Behavioral Economics Research Paper

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Behavioral economics is the subfield of economics .that borrows from psychology, empirically tests assumptions used elsewhere in economics, and provides theories that aim to be more realistic and closely tied to experimental and field data. In a frequently cited survey article, Rabin (1998) describes behavioral economics as “psychology and economics,” which is a frequently used synonym for behavioral economics. Similarly, Camerer (1999) defines behavioral economics as a research program aimed at reunifying psychology and economics.

Definitions and Naming Problems

Reunification is a relevant description because of the rather tumultuous relationship between psychology and economics in the arc of economic history. A number of preeminent founders of important schools of economic thought, including Adam Smith, wrote extensively on psychological dimensions of human experience and economic behavior, while later economists sometimes sought explicitly to exclude psychology from economic analysis. For example, Slutsky (1915/1952), whose famous equation is taught to nearly all upper-level microeconomics students, sought to erect a boundary excluding psychology from economics: “If we wish to place economic science upon a solid basis, we must make it completely independent of psychological assumptions” (p. 27).

Although historical accounts vary, one standard narrative holds that in the twentieth century, neoclassical economists made an intentional break with psychology in contrast to earlier classical and institutional economists who actively integrated psychology into their writings on economics (e.g., Bruni & Sugden, 2007). In twentieth-century economics’ break with psychology, one especially important source is Milton Friedman’s (1953) essay. In it, Friedman argues that unrealistic or even obviously untrue assumptions—especially, the core assumption used throughout much of contemporary economics (including much of behavioral economics) that all behavior can be modeled as resulting from decision makers solving constrained optimization problems—are perfectly legitimate, so long as they produce accurate predictions. Friedman put forth the analogy of a billiards player selecting shots “as if” he or she were solving a set of equations describing the paths of billiards balls based on Newtonian physics. We know that most expert billiards players have not studied academic physics and therefore do not in fact solve a set of equations each time they set up a shot. Nevertheless, Friedman argues that this model based on manifestly wrong assumptions should be judged strictly in terms of the predictions it makes and not the realism of its assumptions.

In contrast to Friedman’s professed lack of interest in investigating the realism of assumptions, behavioral economists have made it a core theme in their work to empirically test assumptions in economic models and modify theory according to the results they observe. Despite this difference with neoclassical economists such as Friedman, behavioral economists frequently use as-if arguments to defend behavioral models, leading some methodological observers to see more similarity than contrast in the behavioral and neoclassical approaches (Berg & Gigerenzer, in press).

Bounded Rationality

The term bounded rationality, coined by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1986), is strongly associated with behavioral economics, although there appears to be far less agreement on the term’s meaning. The neoclassical model assumes that economic man, or homo economicus, is infinitely self-interested, infinitely capable of processing information and solving optimization problems, and infinitely self-disciplined or self-consistent when it comes to having the willpower to execute one’s plans—whether those plans concern how much junk food to eat or how much to save for retirement. In contrast, much of behavioral economics focuses on limits, or bounds, on one or more of these three assumptions. Thus, bounded self-interest, bounded information-processing capacity, and bounded willpower are three guiding themes in the behavioral economics literature.

Bounded self-interest enjoys widespread appeal in behavioral economics, which has proposed numerous models of so-called social preferences to address a number of observations from human experiments that appear to falsify the assumption that people maximize their own monetary payoffs. A decision maker with social preferences cares about the material or monetary payoffs of others as well as his or her own, although the manner in which concern for others’ payoffs is expressed can take a variety of forms. For example, a person with social preferences might be happier when others are worse off, which is sometimes described as spite; be happier when others are better off, which is sometimes described as altruism; prefer equal over unequal allocations of money, which is sometimes described as inequality aversion; prefer allocations in which the sum of all people’s payoffs is maximized, which is sometimes described as a preference for social welfare; prefer allocations in which the least well-off person has a larger payoff, which is sometimes described as a Rawlsian preference; or prefer allocations of resources in which his or her payoff is large relative to others, which is sometimes described as a competitive preference (Charness & Grosskopf, 2001). Common to all these variations and many other forms of social preferences is that people are not generally indifferent between two allocations of payoffs for all members in a group just because their own monetary payoff is the same. This violates the common neoclassical assumption that people are infinitely self-interested because it would imply that people are indifferent so long as their own material payoffs are held constant.

Bounded information-processing capacity is another active area within behavioral economics, which would have looked very much out of place in the mainstream economics literature only three decades ago. Topics in this area include limited memory, limited attention, limited number of degrees of perspective taking in strategic interaction, limited perceptual capacity, distorted beliefs, and decision and inference processes that violate various tenets of logic and probability theory (see Camerer, 2003, for examples).

Bounded willpower, often described as time inconsistency or dynamic inconsistency, is another large and growing part of the behavioral economics research program. In the neoclassical optimization model, decision makers choose a sequence of actions through time by selecting the best feasible sequence, with virtually no mention of the costs associated with implementing that plan over the course of people’s lives. If there is no new information, then the neoclassical intertemporal choice problem is decided once and for all before the first action in the sequence is taken. Unlike the neoclassical model’s assumption that acting on the optimal plan of action through time is costless, behavioral economists studying bounded willpower focus squarely on the tension between what a person wants himself or herself to do tomorrow versus what he or she actually does. This tension can be described as subjective inconsistency concerning what is best for oneself at a specific point in time, which, contrary to the neoclassical assumption, changes as a function of the time at which the decision is considered. One can think of planning now to start working on a term paper tomor-row but then tomorrow deciding to do something else instead—and regretting it after the fact.

