for types of higher education course – 2015 UCAS
What do graduates do? Higher Education Careers Services Unit
- For what reasons are graduates from rich backgrounds likely to earn substantially more than graduates from poor backgrounds?
- Why are graduates in economics likely to earn more than graduates in other subjects, especially those in the top percentile of earners from any given subject?
- How might marginal productivity help to explain the differences in earnings of different graduates?
- What are meant by ‘soft skills’. Why may students from richer backgrounds have better soft skills in the context of (a) university admission and (b) getting a job on graduation?
- Why are female graduates likely to earn less than male graduates with the same class of degree in the same subject?
- What could be done by (a) universities and (b) the government to increase social mobility?
- Do you think that the findings of the research have implications for the way students’ study is funded? Explain.
The town of Kilkenny in Ireland has just hosted the sixth annual Kilkenomics festival (Nov 5–8) where economics and comedy meet. The festival brought together comedians and economists to take a look at some of the most pressing economic and social issues, such as the refugee crisis, economic recovery, banking and finance, the growth in inequality, the future of the EU, economic power, the environment and personal behaviour.
With stand-up comedians taking a sideways look at economic issues and top economists having their ideas lampooned, or lampooning them themselves, the festival provided a fun, but useful, reality check for the discipline of economics.
The festival attracted some major names in the field of comedy, economics, journalism and politics. Perhaps the biggest draw was the former finance minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis (see also), who opened the festival with a withering attack on the economic model being pursued by Greece’s creditors (the European Commission, the IMF and the ECB).
Much of the comedy was really aimed, not so much at economics and economists, but more at how politicians pursue economic policies and interpret economic models in ways that suit their own political agenda. But still there was no escape for economists. Much of the humour was directed at unrealistic assumptions and unrealistic visions of how economies function.
Thanks to JokEc for the following:
||Economics is the only field in which two people can get a Nobel Prize for saying exactly the opposite thing.
||If you rearrange the letters in “ECONOMICS”, you get “COMIC NOSE”.
||Economics has got so rigorous we’ve all got rigor mortis.
||How many economists does it take to change a light bulb?
I’ll leave you to work out the best answer to that last one – there could be many depending on the school of thought.
Videos and podcasts
Kilkenomics Promo – 2015 Kilkenomics on YouTube (23/10/15)
Kilkenomics: Highlights 1 Kilkenomics on YouTube (27/10/15)
Kilkenomics: Highlights 2 Kilkenomics on YouTube (30/10/15)
Kilkenomics 2014 BBC ‘In the Balance’ (9/11/14)
Kilkenomics launches biggest programme to date Meath Chronicle (1/10/15)
The subversive wonders of Kilkenomics – where economics meets stand-up The Spectator, Liam Halligan (15/11/14)
Guilty as charged: Irish standup festival puts economics in the dock The Guardian, Larry Elliott (8/11/15)
Ireland no paradigm of successful austerity – Varoufakis The Irish Times, Eoin Burke Kennedy (5/11/15)
Economy of sex … how much are your orgasms costing you? Irish Independent, Niamh Horan (8/11/15)
- What is it about economics that gives so much material to comedians?
- ‘The worse it gets the funnier it seems because comedy exists with tragedy.’ To what extent is this true of economics as a discipline or simply of the state of the world economists are studying at any one time?
- Should assumptions in economics always be realistic? Explain why or why not.
- For what types of reason might economists disagree?
- Make up an economics joke and test it on your fellow students. Perhaps there ought to be a vote for the funniest and a prize for the winner. What was it about the winning joke that made it the funniest?