When making a decision, what happens if you do nothing: i.e. take no action? The answer is the default option. There is evidence that changing the default option for the same decision can sometimes have a big impact on the final choices people make. For example, when a person starts a new job, they often have to decide whether to contribute to the company’s pension scheme. The default option is typically for employees not to contribute. They have to do something actively (e.g. fill in an online form) to opt in to the scheme. An alternative is to change the default option so that employees are contributing to the pension. They now have to do something to opt out of the scheme.
Changing the default should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics. However, research by Madrian and Shea (2001) found that it had a big effect. When employees had to opt-in, 49 per cent enrolled in a company pension. When they had to opt out, the figure increased to 86 per cent.
Other research suggests that defaults can influence the likelihood of getting a flu jab, making healthier food choices, receiving e-mail marketing and choosing certain types of car insurance.
One policy area where the choice of default has become a topical issue is organ donation. In 2017, over 400 people died in the UK because it was impossible to find an appropriate donor. Could changing the default increase the number of donors?
The scheme that operates in England requires people to sign-up to the organ donor register: i.e. they have to opt in. Although 80 per cent of the public support organ donation less than 50 per cent ever get around to signing this register.
Parliament recently approved the Organ Donation Bill and the new law will come into effect in 2020. The default position will change so that people are automatically signed-up for organ donation. If they do not want to donate their organs, they will have to opt out of the register.
In December 2015, the devolved Welsh government introduced a similar scheme. Although it is quite early to give a full assessment of the policy, its impact has been smaller than many people had hoped.
Why have the initial results been disappointing? One potential downside with an opt-out scheme is that it may create greater uncertainty about someone’s true wishes. With an opt-in scheme, a relative takes a deliberate action to indicate their preference to be an organ donor. In England, approximately 10 per cent of families overrule the wishes of a relative who has actively signed the register.
With an opt-out scheme, family members may worry that their relative did not want to donate their organs but never found the time to take their name off the register. In 2017/18, families in Wales overruled the presumed consent of their relatives in 33 per cent of cases.
Some countries, such as Singapore and Austria, operate a ‘hard opt-out’ policy. In these schemes, families cannot overrule and this leads to high organ donor rates. However, this type of policy is unpopular with large sections of the electorate who feel it is over paternalistic.
Forcing people to make a choice
Is it possible to force people to make a choice and so reveal their preferences to others? This is a policy of active choice. For example, the government could make the issuing of a driving licence conditional on a people making a choice about whether or not to sign the organ donor register.
This type of policy has been trialled in the USA with the take up of home delivered prescriptions. For the majority of people, there are clear advantages of choosing to have home delivered prescriptions rather than visiting a pharmacy – it is both cheaper and involves less time/hassle. However, the default option is to visit a pharmacy and one study found that only 6 per cent of people chose home delivered options. With the introduction of active choice, this figure increased to 42 per cent.
Some have argued that it is socially undesirable to force people to make a choice. An alternative is simplified active choice – people can either make a choice or accept the default option.
- Explain why changing the default option should have no impact on people who behave in ways that are consistent with the rational choice model in economics.
- What is present bias? How does it differ from simple impatience? Explain how present bias might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What is loss aversion? How does it differ from diminishing marginal utility? Explain how loss aversion might help to explain the impact of changing the default option.
- What are some of the limitations of using defaults in policy-making?
- Is active choice less paternalistic than changing the default option?
- Think of some reasons why someone may not want to make a choice.
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?
Is too much expected of economists? When economic forecasts turn out to be wrong, as they often are, economists are criticised for having inaccurate or unrealistic models. But is this a fair criticism?
The following article by Richard Whittle from Manchester Metropolitan University looks at what economists can and cannot do. The article highlights two key problems for economic forecasting.
The first concerns human behaviour, which is influenced by a whole range of factors and can change very rapidly in response to changing circumstances. Moods of optimism or pessimism can quickly spread in response to a news item, such as measures announced by Donald Trump or latest data on growth or the housing market.
The second concerns the whole range of possible economic shocks. Such shocks, by their very nature, are hard to predict and can quickly make forecasts wrong. They could be a surprise election result, a surprise government policy change, a natural disaster, a war or a series of terrorist attacks. And these shocks, in turn, affect human behaviour. Consumption and investment may rise or fall as the events affect confidence and herd behaviour.
But is it a fair criticism of economics that it cannot foretell the future? Do economists, as the article says, throw up their hands and curse economics as a futile endeavour? Not surprisingly, the answer given is no! The author gives an analogy with medicine.
A doctor cannot definitely prevent illness, but can offer advice on prevention and hopefully offer a cure if you do get ill. This is the same for the work economists do.
Economists can offer advice on preventing crises or slowdowns but cannot definitively prevent them from happening. Economists can also offer robust advice on restoring growth, although when the advice is that the economy has grown too fast and should slow, it is often not welcomed by policy makers.
Helping understanding the various drivers in an economy and how humans are likely to respond to various incentives is a key part of what economists do. But making predictions with 100% certainty is asking too much of economists.
And just as medical professionals can predict that if you smoke, eat unhealthy food or take no exercise you are likely to be less healthy and die younger, but cannot say precisely when an individual will die, so too economists can predict that certain policy measures are likely to increase or decrease GDP or employment or inflation, but they cannot say precisely how much they will be affected.
As the article says, “the true value of the economist lies not in mystical fortune telling, but in achieving a better understanding of the nature of the economies in which we live and work.”
How to be an economist in 2017 The Conversation, Richard Whittle (24/1/17)
- For what reasons has economics been ‘in crisis’? What is the solution to this crisis?
- Look at some macroeconomic forecasts for a country of your choice made two years ago for today (see, for example, forecasts made by the IMF, OECD or a central bank). How accurate were they? Explain any inaccuracies.
- To what extent is economic forecasting like weather forecasting?
- What is meant by cumulative causation? Give some examples. Why does cumulative causation make economic forecasting difficult?
- How is the increased usage of contactless card payments likely to affect spending patterns? Explain why.
- Why is it difficult to forecast the effects of Brexit?
- How can economic advisors help governments in designing policy?
- Why do people tend to overweight high probabilities and underweight low ones?