Empirical Realism

Proponents of bringing psychology more deeply into economics argue that it is necessary to depart from the assumptions of homo economicus to achieve improved empirical realism (i.e., more accurate descriptions of economic behavior and better predictions following a change in policy or other economic conditions). In an article published in the Journal of Business titled “Rationality in Psychology and Economics,” Simon (1986) writes,

The substantive theories of rationality that are held by neoclassical economists lack an empirically based theory of choice. Procedural theories of rationality, which attempt to explain what information people use when making choices and how information is processed, could greatly improve the descriptive and forecasting ability of economic analysis. (p. S209)

Improving the empirical realism of economic analysis is a primary and ongoing motivation in behavioral economics, frequently stated in the writings and presentations of behavioral economists.

Example of Reference Point-Dependent Utility Functions

Similarly to Simon, Rabin (1998) argues that theories and experimental results from psychology enrich mainstream economics. But Rabin’s idea about how behavioral economists can bring more empirical realism into economics is much more narrowly circumscribed than Simon’s, with Rabin essentially arguing that behavioral economics should proceed within the utility maximization model of neoclassical economics. Despite their occasional claims to radical or revolutionary methodological innovation, many behavioral economists side with neoclassical economists in viewing constrained optimization as a non-negotiable methodological tenet that defines and distinguishes economics from other disciplines. Rabin says that the new empirical content that behavioral economists bring to bear will help economics as a whole to more realistically describe people’s utility functions.

For example, as mentioned earlier in the discussion of the neoclassical model’s assumption of unbounded self-interest, this assumption is often interpreted to mean that consumers care only about their own levels of consumption and that workers care only about their own income, irrespective of what others are consuming or earning. Behavioral economics models, in contrast, allow utility to depend on the difference between one’s own level of consumption or income and a reference point level. The reference point level might reflect what one is accustomed to or reflect a social comparison made with respect to the average level within a social group.

Thus, a worker with a behavioral reference point-dependent utility function might prefer an annual salary of $90,000 at a company where the average worker earns $50,000 over a salary of $95,000 at a company where the average worker earns $200,000. In the standard economic model, only the worker’s own payoffs should determine the ranking of job opportunities, holding all else equal, and not the comparison of one’s own income with that of other workers. The reference point-dependent utility function tries to reflect the observation that many normal, healthy, and socially intelligent people do in fact care about their own payoffs relative to others. For some workers, it may be worthwhile to trade off a few thousand dollars of their own salary for a work environment where the relative pay structure is more to their liking (e.g., a feeling of relative high status in the $90,000 job being subjectively worth more than the extra $5,000 of income at the $95,000 job). It should be mentioned, however, that reference point-dependent theories in behavioral economics are not entirely new. One finds interpersonal comparisons in Veblen’s (1899/1994) concept of conspicuous consumption from his classic The Theory of the Working Class and even earlier among some classical economists.

Debates About the Realism of Assumptions in Economic Models

There is active debate between behavioral and nonbehavioral economists—and among behavioral economists— about the extent to which empirical realism is being achieved by the behavioral economics research program. These two distinct layers of debate need to be untangled to appreciate the different issues at play and how behavioral economics is likely to influence public policy now that the Obama administration has recruited among its top advisers a number of behavioral economists, including Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, and Daniel Kahneman.

When trying to convince neoclassical economists who are skeptical about the need for behavioral economics, behavioral economists point to the improved ability of their psychology-inspired models to fit data collected from a variety of sources, including experimental, macroeconomic, and financial market data. Skeptics from outside behavioral economics have questioned whether the deviations from neoclassical assumptions have any important consequences for the economy as a whole, suggesting that they might perhaps “average out” in the aggregate. Skepticism about the relevance of experimental data remains strong, with many doubts expressed about whether the college students who participate in economic experiments can be relied upon to teach us anything new about economics and whether anything learned in one laboratory experiment can be generalized to broader populations in the economy—the so-called problem of external validity. Experimentalists have responded that the reason they care-fully incentivize decisions by making subject payments dependent on their decisions is to make it costly for them to misrepresent their true preferences. Experimentalists have addressed the issue of external validity by going into the field with so-called field experiments and by conducting experiments among different subpopulations, such as financial market traders, Japanese fishermen, and other groups of adult workers (e.g., Carpenter & Seki, 2006).

Within behavioral economics, a different debate takes place. Among behavioral economists, despite a shared commitment to borrowing from psychology and other disciplines, there remains tension over how far to move away from constrained optimization as the singular organizing framework of neoclassical theory and in much of behavioral economics, too. An alternative approach, advocated by a minority of more psychology- and less economics-inspired behavioral economists, seeks to break more substantially with neoclassical economics, dispensing with optimization theory as a necessary step in deriving equations that describe behavior. Constrained optimization, whether in behavioral or neoclassical economics, assumes that decision makers see a well-defined choice set; exhaustively scan this set, plugging each possible action into a scalar-valued objective function, which might include parameters intended to capture psychological phenomena; weigh the costs and benefits associated with each action, which includes psychic costs and benefits; and finally choose the element in the choice set with the highest value according to the objective function. There is very little direct evidence of people making decisions— especially high-stakes decisions, such as choosing a career, buying a house, or choosing whom to marry—according to the constrained optimization process just described. In many real-world decisions such as those just mentioned, the choice set is impossibly large to clearly define and exhaustively search through. In other settings such as choosing a life partner or whom to marry, constrained optimization would be seen by some to violate important social norms.

