A true surprise this morning: the behavioral economist Richard Thaler from the University of Chicago has won the Nobel Prize in economics. It is not a surprise because it is undeserving; rather, it is a surprise because only four years ago, Thaler’s natural co-laureate Bob Shiller won while Thaler was left the bridesmaid. But Thaler’s influence on the profession, and the world, is unquestionable. There are few developed governments who do not have a “nudge” unit of some sort trying to take advantage of behavioral nudges to push people a touch in one way or another, including here in Ontario via my colleagues at BEAR. I will admit, perhaps under the undue of influence of too many dead economists, that I am skeptical of nudging and behavioral finance on both positive and normative grounds, so this review will be one of friendly challenge rather than hagiography. I trust that there will be no shortage of wonderful positive reflections on Thaler’s contribution to policy, particularly because he is the rare economist whose work is totally accessible to laymen and, more importantly, journalists.

Much of my skepticism is similar to how Fama thinks about behavioral finance: “I’ve always said they are very good at describing how individual behavior departs from rationality. That branch of it has been incredibly useful. It’s the leap from there to what it implies about market pricing where the claims are not so well-documented in terms of empirical evidence.” In other words, surely most people are not that informed and not that rational much of the time, but repeated experience, market selection, and other aggregative factors mean that this irrationality may not matter much for the economy at large. It is very easy to claim that since economists model “agents” as “rational”, we would, for example, “not expect a gift on the day of the year in which she happened to get married, or be born” and indeed “would be perplexed by the idea of gifts at all” (Thaler 2015). This type of economist caricature is both widespread and absurd, I’m afraid. In order to understand the value of Thaler’s work, we ought first look at situations where behavioral factors matter in real world, equilibrium decisions of consequence, then figure out how common those situations are, and why.

The canonical example of Thaler’s useful behavioral nudges is his “Save More Tomorrow” pension plan, with Benartzi. Many individuals in defined contribution plans save too little, both because they are not good at calculating how much they need to save and because they are biased toward present consumption. You can, of course, force people to save a la Singapore, but we dislike these plans because individuals vary in their need and desire for saving, and because we find the reliance on government coercion to save heavy-handed. Alternatively, you can default defined-contribution plans to involve some savings rate, but it turns out people do not vary their behavior from the default throughout their career, and hence save too little solely because they didn’t want too much removed from their first paycheck. Thaler and Benartzi have companies offer plans where you agree now to having your savings rate increased when you get raises – for instance, if your salary goes up 2%, you will have half of that set into a savings plan tomorrow, until you reach a savings rate that is sufficiently high. In this way, no one takes a nominal post-savings paycut. People can, of course, leave this plan whenever they want. In their field experiments, savings rates did in fact soar (with takeup varying hugely depending on how information about the plan was presented), and attrition in the future from the plan was low.

This policy is what Thaler and Sunstein call “libertarian paternalism”. It is paternalistic because, yes, we think that you may make bad decisions from your own perspective because you are not that bright, or because you are lazy, or because you have many things which require your attention. It is libertarian because there is no compulsion, in that anyone can opt out at their leisure. Results similar to Thaler and Benartzi’s have found by Ashraf et al in a field experiment in the Philippines, and by Karlan et al in three countries where just sending reminder messages which make savings goals more salient modestly increase savings.

So far, so good. We have three issues to unpack, however. First, when is this nudge acceptable on ethical grounds? Second, why does nudging generate such large effects here, and if the effects are large, why doesn’t the market simply provide them? Third, is the 401k savings case idiosyncratic or representative? The idea that the homo economicus, rational calculator, misses important features of human behavior, and would do with some insights from psychology, is not new, of course. Thaler’s prize is, at minimum, the fifth Nobel to go to someone pushing this general idea, since Herb Simon, Maurice Allais, Daniel Kahneman, and the aforementioned Bob Shiller have all already won. Copious empirical evidence, and indeed simple human observation, implies that people have behavioral biases, that they are not perfectly rational – as Thaler has noted, we see what looks like irrationality even in the composition of 100 million dollar baseball rosters. The more militant behavioralists insist that ignoring these psychological factors is unscientific! And yet, and yet: the vast majority of economists, all of whom are by now familiar with these illustrious laureates and their work, still use fairly standard expected utility maximizing agents in nearly all of our papers. Unpacking the three issues above will clarify how that could possible be so.

Let’s discuss ethics first. Simply arguing that organizations “must” make a choice (as Thaler and Sunstein do) is insufficient; we would not say a firm that defaults consumers into an autorenewal for a product they rarely renew when making an active choice is acting “neutrally”. Nudges can be used for “good” or “evil”. Worse, whether a nudge is good or evil depends on the planner’s evaluation of the agent’s “inner rational self”, as Infante and Sugden, among others, have noted many times. That is, claiming paternalism is “only a nudge” does not excuse the paternalist from the usual moral philosophic critiques! Indeed, as Chetty and friends have argued, the more you believe behavioral biases exist and are “nudgeable”, the more careful you need to be as a policymaker about inadvertently reducing welfare. There is, I think, less controversy when we use nudges rather than coercion to reach some policy goal. For instance, if a policymaker wants to reduce energy usage, and is worried about distortionary taxation, nudges may (depending on how you think about social welfare with non-rational preferences!) be a better way to achieve the desired outcomes. But this goal is very different that common justification that nudges somehow are pushing people toward policies they actually like in their heart of hearts. Carroll et al have a very nice theoretical paper trying to untangle exactly what “better” means for behavioral agents, and exactly when the imprecision of nudges or defaults given our imperfect knowledge of individual’s heterogeneous preferences makes attempts at libertarian paternalism worse than laissez faire.

