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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Nudging in the City of London - Taking behavioural economics to the Square Mile

Stephen Young gave a talk this month at an event hosted by Investec Wealth and Investment for Independent Financial Advisors (IFAs). For many commentators, and those present in the splendid surroundings of The Ned, formerly the Midland Bank HQ, autumn 2018 is significant as the 10th anniversary of the Global Financial Crisis. But 2018 is also the tenth anniversary of the publication of Nudge, the breakthrough book that propelled behavioural economics to global recognition by policy makers and regulators. All the more ironic, considering that Richard Thaler has recently commented that it was a struggle to find a trade publisher for Nudge, which he co-authored with Cass Sunstein. 

Despite its relatively recent prominence, the talk on ‘The Rise and Rise of Behavioural Economics’ (edited version of slides here) started with the surprisingly long evolution of behavioural economics - beginning in the 18th century and came bang up to date with Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler - although both have won the Nobel Prize for economics, only one, Thaler, who won in 2017, is actually an economist.

The talk covered the big ideas of the main thinkers before looking at how these ideas are now being used to understand consumers’ financial decision making, showing that complexity, biases and cognitive errors can lead to flawed decisions. The result of financial decision-making being biased and error-prone is that governments and regulators are more likely to intervene in choice behaviour, to increase the likelihood that consumers will make better decisions.

The conclusions showed how regulators, including the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, are increasingly using insights from behavioural economics to understand what leads people into flawed decisions, and how to avoid them. The result is financial regulation that more accurately reflects how people actually behave rather than the sometimes unrealistic assumptions of standard economics.

Behavioural economics has become mainstreamed, and is informing policy-making and regulation in the UK and around the world. It’s already affecting the UK financial services sector expect to see more of it.

As an aside, Stephen enjoyed meeting, and being introduced by the BBC’s Nick Robinson, who went on to share his perspective on the politics of Brexit. No’s complicated! So pleasing to find out that Nick is a fan of behavioural economics.

Monday, 29 January 2018

New Module in Brighton and Sussex Medical School: The Economics of Healthcare and Health-Related Behaviour

Stephen Young (that's me!) is looking forward to teaching on the new one week module at Brighton and Sussex Medical School aimed at health care professionals, managers, commissioners and leaders actively involved in, or with an interest in financial and economic aspects of health care in the public, private or voluntary sectors. The module, which starts on Monday 5th February 2018, is delivered on five consecutive days, each of which presents a theme in health economics and health behaviour.

As well as putting health economics in a theoretical framework to help healthcare professionals, healthcare decision-makers, or policy makers make choices on how to decide the best use of limited health resources, the module will also consider the scope for market and demand management by showing how behavioural economics and social marketing can help modify the behaviours which contribute to many health problems. 

This module will consider the challenges facing the healthcare sector using economic concepts such as supply, demand and the market to understand resource allocation. These concepts are then applied to the provision of healthcare services and the promotion of good health. The module considers the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to financing and organizing health services. 

Students are introduced to the main methods of economic evaluation (cost-effectiveness and cost-benefit analysis) and shown how they apply to decision-making in healthcare. We will then spend a day each on social marketing and behavioural economics, before moving on to the final day, an interactive session when students will select a key issue or problem and apply the concepts, theory and tools presented in the module to analyse the problem and critically evaluate possible solutions.

More details of the module (code MDM173) are available from the Module Administrator, Charlotte Hill ( Telephone:  01273 644128

Friday, 13 October 2017

Behavioural economics goes mainstream with Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize

The Nobel prize for Economics (technically, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) has previously been awarded to academics working in the field of decision-making, psychology and economics (Herbert Simon in 1978 and Daniel Kahneman in 2002). But the announcement last week that the 2017 prize would go to Richard Thaler, was the first which explicitly mentioned the award being for contributions to behavioural economics."

The citation defines behavioural economics as “a research field in which insights from psychological research are applied to economic decision-making. A behavioural perspective incorporates more realistic analysis of how people think and behave when making economic decisions, providing new opportunities for designing measures and institutions that increase societal benefit.”

Thaler’s research was praised for incorporating psychological assumptions into analyses of economic decision-making, his work showing how the limitations of an individual’s knowledge in the decision-making process, as well as the consequences of social preferences and a lack of self-control, can affect people’s decisions as well as market outcomes.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences described Thaler as a pioneer of behavioural economics, saying that it had progressed in recent years from a fringe and somewhat controversial field of research into “a mainstream component of the economics profession.