Instead, critics such as Gigerenzer and Selten (2001) attempt to base theory directly on empirical description of actual decision processes. Like other economists, these critics use equations to describe behavior. However, their behavioral equations skip the step of deriving behavioral equations as solutions to constrained optimization problems. To these researchers, theorizing and observing how decision makers deal with the overwhelmingly high-dimensional choice sets they face, quickly searching for a good-enough action and discarding the rest, is a fundamental scientific question of primary importance. Herbert Simon (1986) referred to such threshold-seeking behavior as satisficing as distinct from optimizing.

Methodological Pluralism

Another theme in behavioral economics derives from its willingness to borrow from psychology and other disciplines such as sociology, biology, and neuroscience. To appreciate why methodological pluralism is characteristic of behavioral economics, one should recall that in neoclassical economics, there is a singular behavioral model applied to all problems as well as a number of prominent efforts in economic history to expunge influence from other social sciences such as psychology and sociology. Although the structure of choice sets and the objective functions change depending on the application, contemporary economists typically apply the maximization principle to virtually every decision problem they consider. Consumer choice is modeled as utility maximization, firm behavior is modeled as profit maximization, and the evaluation of public policy is analyzed via a social welfare function whose maximized value depends systematically on parameters representing policy tools. In contrast, commitment to improved empirical description and its normative application to policy problems motivates behavioral economists, in many cases, to draw on a wider set of methodological tools, although the breadth of this pluralism is a matter of debate, as indicated in the previous section.

Naming Problems

The term behavioral economics is often associated with the pioneering work of George Katona (1951). Behavioral economists sometimes joke that the name of their subfield is redundant since economics is a social science in which the objects of study depend directly on human behavior. “Isn’t all economics supposed to be about behavior?” the quip goes. Despite the appearance of a “distinction with no distinction” inherent in its name, proponents of behavioral economics argue that there is good reason for the explicit emphasis on accurate description of human behavior, as indicated by the word behavioral in behavioral economics.

In psychology, there is a sharp distinction between the terms behaviorist and behavioral. Behaviorism refers to research and researchers that draw on the work of B. F. Skinner in hypothesizing that most behavior can be explained in terms of adaptation to past rewards and punishments. Behaviorism rejects investigation of mental states or other psychic determinants of behavior. Thus, behaviorism is more similar to neoclassical economics because both schools of thought rely on a singular story about what underlies observed behavior while expressing overt antipathy toward the inclusion of mental states, cognitive processing, or emotion in their models. One frequently finds mistaken references to behavioral economists as “behaviorists” in the popular press, whereas “behavioralists” would be more accurate.

Behavioral Economics and Experimental Economics

Strong connections between behavioral and experimental economics can be seen in behavioral economists’ reliance on experimental data to test assumptions and motivate new theoretical models. There nevertheless remains a distinction to be made (Camerer & Loewenstein, 2004). Some experimental economists do not identify with behavioral economics at all but rather place their work firmly within the rational choice category, studying, for example, the performance of different market institutions and factors that enhance the predictions of neoclassical theory. Experimental economics is defined by the method of experimentation, whereas behavioral economics is methodologically eclectic. The two sub-fields have subtly different standards about proper technique for conducting lab experiments and very different interests about the kinds of data that are most interesting to collect. Therefore, it is incorrect to automatically place experimental work under the heading of behavioral economics. In the other direction, there are many behavioral economists working on theoretical problems or using nonexperimental data. Thus, although behavioral and experimental economists frequently work complementarily on related sets of issues, there are strong networks of researchers working in the disjoint subsets of these subfields as well.

Frequently Discussed Violations of Internally Consistent Logic

This section describes several well-known violations of the rational choice model based on reasoning that allegedly suffers from internal inconsistency. The following example about deciding where to buy a textbook illustrates the kind of inconsistencies that are frequently studied in behavioral economics. Readers are encouraged to decide for themselves how reasonable or unreasonable these inconsistencies in fact are.

Suppose you are shopping for a required textbook. A bookstore across the street from where you work sells the book for $80. Another bookstore, which is 15 minutes away by car or public transportation, sells the book for only $45. Which do you choose: (A) Buy the book at the nearby store for $80, or (B) Buy the book at the farther away store for $45?

Just as standard theory does not prescribe whether it is better to spend your money buying apples versus oranges, so, too, standard economic theory takes no stand on which choice of stores is correct or rational. But now consider a second choice problem.

Suppose you are buying a plane ticket to Europe. The travel agent across the street from where you work sells the ticket for $1,120. Another travel agency, which is 15 minutes away by car or public transportation, sells the same ticket for $1,085. Which do you choose: (C) Buy the ticket from the nearby agency for $1,120, or (D) Buy the ticket at the farther away store for $1,085?

