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Behavioural Economist Richard Thaler wins Nobel Prize in Economics.

October 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Great news for Behavioural Economists with Richard Thaler winning the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017. Below is an interview with Richard Thaler on the PBS NewsHour – Making Sense by Paul Solman to launch his then new book “Misbehaving”. Notice that the book is 30% off in the Chicago Booth Bookstore. As Thaler says people love deals and can be driven to purchase things that they don’t really want if the deal is good enough. He explains the concept of sunk costs, time and money already spent with some Cameroonian students. Also the way most people value their time.

Richard Thaler, also the co-author of the book  “Nudge” , has suggested that economics has always been about behaviour. Adam Smith’s first book “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” is in fact a Behavioural Economics treatise and within it Smith talks about its contribution to both psychology and ethics. Its purpose is to find a rationale for ethical judgement in human psychology. The latter is found in human nature: a human being put in a certain situation has a tendency to react in a certain way eg. includes sympathy, feelings and approval by others. It was Smith’s belief that human behaviour was impacted by emotions such as fear and anger and drives such as hunger. However according to Smith these emotions and drives were checked by an “impartial spectator”.

The impartial spectator allows one to see one’s own feelings and the pulls of immediate gratification from the perspective of an external observer.

In the domain of self-control and self-governance, the impartial spectator takes the structure of a long-term interest – “I won’t have that rich cream cake at morning tea because I can see that I will feel guilty about it later”. In the area of social interaction, the impartial spectator allows us to see things from another’s perspective rather than to be blinded by our own needs. The dissention is especially significant when you consider savings decisions – savings is a precision choice to delay immediate indulgence for a long-term interest. So we have the conflict between the voice of a short-term pull versus the voice of the impartial spectator.

Only recently has the field of economics advanced enough to have the tools to reincorporate the factors that Smith had always felt were important in human interaction: our caring about each other and about fairness, our difficulties with aligning our long-term interests with short-term pulls, etc. One of the most unexplored areas, which we are only now beginning to be able to measure, is the degree to which people are motivated by reputation and social status, something Smith thought was a crucial motivation for economic activity.

Nudge

The essence of behavioural economics stems from a concern that rational behaviour driven by self-interest will not guide many of us to health, wealth and happiness. People tend to make bad decisions whether it is not saving or eating the wrong type of food. This disturbing state of affairs arises because homo economicus tends to be in a continuous condition of information overload, and consumer makes errors because of their unfamiliarity about options and their effect. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue in ‘Nudge’ that subtle changes can influence peoples decision so that they can make choices that will improve their well-being. However, consumers use various methods in deciding their optimal consumption as the cost (time and effort) of acquiring all the information about the benefits of product/service might outweigh the benefits of consuming it.

Homo Economicus – the basis for a majority of economic models is the assumption that all human beings are rational and will always attempt to maximize their utility – whether it be from monetary or non-monetary gains

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Lower income extroverts spend more on status enhancing goods

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

People who are ‘extraverted’ and on low incomes buy more luxury goods than their introverted peers to compensate for the experience of low financial status, finds new UCL research. In Psychological Science, Dr Landis and Dr Gladstone analyse a year of data from more than 700 British bank accounts in 2014. They sort purchases into categories, ranging from high-status (foreign air travel, electronic goods and so on) to low-status (money spent at salvage yards and discount stores). They then correlate the results with those from personality tests taken by the account-holders.

People living on a low income often feel low status in society and spend a higher percentage of their money on goods and services that are perceived to have a high status. Previous research has found that people who are sociable and outgoing care more about their social status than others. The new research shows that when extraverted people have a lower income, they spend proportionately more on status goods than introverts on the same income. At higher incomes, the difference in spending lessens as introverted people buy more luxury goods.