Behavioural economics and me

Ten years ago media images showed queues of anxious depositors in British high streets as the crisis at Northern Rock, the first run on a British bank for around a century, became the clearest sign that all was not well in the financial system. A year later, the collapse of Lehman Brothers signalled the full blown emergence of the Global Financial Crisis. These momentous financial events coincided with my new job as an economics lecturer at Brighton Business School, University of Brighton. Economics 101, which I was teaching to first year undergraduates, was hard-pressed to explain the most momentous economic events in living memory. Which was why I turned to other schools of thought, including behavioural economics, launching what turned out to be a series of popular modules on the subject.

Rethinking economics and behavioural economics

Fast forward a few years, and I was invited by the folks at Rethinking Economics to contribute a chapter on Behavioural Economics to a forthcoming reader, aimed at providing an accessible introduction to different approaches to economics and highlight the diversity of economic thought.  The book, which has just been published, introduces new and diverse ideas into undergraduate economics and places the mainstream of economic thought side by side with more heterodox schools. 

According to the publishers, Rethinking Economics: An Introduction to Pluralist Economics is “a great entry-level economics textbook for lecturers looking to introduce students to a broader range of economic ideas, and is  accessible for people outside academia who are interested in economics and economic theory. Can’t say fairer than that.

The Table of Contents from the Reader is a roll-call of alternative economics:

·       Post-Keynesian Economics
·       Marxist Economics
·       Austrian Economics
·       Institutional Economics,
·       Feminist Economics
·       Complexity Economics
·       Co-operative Economics
·       Ecological Economics
·       And my chapter on Behavioural Economics

According to Richard Thaler’s Nobel Prize citation, behavioural economics has become “a mainstream component of the economics profession.” It’s going to be interesting to see if the rest of the “economics profession” agrees!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Can Behavioural Economics Make Us Happy?

Economics was memorably described as ‘the dismal science’ by the Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in the early 19th Century. So it’s fitting that, in the early 21st Century there could be lessons on how to be happy from behavioural economics and the behavioural sciences.

Happiness by Design was written by fellow Brightonian (not that we know each other) and Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics Paul Dolan. The book is interesting for two main reasons: first, like other books on happiness, it covers a lot of useful research, including Dolan’s own contribution to the work on happiness – he was heavily involved with specifying the measures on happiness which are now included in the work of the Office for National Statistics

But Dolan focuses on the personal, showing how to implement findings from the research. The second half of the book includes practical tips to help us be happy. Not by thinking about it, and not by devoting ourselves to 24x7 hedonism (which would be pretty exhausting). Rather, by using insights and techniques from the behavioural sciences. And concentrating on finding the right balance between pleasure and purpose. At the risk of stating the obvious, the book recommends that we spend more time on the things that make us happy, and less time on the things that make us unhappy – happiness comes from what you do, and what you don’t do. Which might even mean chucking in your job if it’s causing unhappiness - although it might be easier to quit the old job than find a new one which will make you happier. Which  probably brings us back to traditional economics. As Thomas Carlyle might agree.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Rethinking Economics meets Behavioural Economics meets Behaviour Workshops

Rethinking Economics is an international network of rethinkers working together to “demystify, diversify and invigorate economics.” It was great to be asked to write a chapter on Behavioural Economics for their forthcoming reader, “An Introduction to pluralist economics,” to be published this year by Routledge. It’s equally delightful that the draft has now been set to the editor! Each chapter of the book will contain a brief introduction to a different field of economic thinking, written by an academic in the subject, plus a case study co-written by a student. More details here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Dangers of ‘Common Sense’

"There is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible and wrong."

H  L Mencken

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Nudging in the Smoke, Part 2: London Behavioural Insights Conference BX2015

The Behavioural Insights Team has now posted the videos from the plenary sessions, individual streams and workshops from the London Behavioural Insights Conference BX2015. So, no excuse for not catching up with all the latest material from behavioural economics and behavioural insights as applied to behaviour change interventions and policy. Click here.  

If you don’t have time to watch all the videos, following, as a public service (we were there, in real time), is our pick of the quotes from the sessions which we attended.

Reasons to be humble

“When we observe behaviour that we don’t understand, it can be because people actually know things that we don’t.”

Rachel Glennerster

“The poor are largely unseen.”

Eldar Shafir

Women Are Missing…and here’s what to do about it

“Between 100 million and 160 million girls and women are ‘missing’ because of sex-selective abortion, mistreatment and abuse.”

“Seeing is believing. If we don’t see women as CEOs or men as kindergarten teachers, we don’t believe it’s possible.”

“When it comes to tackling gender inequality, rather than change people’s minds, we should change the environment in which people live and work.”

“We have known for over 60 years that a selection interview is a poor predictor of future performance. And panel interviews are even worse because of groupthink.”

“Don’t establish a prescriptive norm by how you describe things, such as the lack of women in certain fields.”

