Archives For behavioral economics

In a recent long-form article in the New York Times, reporter Noam Scheiber set out to detail some of the ways Uber (and similar companies, but mainly Uber) are engaged in “an extraordinary experiment in behavioral science to subtly entice an independent work force to maximize its growth.”

That characterization seems innocuous enough, but it is apparent early on that Scheiber’s aim is not only to inform but also, if not primarily, to deride these efforts. The title of the piece, in fact, sets the tone:

How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons

Uber and its relationship with its drivers are variously described by Scheiber in the piece as secretive, coercive, manipulative, dominating, and exploitative, among other things. As Schreiber describes his article, it sets out to reveal how

even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth — an effort whose dimensions became evident in interviews with several dozen current and former Uber officials, drivers and social scientists, as well as a review of behavioral research.

What’s so galling about the piece is that, if you strip away the biased and frequently misguided framing, it presents a truly engaging picture of some of the ways that Uber sets about solving a massively complex optimization problem, abetted by significant agency costs.

So I did. Strip away the detritus, add essential (but omitted) context, and edit the article to fix the anti-Uber bias, the one-sided presentation, the mischaracterizations, and the fundamentally non-economic presentation of what is, at its core, a fascinating illustration of some basic problems (and solutions) from industrial organization economics. (For what it’s worth, Scheiber should know better. After all, “He holds a master’s degree in economics from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and undergraduate degrees in math and economics from Tulane University.”)

In my retelling, the title becomes:

How Uber Uses Innovative Management Tactics to Incentivize Its Drivers

My transformed version of the piece, with critical commentary in the form of tracked changes to the original, is here (pdf).

It’s a long (and, as I said, fundamentally interesting) piece, with cool interactive graphics, well worth the read (well, at least in my retelling, IMHO). Below is just a taste of the edits and commentary I added.

For example, where Scheiber writes:

Uber exists in a kind of legal and ethical purgatory, however. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they lack most of the protections associated with employment. By mastering their workers’ mental circuitry, Uber and the like may be taking the economy back toward a pre-New Deal era when businesses had enormous power over workers and few checks on their ability to exploit it.

With my commentary (here integrated into final form rather than tracked), that paragraph becomes:

Uber operates under a different set of legal constraints, however, also duly enacted and under which millions of workers have profitably worked for decades. Because its drivers are independent contractors, they receive their compensation largely in dollars rather than government-mandated “benefits” that remove some of the voluntariness from employer/worker relationships. And, in the case of overtime pay, for example, the Uber business model that is built in part on offering flexible incentives to match supply and demand using prices and compensation, would be next to impossible. It is precisely through appealing to drivers’ self-interest that Uber and the like may be moving the economy forward to a new era when businesses and workers have more flexibility, much to the benefit of all.

Elsewhere, Scheiber’s bias is a bit more subtle, but no less real. Thus, he writes:

As he tried to log off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted.

With my edits and commentary, that paragraph becomes:

As he started the process of logging off at 7:13 a.m. on New Year’s Day last year, Josh Streeter, then an Uber driver in the Tampa, Fla., area, received a message on the company’s driver app with the headline “Make it to $330.” The text then explained: “You’re $10 away from making $330 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” Below were two prompts: “Go offline” and “Keep driving.” The latter was already highlighted, but the former was listed first. It’s anyone’s guess whether either characteristic — placement or coloring — had any effect on drivers’ likelihood of clicking one button or the other.

And one last example. Scheiber writes:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, there is another way to think of the logic of forward dispatch: It overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

This pre-emptive hard-wiring can have a huge influence on behavior, said David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably, as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be.

Here’s how I would recast that, and add some much-needed economics:

Consider an algorithm called forward dispatch — Lyft has a similar one — that dispatches a new ride to a driver before the current one ends. Forward dispatch shortens waiting times for passengers, who may no longer have to wait for a driver 10 minutes away when a second driver is dropping off a passenger two minutes away.

Perhaps no less important, forward dispatch causes drivers to stay on the road substantially longer during busy periods — a key goal for both companies — by giving them more income-earning opportunities.

Uber and Lyft explain this in essentially the same way. “Drivers keep telling us the worst thing is when they’re idle for a long time,” said Kevin Fan, the director of product at Lyft. “If it’s slow, they’re going to go sign off. We want to make sure they’re constantly busy.”

While this is unquestionably true, and seems like another win-win, some critics have tried to paint even this means of satisfying both driver and consumer preferences in a negative light by claiming that the forward dispatch algorithm overrides self-control.

* * *

Uber officials say the feature initially produced so many rides at times that drivers began to experience a chronic Netflix ailment — the inability to stop for a bathroom break. Amid the uproar, Uber introduced a pause button.

