The ignorance of economists

The Economist: “Sovereign in tastes, steely-eyed and point-on in perception of risk, and relentless in maximisation of happiness.” This was Daniel McFadden’s memorable summation, in 2006, of the idea of Everyman held by economists. That this description is unlike any real person was Mr McFadden’s point. The Nobel prizewinning economist at the University of California, Berkeley, wryly termed homo economicus “a rare species”. In his latest paper he outlines a “new science of pleasure”, in which he argues that economics should draw much more heavily on fields such as psychology, neuroscience and anthropology. He wants economists to accept that evidence from other disciplines does not just explain those bits of behaviour that do not fit the standard models. Rather, what economists consider anomalous is the norm. Homo economicus, not his fallible counterpart, is the oddity.

To take one example, the “people” in economic models have fixed preferences, which are taken as given. Yet a large body of research from cognitive psychology shows that preferences are in fact rather fluid. People value mundane things much more highly when they think of them as somehow “their own”: they insist on a much higher price for a coffee cup they think of as theirs, for instance, than for an identical one that isn’t. This “endowment effect” means that people hold on to shares well past the point where it makes sense to sell them. Cognitive scientists have also found that people dislike losing something much more than they like gaining the same amount. Such “loss aversion” can explain why people often pick insurance policies with lower deductible charges even when they are more expensive. At the moment of an accident a deductible feels like a loss, whereas all those premium payments are part of the status quo.

Another area where orthodox economics finds itself at sea is the role of memory and experience in determining choices. Recollection of a painful or pleasurable experience is dominated by how people felt at the peak and the end of the episode. In a 1996 experiment Donald Redelmeier and Daniel Kahneman, two psychologists, showed that deliberately adding a burst of pain at the end of a colonoscopy that was of lower intensity than the peak made patients think back on the experience more favourably. Unlike homo economicus, real people are strongly influenced by such things as the order in which they see options and what happened right before they made a choice. Incorporating these findings into models of consumer behaviour should improve their power to predict everything from which loans people choose to which colleges they apply for. [Continue reading…]

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