The study analysed thousands of transactions from 718 customers over 12 months. The results took into account other factors that could influence spending habits, such as age, sex, employment status and whether the customers had children. Cash spending was also taken into account.

low income conspicuous cons.pngEach person’s spending data were sorted into a number of spending categories from one (very low status) to five (very high status). High-status categories (i.e., those with average scores of four or five) included foreign air travel, golf, electronics and art institutions, whereas low-status categories (i.e., those with average scores of two or one) included pawnbrokers, salvage yards and discount stores.

The team found the interaction between income and extraversion in predicting spending on luxury goods is significant and emphasize that while this useful in understanding the relationship, further research is needed to see whether the relationship is causal and whether the results are representative of the UK population as a whole.

The study found, though, that the gap widened with poverty.

  • Extroverts with an annual income of £10,850 the 25th percentile of British individual incomes in 2014, spent approximately 65% more on high-status goods than similarly remunerated introverts did.
  • Extroverts with an annual income of £28,470 the 75th percentile, they spent only 14% more. This suggests how keenly extroverts feel about keeping up appearances.

Sources:

  • The Economist “Poor extroverts spend proportionately more on buying status” 26th August 2017
  • UCL – Personality drives purchasing of luxury goods – 23rd August 2017

Veblen Goods and inconspicuous consumption?

August 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980’s as a time of extreme conspicuous consumption. The yuppie materialised as the key agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth. This period had its origins in the 1930’s with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek – the latter being the author of “The Road to Serfdom”, in which he said that social spending rather than private consumption would lead inevitably to tyranny. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989) believed in this ideology and cut taxes and privatised the commanding heights in a move to a free market environment.

VeblenSo-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph below

Over the last three decades conspicuous consumption has accelerated at a phenomenal level in the industrial world. Self-gratification could no longer be delayed and an ever-increasing variety of branded products became firmly ingrained within our individuality. The myth that the more we have the happier we become is self-perpetuating: the more we consume, the less able we are to tackle the myth.

However a recently published book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett looks at how the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. Although the lower income groups must dedicate a greater proportion of their income to basic necessities, they spend a higher share of their income to conspicuous consumption than the rich do. Between 1996 and 2014 the richest 1% fell further behind the national average in the percentage of their spending dedicated to bling. The middle income quintile went the other way: by 2014 they spent 35% more than the average as a percentage of their annual expenditure.

According to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett the higher income groups have moved away from buying stuff – materialism – to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. The most common of them being education for their children.

Those in the top 10% of income earners now allocate four time as much of their spending to school and university compared to 1996, whereas for other income groups spending has remained fairly constant. However one could say that fees for both school and university have increased over that period of time. The upper class also invest heavily in domestic services such as housekeepers, freeing up time that the less fortunate must spend on chores.

Rather than frittering away that precious leisure time on frivolities, as Veblen’s leisure class did, they devote it to enriching experiences, like attending the opera, holidaying in far-off lands and working out at fancy gyms. Their children, by tagging along and thus absorbing this “cultural capital”, develop the sophistication needed to win admission to selective universities, vastly increasing the odds that they will form the next generation’s elite. The modern equivalent of Victorian worsted-stocking wearers are hipsters, who imitate the wealthy’s penchant for farmers’ markets and fair-trade lattes, even if they cannot afford a cruise to Antarctica.  Source: The Economist – August 5th 2017

 

 

Retail stores now target consumer body language.

August 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Keeping on the behavioral economics topic I was interested to read about shoppers emotions being used by retailers to try an increase sales. Companies now pay large sums of money for software that identifies the following:

  • shoppers’ movements
  • facial expression
  • dissatisfaction
  • surprise
  • eye-tracking
  • dilating pupils
  • thermal-imaging

Body language.pngSome research has shown that when a person who is smiling enters a shop they are on average likely to spend 30% more than others who are more neutral position in their emotion. Conventional research states that when people are interviewed or fill in surveys they tend to edit their responses to make them sound like a ‘rational person’. However a lot of purchases are driven by the subconscious emotions. There are various companies out there today that are trying to get in the mind of consumers namely:

We have all heard of retail therapy which involves people going on a spending spree when they tend to be feeling down. The challenge for all the companies out there is to spot when a person is in this state when they enter their shop. The key to it is tracking the unconscious mind in shoppers.