Iris Bohnet

The Curse of Knowledge strikes again

“Writing is an act of pretence and craftsmanship.”

“The curse of knowledge is the biggest barrier to clear writing.”

Steven Pinker

How reciprocity can beat the market

“There are six universal principles of social influence: reciprocation, liking, scarcity, social proof, authority, commitment.”

“If a change is small, it’s more likely to be implemented by the people who you are asking to do it.” (although it could bring major results)

“Reciprocity is about more than the traditional economic tit-for-tat model based on exchange. And it’s better if you go first, because people will want to give in return.”

“You should always think about what you can give that helps meet the needs of your audience.”

“Ernest Hemingway’s bet-winning short story, told in six words: ‘For Sale: baby shoes. Never used.’ “

“Start with a broad smile.”

Robert Cialdini

Multi-tasker? Yeah, Right.

“Multi-tasking is a myth. We can’t do more than one thing at a time.”

Marjorie Stiegler

Insights and Advice from Daniel Kahneman

Advice to those trying to influence policy makers: “What is preventing people doing the things that you want them to do? When you implement the policy who will be the losers and what will they do to you?

Advice to students: “Be less about (the) literature and more about life.”

Advice to everyone:  “Don’t study anything that isn’t interesting or fun. Don’t worry so much. And know when to give up.”

Answering a question from Steven Pinker on whether de-biasing should be part of the curriculum:

“It should be possible to give people the chance to slow down and reflect on what they are doing. But people can’t be reflective all the time. For decision making, structure is a good thing. But this isn’t the same as de-biasing.”

“A lot of decision making in firms and in government is of very poor quality. It has evolved, it has not been designed.”

Daniel Kahneman

The Power of Search and the trouble with economics

“If people are interested in economics, you can be pretty sure that the economy is in trouble.”

From Google search results, “The strongest correlations with “Hardest Place to live in America” are disability, diabetic, blood pressure, antichrist and the rapture.”

Hal Varian

The thin line between honesty and dishonesty

“People normally only take a maximum of four free candies from a malfunctioning (experimentally fixed) vending machine, because five would be stealing.”

“People invite their friends to join in because of reverse social proof – if they do it, it makes it ok that you’ve done it.”

“Corruption is not about knowing that something is wrong – it’s about putting it into a place where you don’t care about it.” (e.g, not in the box marked ‘family’).

“Once you are in a corrupt environment, where the work takes place under different rules, behaviour changes very quickly.”

“The incidence of corruption and cheating is pretty similar across the world. But culture changes the domains in which corruption happens.”

“We think of ourselves in binary terms – we are either good or bad.”

“The logic of confession from the standpoint of an economist: if we can get absolution, why not cheat more. Even on the way to the church.”

“The standard models for understanding corruption are based on cost benefit analysis: the consequences of actions. But it’s actually more to do with rationalisation in the moment.”

“Whistleblowers are more likely to be women, because they aren’t part of ‘the boy’s club’ and aren’t betraying the group.”

“Drunk driving kills people, so we legislate to prevent it. But there are many other ways of killing people that we tolerate. Why?”

Dan Ariely

Markets are looking out for the naïve consumer – it could be you (some of the time)

“Consumers can be naïve or sophisticated, but not all the time. Even sophisticated consumers make mistakes, and markets are good at finding the instance when that mistake is made.”

Paul Heidhues

Firms are not black boxes

“Because firms are run by humans, they may not always profit-maxmimise.”

“Regulatory remedies rely on people acting in certain ways. If these don’t happen, bad outcomes follow.”

“Behavioural economics can be incorporated into the market.”

Amelia Fletcher

Why mindless eating can be a good thing

“It’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind.”

“We don’t know what we like, and we don’t know why we do what we do. Both of which are opportunities to change behaviour.”

“In the US, it’s possible to predict a person’s weight based on about nine observable variables in their kitchen. If a cereal box is visible, they are likely to be 20lb heavier than their neighbours.”

Brian Wansink

Last but not least – a few concluding gems

“When it comes to food, the less you pay, the more you get.”

Unidentified contributor

“If you have to go out of your way to think about healthy eating, you won’t do it.”

Sam Kass

“The average British male is eating 200 calories a day more than he needs.”

Alison Tedstone

“It’s important to learn from failure. It’s not just about saying ‘When it works, it’s all down to me and my colleagues. When it doesn’t work, we blame other factors.” You should not be afraid to create a situation in which interventions might fail – you could even give 3 “fails” a year to put in the bank”

Andrea Schneider

“The ancient Greeks were familiar with ‘weakness of the will.’ People do not always do what’s best for themselves.”

Daniel Gordon