Considered in isolation, either A or B is consistent with rationality in the first choice problem, and either C or D can be rationalized in the second choice problem—as long as these problems are considered alone. Internal consistency requires, however, that a rational person choosing A in the first problem must choose C in the second problem and that a rational person choosing B in the first problem must choose D in the second problem.

Based on extensive data from pairs of choices like the ones just described, many people prefer B in the first problem (i.e., the $35 saved on the cheaper textbook justifies spending extra time and money on the 30-minute round-trip commute) while preferring C in the second problem (i.e., the $35 saved on the cheaper airline ticket does not justify spending extra time and money on the 30-minute round-trip commute). According to axiomatic rationality, this pair of choices is inconsistent and therefore irrational. Yet many competent and successful people, without any obvious symptoms of economic pathology, choose this very combination of allegedly irrational (i.e., inconsistent) decisions.

One explanation is that some people weigh the $35 savings in percentage terms relative to total price. An $80 textbook is more than 75% more expensive than a $45 textbook, whereas a $1,120 planet ticket is less than 5% more expensive than a $1,085 ticket. Nevertheless, the logic of the cost-benefit model of human behavior at the core of rational choice, or neoclassical, economics regards dollars saved—and not percentages saved—as the relevant data.

Choosing A over B, in the eyes of a neoclassical economist, reveals an algebraic inequality:

utility of saving $35 > disutility of a 30-minute round-trip commute.

Choosing D over C reveals another algebraic inequality:

utility of saving $35 < disutility of a 30-minute round-trip commute.

Thus, choosing B over A and C over D leads to inconsistent inequalities, which violate the axiomatic definition of a rational preference ordering. One may justifiably ask, so what? Skepticism over the importance of such violations of axiomatic rationality is discussed in a subsequent section under the heading “Rationality.”

Endowment Effect

Suppose you walk into a music store looking for a guitar. The very cheap ones do not produce a sound you like. And most of the guitars with beautiful sounds are priced thousands outside your budget. You finally find one that has a nice sound and a moderate price of $800. Given the guitar’s qualities and its price, you are almost indifferent between owning the guitar and parting with $800, on one hand, versus not owning it and hanging on to your money, on the other. You go ahead and buy the guitar. After bringing it home, enjoying playing it, and generally feeling satisfied with your purchase, you receive a phone call the very next day from the music store asking if you would sell the guitar back. The store offers $1,000, giving you an extra $200 for your trouble. Would you sell it back?

According to the standard cost-benefit theory, if you were indifferent between the guitar and $800, then you should be more than happy to sell it back for anything over $800—as long as the amount extra includes enough to compensate for the hassle, time, and transport costs of returning it to the store (and also assuming you haven’t run into someone else who wants to buy the guitar and is willing to pay a higher price). Hoping to bargain for a higher offer from the music store, you might demand something far above $800 at first. But after bargaining, when facing a credible take-it-or-leave-it last offer, anything that gives you $800 plus compensation for returning to the store should leave you better off than holding onto the guitar.

Based on data showing the prevalence of the endowment effect, however, behavioral economists would predict that you probably will choose to hang onto the guitar even if the guitar store’s offer climbed well over $1,000. The endowment effect occurs whenever owning something shifts the price at which one is willing to sell it upward to a significantly higher level than the price at which the same person is willing to buy it. In the neoclassical theory taught in undergraduate textbooks with demand curves and indifference curves, an important maintained assumption that is not frequently discussed in much depth is that, for small changes in a consumer’s consumption bundle, the amount of money needed to just compensate for a reduction in consumption is exactly equal to the consumer’s willingness to pay to acquire that same change in consumption. In a related experiment, Carmon and Ariely (2000) showed that Duke University students who win the right to buy sports tickets in a university lottery valued these tickets—which they became the owner of by chance—roughly 14 times as much as students who had entered the lottery but did not win. Some researchers have linked the endowment effect to loss aversion, which refers to the phenomenon by which the psychic pain of parting with an object one currently owns is greater than the psychic gain from acquiring it. Thus, rather than ownership shifting the pleasure derived from a good or service upward, some experimental evidence suggests that an increase in pain at dispossessing oneself of a good or service generates the gap by which willingness to accept is significantly higher than willingness to pay.

Preference Reversals

Lichtenstein and Slovic (1971) and Thaler and Tversky (1990) produced evidence that shook many observers’ confidence in a fundamental economic concept—the preference ordering. These and other authors’ observed preference reversals, which call into question the very existence of stable preferences that neoclassical analysis depends on, occurred in a variety of contexts: gamblers’ valuations of risky gambles at casinos, citizens’ valuations of public policies aimed at saving lives, firms’ evaluations of job applicants, consumers’ feelings toward everyday consumer products, and savers’ attitudes toward different savings plans.

In a typical experiment, a group of subjects is asked to choose one of two gambles: (A) win $4 with probability 8/9, or (B) win $40 with probability 1/9. When asked to choose between the two, the less risky gamble A, which provides a high probability of winning a small amount, is typically chosen over B, which pays slightly more on average but pays off zero most of the time. Next, another group of experimental subjects is asked to assign a dollar value to both gambles, A and B, stating the amount of money they would be willing to pay for A and B, respectively. Most subjects typically choose A over B when asked to choose. But most subjects place a larger dollar valuation on gamble B when asked to evaluate in terms of money. Choosing A over B, while valuing B more highly than A in dollar terms, is a preference reversal. In neoclassical theory, a person with a stable preference ordering should produce identical rankings of A and B whether it is elicited as a pairwise choice or in terms of dollar valuations. A preference reversal occurs when two modes of elicitation theorized to produce the same implicit rankings actually produce rankings that reverse one another.