Try this exercise with your class and see how many stages they can get through. If we make persistent errors in things we are very good at like colours how likely is it that we are also subject to persistent, predictable errors in areas of consumer decision-making?

Categories: Behavioural Economics

More loss aversion in male tennis players when behind.

August 4, 2017 Leave a comment

A paper entitiled ‘Is Roger Federer more loss averse than Serena Williams?’published by By Nejat Anbarci, K. Peren Arin, Cagla Okten and Christina Zenker on tennis serving and loss aversion caught my attention. The paper found that:

Roger_Federer.jpg
1 a server will put more effort into his/her serve speed when behind in score than when ahead in score,
2 players’ effort levels and thus serve speeds get less sensitive to losses or gains
when score difference gets too large,
3 A female player, on the other hand, does not change her serve speed and thus her effort when behind compared to when the score is tied, while she serves slower when ahead than when the score is tied.
4. Overall servers will be more risk averse in the domain of gains than in the domain of losses.
Researchers used serve speed at different points of matches in the high-stakes, professional Dubai Tennis Tournament to test their theoretical predictions and whether overall players exhibited the fundamental bias of loss aversion.

 

Loss Aversion and the  Endowment Effect

Loss aversion can be explained by prospect theory, which states that an individual’s value function (whether for money or otherwise) is concave for gains but convex for losses. In other words, people are more sensitive to losses compared to gains of similar magnitude. This is illustrated below.

Prospect theory

The reference point in the diagram is the current position of the individual concerned. Gains and losses are evaluated with reference to this neutral reference point. The value function takes an asymmetric S-shape because marginal value (or sensitivity) declines as absolute gains and losses increase in size. A dollar lost more than outweighs a dollar gained. In conventional economics, gains and losses are treated equally – a dollar lost simply cancels out a dollar gained. Golf provides a perfect example of a reference point: par. Every hole on a golf course has a number of strokes associated with it; the par provides the baseline for good – but not outstanding – performance. For a professional golfer, a birdie (one stroke under par) is a gain, and a bogey (one stroke over par) is a loss. Economists have compared two situations a player might face when hear the hole:

  • putt to avoid a bogey
  • putt to achieve a birdie

One group of economists analysed more than 2.5 million putts in exquisite detail to test that prediction and found that whether the putt was easy or hard, at every distance from the hole, the players were more successful when putting for par than for a birdie. The difference in their rate of success when going for par (to avoid a bogey) or for a birdie was 3.6%.

 

Rethinking Economics – Econocracy

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

You might have come across the book ‘Econocracy’ written by students from the University of Manchester which makes three big arguments about the relevance of economics courses at Universities.

First, economics is part of all aspects of our public life. Second, the economics profession sees the economy “as a distinct system that follows a particular, often mechanical logic” and believes this “can be managed using a scientific criteria”. It would not be recognised by Keynes or Marx or Adam Smith. Thirdly, the authors criticised what economics students are being assessed on – models or theories which were being memorised for exams.

The interview below on Newsnight (BBC2) has author and student Joe Earle and Professor Diane Coyle (follow her excellent blog The Enlightened Economist) discussing the state of the discipline at University and what they don’t teach to economics students. More information can be found on the website Rethinking Economics.

The value of beliefs in economic decision-making.

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

BE - Cognition.jpegThe economic environment is said to be determined by agents or economic decision-makers. Today, an economy is a much more intricate machine which aims to allocate scarce resources to satisfy the utility of economic agents such as individuals, firms and government. The dominant model for many years has been “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium” (DSGE) and it takes all the characteristics of an individual (this person is typically called the representative agent) which is then cloned and taken to represent the typical person in an economy.These agents make supposedly perfect decisions by optimising, working out the kinds of mathematical problems in an instant. However the rise of behavioural economics has shown that cognitive errors are now assumptions in many aspects of economics namely – heuristics, confirmation bias, overconfidence and distorted probability weights.

