Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thaler, Misbehaving

Behavioral economics is now mainstream, at least outside of the stodgiest of economics departments. In fact, as the author writes, “This maturation of the field is so advanced that when this book is published in 2015, barring impeachment, I will be in the midst of a year serving as the president of the American Economic Association, and Robert Shiller will be my successor. The lunatics are running the asylum!” (p. 335) How behavioral economics got to this point from its humble, academically risky beginnings in the 1970s is the subject of Richard H. Thaler’s Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (W. W. Norton, 2015).

Traditional economics studies rational agents, whom Thaler calls Econs; behavioral economics studies Humans. Econs are a construct designed to fit a theory; Humans are real people whose often irrational activities provide data (supposedly irrelevant factors) for study and hypothesis formation.

Thaler’s book, a personal history of the struggles and triumphs of behavioral economics, is also a wonderful introduction to the field. It recounts study after study that show just how predictably error-prone people are. And it explains how businesses can use these findings to keep customers happy and how governments can use them for the public good.

Looking back, Thaler suggests that the area where behavioral economics has had its greatest impact is in finance. “No one would have predicted that in 1980. In fact, it was unthinkable, because economists knew that financial markets were the most efficient of all markets, the places where arbitrage was easiest, and thus the domain in which misbehaving was least likely to appear.“ And yet these markets exhibited tell-tale anomalies, for instance the storied case of Palm and 3Com. Moreover, he notes, “It also didn’t hurt that financial markets offer the best opportunities to make money if markets are misbehaving, so a lot of intellectual resources have gone into investigating possible profitable investment strategies.” (p. 346)

The area where it has had the least impact so far is macroeconomics. In part, at least, this is due to the fact that the field “lacks the two key ingredients that contributed to the success of behavioral finance: the theories do not make easily falsifiable predictions, and the data are relatively scarce.” (p. 337)

Misbehaving is a thoroughly enjoyable read, not quite right for the beach but perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

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