One explanation is that when asked to choose, people focus on the risk of getting zero. Gamble A provides a lower risk of getting zero and therefore dominates B by this criterion. When asked to give a dollar valuation, however, people tend to focus on the amounts or magnitudes of payoffs more than the probabilities of their occurrence. Focused on the magnitude of the largest payoff, gamble B’s 40 dominates gamble A’s 4. These different thought processes—prioritizing risks of getting zero or prioritizing the magnitude of the largest payoff, respectively— might be very reasonable approaches to decision making in particular contexts. Nevertheless, they violate the norms defined by the standard definition of a rational preference ordering (see Brandstätter, Gigerenzer, & Hertwig’s [2006] alternative explanation based on their priority heuristic).

Measuring Risk and Time Preferences

Innovative techniques for measuring preferences along a number of dimensions have emerged as an interesting subset of behavioral and experimental economics. Given the widespread reach of expected utility theory in economics in and outside behavioral economics, Eckel and Grossman (2002, 2008) and Holt and Laury (2002) have designed experimental instruments for quantifying the extent to which people are risk averse or risk loving. The Eckel-Grossman instrument has proven useful in capturing interpersonal variation of risky choice in a wide variety of populations, including those with very limited experience interpreting numerical risk measures, thanks to its remarkable simplicity. Together with a parameterized expected utility function, their instrument produces quantifiable ranges for an individual’s risk aversion parameter based on a single choice from among six binary gambles, where each gamble has only two possible outcomes, each of which occur with 50% probability. Reconciling possible inconsistencies among risk measures generated by different instruments and exploiting information about subjects whose preferences appear inconsistent is an active area of ongoing research (Berg, Eckel, & Johnson, 2009; Dave, Eckel, Johnson, & Rojas, 2007).

Behavioral economists have also established commonly used techniques for measuring time preferences. In the standard formulation, a person’s time preference, or impatience, can be identified as the extent to which he or she trades off larger cash flows arriving in the more distant future in favor of smaller cash flows that arrive earlier. Impatience is frequently quantified in terms of the subject discount rate, although this depends on auxiliary assumptions about the utility function.

Biased Beliefs

In contrast to the violations of internally consistent logic discussed in the previous section, this section introduces another broad theme in behavioral economics concerning subjective beliefs that are objectively incorrect. The gap between a subjective belief about the probability that an event will occur and the objective probability of its occurrence (assuming an objective probability exists) is referred to as bias. The very notion of biased beliefs depends on how well calibrated subjective perceptions are to external benchmarks (i.e., objective frequencies of occurrence in the world), whereas the rationality assumptions discussed earlier are based solely on internal consistency and make no reference to external normative benchmarks when describing what it means to make a good decision. Studies of biased beliefs confront surprisingly subtle challenges, first, in measuring people’s subjective beliefs and, second, in establishing the existence of proper benchmarks (in the form of objective probabilities) against which subjective beliefs can be compared.

“All the Kids Are Above Average” Not as Crazy as It Sounds

One sometimes hears people who should know better mistakenly claim that, if most people’s beliefs about an attribute of theirs is different from the average value of that attribute, then people’s beliefs must be systematically wrong (e.g., nearly everyone reporting that they are better-than-average drivers in terms of safety). In a bell-curved or other symmetric probability distribution, gaps between what most people believe—the modal response—and the average might justifiably be interpreted as evidence of bias. However, in many real-world probability distributions, such as traffic accidents (where a few bad drivers are responsible for most of the accidents) or annual income (where a small number of very high-earning individuals pull average income well above median income), the sample average is surprisingly nonrepresentative of most people.

Consider a society comprising 999 people who have nothing and one person—call him Bill Gates—who owns $1 billion in wealth. The average person in this society is a millionaire, with average wealth = $1,000,000,000/1,000 = $1 million. Nearly everyone in this society is poorer than average. Thus, when the modal belief about how wealthy a person is turns out to be significantly lower than average wealth, it implies no bias in beliefs. Realizing this, researchers attempt to carefully elicit beliefs about medians and other percentiles that pin down the value of some variable Xbelow which a known percentage of the population falls (e.g., Camerer & Hogarth, 1999).

Bias Implies Existence of Normative Benchmarks

Bias in econometrics is defined as the difference between the expected value of an estimator and the true value of the number(s) being estimated. In econometrics as well as in everyday usage, asserting that there is a “bias” implies having made an unambiguous commitment to what the true or correct value is. The term bias is ubiquitous in behavioral economics, and much of its empirical and theoretical work concerns deviations from normative benchmarks that implicitly assert how people ought to behave. Given the observation that people deviate from a benchmark (typically an axiomatic definition of rationality or formal logic), there are at least two distinct reactions to consider.