What of the practical effects of nudges? How can they be so large, and in what contexts? Thaler has very convincingly shown that behavioral biases can affect real world behavior, and that understanding those biases means two policies which are identical from the perspective of a homo economicus model can have very different effects. But many economic situations involve players doing things repeatedly with feedback – where heuristics approximated by rationality evolve – or involve players who “perform poorly” being selected out of the game. For example, I can think of many simple nudges to get you or I to play better basketball. But when it comes to Michael Jordan, the first order effects are surely how well he takes cares of his health, the teammates he has around him, and so on. I can think of many heuristics useful for understanding how simply physics will operate, but I don’t think I can find many that would improve Einstein’s understanding of how the world works. The 401k situation is unusual because it is a decision with limited short-run feedback, taken by unsophisticated agents who will learn little even with experience. The natural alternative, of course, is to have agents outsource the difficult parts of the decision, to investment managers or the like. And these managers will make money by improving people’s earnings. No surprise that robo-advisors, index funds, and personal banking have all become more important as defined contribution plans have become more common! If we worry about behavioral biases, we ought worry especially about market imperfections that prevent the existence of designated agents who handle the difficult decisions for us.

The fact that agents can exist is one reason that irrationality in the lab may not translate into irrationality in the market. But even without agents, we might reasonably be suspect of some claims of widespread irrationality. Consider Thaler’s famous endowment effect: how much you are willing to pay for, say, a coffee mug or a pen is much less than how much you would accept to have the coffee mug taken away from you. Indeed, it is not unusual in a study to find a ratio of three times or greater between the willingness to pay and willingness to accept amount. But, of course, if these were “preferences”, you could be money pumped (see Yaari, applying a theorem of de Finetti, on the mathematics of the pump). Say you value the mug at ten bucks when you own it and five bucks when you don’t. Do we really think I can regularly get you to pay twice as much by loaning you the mug for free for a month? Do we see car companies letting you take a month-long test drive of a $20,000 car then letting you keep the car only if you pay $40,000, with some consumers accepting? Surely not. Now the reason why is partly what Laibson and Yariv argue, that money pumps do not exist in competitive economies since market pressure will compete away rents: someone else will offer you the car at $20,000 and you will just buy from them. But even if the car company are a monopolist, surely we find the magnitude of the money pump implied here to be on face ridiculous.

Even worse are the dictator games introduced in Thaler’s 1986 fairness paper. Students were asked, upon being given $20, whether they wanted to give an anonymous student half of their endowment or 10%. Many of the students gave half! This experiment has been repeated many, many times, with similar effects. Does this mean economists are naive to neglect the social preferences of humans? Of course not! People are endowed with money and gifts all the time. They essentially never give any of it to random strangers – I feel confident assuming you, the reader, have never been handed some bills on the sidewalk by an officeworker who just got a big bonus! Worse, the context of the experiment matters a ton (see John List on this point). Indeed, despite hundreds of lab experiments on dictator games, I feel far more confident predicting real world behavior following windfalls if we use a parsimonious homo economicus model than if we use the results of dictator games. Does this mean the games are useless? Of course not – studying what factors affect other-regarding preferences is interesting, and important. But how odd to have a branch of our field filled with people who see armchair theorizing of homo economicus as “unscientific”, yet take lab experiments so literally even when they are so clearly contrary to data?

To take one final example, consider Thaler’s famous model of “mental accounting”. In many experiments, he shows people have “budgets” set aside for various tasks. I have my “gas budget” and adjust my driving when gas prices change. I only sell stocks when I am up overall on that stock since I want my “mental account” of that particular transaction to be positive. But how important is this in the aggregate? Take the Engel curve. Budget shares devoted to food fall with income. This is widely established historically and in the cross section. Where is the mental account? Farber (2008 AER) even challenges the canonical account of taxi drivers working just enough hours to make their targeted income. As in the dictator game and the endowment effect, there is a gap between what is real, psychologically, and what is consequential enough to be first-order in our economic understanding of the world.

Let’s sum up. Thaler’s work is brilliant – it is a rare case of an economist taking psychology seriously and actually coming up with policy-relevant consequences like the 401k policy. But Thaler’s work is also dangerous to young economists who see biases everywhere. Experts in a field, and markets with agents and mechanisms and all the other tricks they develop, are very very good at ferreting out irrationality, and economists core skill lies in not missing those tricks.

Some remaining bagatelles: 1) Thaler and his PhD advisor, Sherwin Rosen, have one of the first papers on measuring the “statistical” value of a life, a technique now widely employed in health economics and policy. 2) Beyond his academic work, Thaler has won a modicum of fame as a popular writer (Nudge, written with Cass Sunstein, is canonical here) and for his brief turn as an actor alongside Selena Gomez in “The Big Short”. 3) Dick has a large literature on “fairness” in pricing, a topic which goes back to Thomas Aquinas, if not earlier. Many of the experiments Thaler performs, like the thought experiments of Aquinas, come down to the fact that many perceive market power to be unfair. Sure, I agree, but I’m not sure there’s much more that can be learned that this uncontroversial fact. 4) Law and econ has been massively influenced by Thaler. As a simple example, if endowment effects are real, then the assignment of property rights matters even when there are no transaction costs. Jolls et al 1998 go into more depth on this issue. 5) Thaler’s precise results in so-called behavioral finance are beyond my area of expertise, so I defer to John Cochrane’s comments following the 2013 Nobel. Eugene Fama is, I think, correct when he suggests that market efficiency generated by rational traders with risk aversion is the best model we have of financial behavior, where best is measured by “is this model useful for explaining the world.” The number of behavioral anomalies at the level of the market which persist and are relevant in the aggregate do not strike me as large, while the number of investors and policymakers who make dreadful decisions because they believe markets are driven by behavioral sentiments is large indeed!