According to a paper entitled “Mindful Economics: The Production, Consumption, and Value of Beliefs” by Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirol research has shown that beliefs often fulfill important psychological and functional needs of the individual. Examples include:

  • confidence in ones’ abilities,
  • moral self-esteem,
  • hope and anxiety reduction,
  • social identity,
  • political ideology
  • religious faith.

Therefore people hold beliefs because of the value they attach to them, as a result of the tradeoff between accuracy and desirability. As a consequence of this some of the beliefs do not consider prior knowledge of conditions or events that might be related to their beliefs – Bayseian Updating – this refers to people who are willing and able to modify their beliefs based on new, objective information. This non-Bayesian behaviour includes ignoring signals about their beliefs and denying what in turn will be the reality. Nevertheless motivated beliefs will respond to costs, benefits, and stakes involved in maintaining different self-views and world-views which leads to self-sustaining “social cognitions.”

Overconfidence
Bénabou and Tirol suggest that overconfidence is the most common indicator of the motivated beliefs experience. Overconfidence can be seen as quite damaging although moderate confidence can be quite useful as it often enhances an individuals ability to act successfully on their own behalf and work well with others. Research has shown that psychologically “healthy” people display some degree of overoptimism and biased updating, while it is primarily depressed subjects who seem to be more objective.

If beliefs are shared between parties they may magnify each other and there is a tendency to follow the herd, especially if information is uncertain, incomplete, and asymmetric (some people are more informed than others). Basically, in a world of bounded rationality (the limits of the human brain in processing and understanding information), herding makes sense to most people. Herding is a fast and frugal heuristic (short-cut) that has been used by both human and non-human animals across the millennia. Some behavioural economists see herding as irrational because people aren’t basing their decisions on objective criteria. If herding is seen as rational it can result in price cascades leading to excessive booms and busts in the prices of financial assets. Case and Shiller (2003) surveyed the expectations of homeowners during the real-estate bubbles of 1988 and 2003. In both cases, 90 percent of respondents thought housing prices in their city would “increase over the next several years,” with an average expected gain for their own property of 9 to 15 percent per year over the next ten years.

The strategies of self-deception and dissonance-reduction used to protect valued beliefs are many and varied, Bénabou and Tirol group them into three main types: strategic ignorance, reality denial, and self-signaling.

Strategic ignorance is when a believer avoids information offering conflicting evidence.

Reality denial refers to troubling evidence that is rationalised away: house-price bulls might conjure up fanciful theories for why prices should behave unusually, and supporters of a disgraced politician might invent conspiracies or blame fake news.

Self-signaling is when the believer creates his own tools to interpret the facts in the way he wants: an unhealthy person, for example, might decide that going for a daily run proves he is well.

Final thought

People derive utility from a sense of belonging to communities and having a positive self-image. Optimistic beliefs can also be valuable motivators to overcome self-control problems, as well as helpful in strategic interactions. In order to maintain this level of utility people tend to disregard Bayesian updating and are not willing to modify their beliefs based on new, objective information. Even if they did consider new information they will manipulate it to align with what their beliefs are.

Overconfidence is the most common indicator of the motivated beliefs experience and this can be impacted by the behaviour of others. Their confidence is often reinforced when people know that other people, including experts, and the rich and famous, are doing the same. In a world of bounded rationality, such behaviour may make sense – even though it can result in errors in decision making.

Sources:

“To err is human; so is the failure to admit it” – The Economist June 10th 2017

“Mindful Economics: The Production, Consumption, and Value of Beliefs” by Roland Bénabou and Jean Tirol. Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 30, Number 3—Summer 2016—Pages 141–16

Categories: Behavioural Economics
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