Most behavioral economists have interpreted observed deviations from the assumptions of neoclassical economics as bias, implicitly asserting that neoclassical assumptions are undisputed statements defining what good, or smart, economic behavior ought to be. According to this view, people who deviate from the neoclassical benchmarks are making mistakes, which is equivalent to saying they are biased. This, in turn, motivates some authors to recommend prescriptive policy changes aimed at de-biasing the choices we make, inducing us to more closely conform to the axioms of economic rationality. Alternative interpretations of observed deviations from neoclassical norms have been put forward by those who question whether the neoclassical model provides sound guidance for how we ought to behave and by those who fear the paternalistic implications of policies aimed at de-biasing choice. One alternative interpretation takes its point of departure from the observation that people who systematically violate neoclassical assumptions are also surviving quite successfully in their respective economic environments—they are going to college, holding down jobs, having children and grandchildren, and so on. If this is the case, then social scientists should abandon neoclassical benchmarks as normative guideposts in favor of more meaningful measures of economic performance, happiness, health, longevity, and new measures of adaptive success that have yet to be proposed.

Social Preferences

The standard assumption of unbounded self-interest is often described as a hypothesis holding that people only care about their own monetary payoffs and are completely indifferent among allocations of payoffs to different people in a group as long as their own payoff is the same. Challenging this assumption, behavioral economists seeking to study the extent to which people care about the overall allocation of payoffs among participants in a strategic interaction have described their alternative hypothesis as “social preferences.” Researchers studying social preferences have sought to remain as close to the standard utility maximization framework as possible, modeling and testing the implications of social preferences by introducing utility functions that depend on other people’s monetary payoffs as well as one’s own payoff. Two of the most famous experiments in behavioral economics, the dictator game and the ultimatum game, are discussed below. These are formulated as extremely simple two-player games in which the hypothesis that people maximize their own monetary payoff makes a clear prediction. After hundreds of experimental tests in many places and in the presence of different contextual factors, there is widespread consensus that real people’s behavior typically violates the hypothesis of own-payoff maximization.

Dictator Game

In the dictator game, one player is handed a resource endowment, say $10, and then decides how to split or allocate it between himself or herself and the other player. The other player has no choice to make. There is typically no communication, although both players see the entire structure of the game, which means they know the other’s payoffs and how different combinations of actions lead to different payoffs. The game is played anonymously and one time only to avoid motivating players to try appearing “nice” in the expectation of future reciprocation. The player making the decision, referred to as the dictator, can keep all $10 for himself or herself and give the other player $0. The dictator can also choose a $9-$1 split, an $8-$2 split, a $5-$5 split, and so on. In versions of the game with unrestricted action spaces, the dictator can keep any amount for himself or herself K, 0 < K < 10, leaving the other player with a monetary payoff of 10 – K. The theory that players of games maximize their own monetary payoffs without regard for other people’s payoffs makes a clear prediction in the dictator game: Dictators will choose to keep everything, maximizing their own monetary payoff at K = 10 and allocating zero to the other player.

However, when real people play this game, the most common choice by dictators is a 50-50 split, even when playing versions of the game with much larger monetary payoffs. This is a clear violation of the hypothesis that people maximize an objective function that depends only on one’s own monetary payoffs, and it is typically interpreted as evidence in favor of social preferences. In other words, the gap between the predictions of standard economic theory and the data observed in experiments implies (although this point is open to alternative interpretations) that people care about the monetary payoffs of others. Note that caring about the payoffs of others does not imply altruism or benevolence, so that spiteful preferences that register increased psychic gain based on the deprivation of others is also a form of social preferences.

Ultimatum Game

In the ultimatum game, a proposer receives an endowment, say $10, and then makes a proposed allocation. Reusing the symbol K to represent the amount the proposer proposes to keep, the proposed allocation looks similar to the allocation in the dictator game: K for the proposer, 0 < K < 10, and 10 – K for the other player, sometimes referred to as the responder. Unlike the dictator game, however, the responder has a binary decision to make in the ultimatum game: whether to accept the proposer’s proposal or not. If the responder accepts, then payoffs follow the proposal exactly. If the responder declines the proposal, then both players receive zero. Once again, this game is typically played anonymously and only one time to limit the expectation of future reciprocation as a confounding motive when interpreting the results.

As long as the proposal includes any positive payoff for the responder, a responder who maximizes his or her own monetary payoff will choose to accept because even a small amount is better than zero according to the money maximization hypothesis. The subgame perfect equilibrium is for the proposer to offer the smallest positive amount possible to the responder and for the responder to accept. For example, if payoffs are restricted to integer values, the strict subgame perfect equilibrium is uniquely defined by a proposal in which the proposer keeps $9 and the responder receives $1, and the responder accepts this proposal even though it is far from an even split.

Contrary to the theoretical prediction of proposers offering a $9-$1 split and responders accepting it, the most common proposal in the ultimatum game is an even (or nearly even) 50-50 split. The responder’s behavior is especially interesting to students of social preferences because responders typically reject unfair offers even though it leaves them with zero as opposed to a small positive amount. It is this willingness of responders to choose zero by rejecting “unfair” offers of $9-$1 and higher that provides one of the most decisive pieces of evidence for social preferences. A common interpretation is that the responder receives more utility from punishing the proposer for having made an unfair proposal than he or she would get by accepting $1 and leaving the proposer’s unfair offer unpunished. This shows that the responder does not make decisions solely on the basis of his or her own payoff but is considering the payoffs of the other player.

Extending Utility Theory to Incorporate Social Preferences

A well-known approach to modeling social preferences (Fehr & Schmidt, 1999) extends the neoclassical utility function (which typically depends only on one’s own monetary payoffs) to include three components: utility from one’s own payoff (as one finds in a neoclassical utility function), utility from the positive deviation between one’s own payoff and other players’ payoffs (i.e., the pleasure of doing better than others), and a third term placing negative weight on negative deviations from other players’ payoffs (i.e., displeasure of doing worse than others). Some authors have introduced models that add similar “social preferences” terms to the utility function, for example, placing negative weight on highly unequal allocations, weighted by a parameter referred to as inequality aversion.

Critics of the social preferences program draw on distinct points of view. Binmore and Shaked (2007) argue that the tools of classical and neoclassical economics can easily take social factors into account and need not be set off from neoclassical economics under distinct “social preferences” or “behavioral economics” labels. Although Binmore and Shaked are correct that, in principle, neoclassical utility theory does not preclude other people’s payoffs from entering the utility function, the assumption of unbounded self-interest is indeed a key tenet of neoclassical normative theory. The no-externalities assumption (i.e., people care only about their own payoffs, and their actions affect each other only indirectly through market prices) is crucial to the validity of the fundamental welfare theorem, which states that competitive markets are socially efficient. It is difficult to overstate the role that this theoretical result has enjoyed in guiding public policy toward private versus government provision of services such as health care. Critics rightly point to this theory’s reliance on the unrealistic assumptions of no externalities and no information asymmetries.


In the popular press, behavioral economics is often portrayed as a branch of economics that points to systematic irrationality in human populations and in markets in particular. Titles such as Irrational Exuberance (Shiller, 2000), Predictably Irrational (Ariely, 2008), and much of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s work documenting deviations from axiomatic definitions of rationality make it easy for nonexperts to associate behavioral economics with irrationality. Indeed, many behavioral economists in their writing, especially when describing their results verbally, use rational as a synonym for behavior that conforms to standard economic theory and irrational as a catch-all label for behavior that deviates from standard neoclassical assumptions.

One prominent voice in behavioral economics, David Laibson, advocates to aspiring behavioral economists that they avoid describing behavior as “irrational” and avoid the ambiguous term bounded rationality. Laibson’s admonition is, however, very frequently violated, leading to subtle paradoxes regarding the normative status of the neoclassical model within behavioral economics (Berg, 2003).

In neoclassical economics, a rational preference ordering is defined as any ranking scheme that conforms to the axioms of completeness and transitivity. In choice under uncertainty, many economists—including the seminal contributor Leonard Savage—argue for a strong normative interpretation of what has now become the dominant tool in economics for modeling choice under uncertainty (Starmer, 2005): expected utility theory. The normative interpretation of expected utility theory asserts that choices over probabilistic payoff distributions that can be rationalized as having maximized any expected utility function are rational, and those that admit no such rationalization are irrational.

In choice problems that involve trade-offs over time, choices that can be rationalized as maximizing a time-consistent objective function are frequently referred to as “rational” and those that cannot as “irrational.” An important intuitive problem arises in these uses of the term rationality—namely, that all parties in a strategic interaction in which more than one party is playing an allegedly “irrational” strategy may be strictly better off than would be the case if each party accepted economic “rationality” as a prescription for action.

Two distinct problems arise. First, there is behavior that conforms to axiomatic rationality but is manifestly bad or undesirable in many people’s views. Second, there is behavior that is very reasonable to many people because it achieves a high level of performance, which nevertheless violates axiomatic rationality. Thus, axiomatic rationality is both too strong and too weak. Too strong because it rules out reasonable behavior as irrational, and too weak because it allows for behavior whose consequences for well-being are intuitively bad in many people’s views.

Rational preferences impose the requirement of self-consistent choice but typically say nothing about how well choices work in the real world, a distinction that psychologists Hastie and Rasinski (1988) and Hammond (1996) describe as coherence (internally consistent) versus correspondence (well calibrated to the world) norms. Thus, dropping out of college, walking past a pile of cash on the ground, becoming addicted to drugs, or even committing suicide can be rationalized (and regularly have been in the economics literature) as maximizing a rational preference ordering because they can be made to satisfy internal coherence. Economic rationality here imposes nothing more than consistency.

A rational person can walk past $100 lying on the sidewalk, revealing (within the rational choice framework) that his or her disutility of stopping to lean over and pick up the money is greater than the benefit of the money. Rationality requires only that the person is consistent about this ranking, never stopping to pick up money on the sidewalk when the amount is $100 or less. In the other direction, a person who drops out of college and then—without anything else in his or her life circumstances changing significantly— decides to reenroll is regarded as inconsistent and therefore irrational, even though many parents would no doubt regard this as, on the whole, good economic behavior.

In expected utility theory, a decision maker can be completely averse to risk or love risk taking, but not both. The requirement of rationality is that all risky choices are consistent. Thus, someone who always takes risks and perhaps is regarded by many as foolish and imprudent would pass the consistency requirement, conforming squarely with axiomatic rationality based on consistent foolishness. In the other direction, a person who buys health insurance (revealing himself or herself to be risk averse) and also decides to start a new business (revealing himself or herself to be risk loving) cannot easily be rationalized within expected utility theory because of the appearance of inconsistent choices in risky settings.

In time trade-off decision problems, consistency allows for both infinite impatience and infinite patience, but not in the same person. A person who, every payday, throws a party and spends all his or her money and then starves until next payday passes the consistency test and is therefore rational. Consistently strange behavior (e.g., blowing one’s paycheck and starving thereafter until the next paycheck) can be rationalized, but inconsistent behavior—even when it seems to reflect a positive step in a person’s maturing or taking responsibility for his or her well-being—is labeled irrational because it violates consistency. If the person who previously blew his or her paycheck every payday decides to start saving money for his or her retirement, this would be inconsistent, although very reasonable to most people. These cases illustrate tension between what most people regard as sensible economic behavior and the surprising simultaneous tightness and looseness of rational choice as it is defined in economics as a criterion for normative evaluation.

Behavioral Economics: Prospects and Problems

The origins of behavioral economics are many, without clear boundaries or singularly defining moments (Hands, 2007; Heukelom, 2007). And yet, even a cursory look at articles published in economics today versus, say, 1980 reveals a far-reaching behavioral shift. One can cite a number of concrete events as markers of the emergence of behavioral economics onto a broader stage with wide, mainstream appeal. One might imagine that such a list would surely include Herbert Simon’s Nobel Prize in 1978. But prior to the 1990s, behavioral work appeared very infrequently in flagship general interest journals of the economics profession. A concise and, of course, incomplete timeline of milestones in the recent rise of behavioral economics would include Richard Thaler’s “/Anomalies” series, which ran in the Journal of Economic Perspectives starting in 1987; hiring patterns at elite business schools and economics departments in the 1990s; frequent popular press accounts of behavioral economics in The Economist, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal in the past 10 years; and the 2002 Nobel Prize being awarded to experimental economist Vernon Smith and psychologist Daniel Kahneman. The 1994 Nobel Prize was shared by another economist who is an active experimenter and leading voice in game theory and behavioral economics, Reinhardt Selten.

A striking element in the arguments of those who have successfully brought behavioral economics to mainstream economics audiences is the close similarity to Friedman’s as-if methodology. In prospect theory, behavioral economics adds new parameters rather than psychological realism to repair and add greater statistical fit to an otherwise neoclassical weighting-and-summing approach to modeling choice under uncertainty. In the social preferences approach, behavioral economics adds parameters weighting decision makers’ concern for receiving more, or less, than others do to an otherwise neoclassical utility function. In intertemporal choice, behavioral models of time inconsistency add discounting parameters with non-exponential weighting schemes while hanging onto the assumption of maximization of a time-separable utility function. Frequently billing itself as a new empirical enterprise aimed at uncovering the true preferences of real people, the dominant method in the most widely cited innovations to emerge from behavioral economics can be perhaps better described as filtering observed choices through otherwise neoclassical constrained optimization problems, with augmented utility functions that depend on new functional arguments and parameters.

Behavioral economists’ attempts to filter data through more complexly parameterized constrained optimization problems suggest more similarity than difference with respect to neoclassical economics. It will be interesting to see whether moves in the direction of neuroeconomics based on brain imaging data portend more radical methodological shifts (Camerer, Loewenstein, & Prelec, 2005) or rather a strengthening of the core methodological tenets of neoclassical economics (Glimcher, 2003). There is a route not taken, or not yet taken, following Herbert Simon’s call to abandon universalizing, context- and content-free characterizations of rational choice in favor of models that explicitly consider the interaction of decision processes and the different environments in which they are used— that is, ecological rationality (Gigerenzer, Todd, & the ABC Research Group, 1999).

Criticisms notwithstanding, a number of new and practical suggestions for designing institutions and intervening to help people change their behavior have emerged from the behavioral economics literature of recent decades. These include plans that encourage greater levels of retirement savings (Benartzi & Thaler, 2004), higher rates of organ donation (Johnson & Goldstein, 2003), controlling the amount of food we eat (Wansink, 2006), and new tools for encouraging greater levels of charitable giving (Shang & Croson, 2009). One recent example of behavioral economics being put into practice is President Obama’s tax cut, which is disbursed as a small reduction in monthly tax withholding, thereby increasing workers’ monthly take-home pay by a small amount each month instead of arriving in taxpayers’ mailboxes as a single check for the year. In the rational choice theory, taxpayers’ decisions about how much of the tax cut to spend should not depend significantly on whether one receives, say, 12 paychecks with an extra $50 or a single check for $600 for the entire year. But behavioral economists such as Richard Thaler have advised the Obama administration that, to induce immediate spending (which is what most economists call for in response to a recession), it is important that taxpayers view tax cuts as an increase in income rather than wealth—in other words, that taxpayers put the tax cut proceeds into a “mental account” from which they are relatively more likely to spend (Surowiecki, 2009).

All indications suggest that more empirical findings and theories from behavioral economics will make their way into public policy and private organizations aiming to influence the behavior of workers and consumers. Whether these tools will be regarded as benevolent interventions that make our environments better matched to our cognitive architecture or an Orwellian shift toward psychology-inspired paternalism is currently under debate (Berg & Gigerenzer, 2007; Thaler & Sunstein, 2003). There would seem to be genuine cause for optimism regarding behavioral economists’ widely shared goal of improving the predictive accuracy and descriptive realism of economic models that tie economics more closely to observational data, while undertaking bolder normative analysis using broader sets of criteria that measure how smart, or rational, behavior is.

See also:


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