“Drivers were saying: ‘I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem.’ So we redesigned it,” said Maya Choksi, a senior Uber official in charge of building products that help drivers. “In the middle of the trip, you can say, ‘Stop giving me requests.’ So you can have more control over when you want to stop driving.”

Tweaks like these put paid to the arguments that Uber is simply trying to abuse its drivers. And yet, critics continue to make such claims:

It is true that drivers can pause the services’ automatic queuing feature if they need to refill their tanks, or empty them, as the case may be. Yet once they log back in and accept their next ride, the feature kicks in again. To disable it, they would have to pause it every time they picked up a new passenger. By contrast, even Netflix allows users to permanently turn off its automatic queuing feature, known as Post-Play.

It’s difficult to take seriously claims that Uber “abuses” drivers by setting a default that drivers almost certainly prefer; surely drivers seek out another fare following the last fare more often than they seek out another bathroom break. In any case, the difference between one default and the other is a small change in the number of times drivers might have to push a single button; hardly a huge impediment.

But such claims persist, nevertheless. Setting a trivially different default can have a huge influence on behavior, claims David Laibson, the chairman of the economics department at Harvard and a leading behavioral economist. Perhaps most notably — and to change the subject — as Ms. Rosenblat and Luke Stark observed in an influential paper on these practices, Uber’s app does not let drivers see where a passenger is going before accepting the ride, making it hard to judge how profitable a trip will be. But there are any number of defenses of this practice, from both a driver- and consumer-welfare standpoint. Not least, such disclosure could well create isolated scarcity for a huge range of individual ride requests (as opposed to the general scarcity during a “surge”), leading to longer wait times, the need to adjust prices for consumers on the basis of individual rides, and more intense competition among drivers for the most profitable rides. Given these and other explanations, it is extremely unlikely that the practice is actually aimed at “abusing” drivers.

As they say, read the whole thing!

What does it mean to “own” something? A simple question (with a complicated answer, of course) that, astonishingly, goes unasked in a recent article in the Pennsylvania Law Review entitled, What We Buy When We “Buy Now,” by Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Hoofnagle (hereafter “P&H”). But how can we reasonably answer the question they pose without first trying to understand the nature of property interests?

P&H set forth a simplistic thesis for their piece: when an e-commerce site uses the term “buy” to indicate the purchase of digital media (instead of the term “license”), it deceives consumers. This is so, the authors assert, because the common usage of the term “buy” indicates that there will be some conveyance of property that necessarily includes absolute rights such as alienability, descendibility, and excludability, and digital content doesn’t generally come with these attributes. The authors seek to establish this deception through a poorly constructed survey regarding consumers’ understanding of the parameters of their property interests in digitally acquired copies. (The survey’s considerable limitations is a topic for another day….)

The issue is more than merely academic: NTIA and the USPTO have just announced that they will hold a public meeting

to discuss how best to communicate to consumers regarding license terms and restrictions in connection with online transactions involving copyrighted works… [as a precursor to] the creation of a multistakeholder process to establish best practices to improve consumers’ understanding of license terms and restrictions in connection with online transactions involving creative works.

Whatever the results of that process, it should not begin, or end, with P&H’s problematic approach.

Getting to their conclusion that platforms are engaged in deceptive practices requires two leaps of faith: First, that property interests are absolute and that any restraint on the use of “property” is inconsistent with the notion of ownership; and second, that consumers’ stated expectations (even assuming that they were measured correctly) alone determine the appropriate contours of legal (and economic) property interests. Both leaps are meritless.

Property and ownership are not absolute concepts

P&H are in such a rush to condemn downstream restrictions on the alienability of digital copies that they fail to recognize that “property” and “ownership” are not absolute terms, and are capable of being properly understood only contextually. Our very notions of what objects may be capable of ownership change over time, along with the scope of authority over owned objects. For P&H, the fact that there are restrictions on the use of an object means that it is not properly “owned.” But that overlooks our everyday understanding of the nature of property.

Ownership is far more complex than P&H allow, and ownership limited by certain constraints is still ownership. As Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz note in The Property Right Paradigm (1973):

In common speech, we frequently speak of someone owning this land, that house, or these bonds. This conversational style undoubtedly is economical from the viewpoint of quick communication, but it masks the variety and complexity of the ownership relationship. What is owned are rights to use resources, including one’s body and mind, and these rights are always circumscribed, often by the prohibition of certain actions. To “own land” usually means to have the right to till (or not to till) the soil, to mine the soil, to offer those rights for sale, etc., but not to have the right to throw soil at a passerby, to use it to change the course of a stream, or to force someone to buy it. What are owned are socially recognized rights of action. (Emphasis added).

Literally, everything we own comes with a range of limitations on our use rights. Literally. Everything. So starting from a position that limitations on use mean something is not, in fact, owned, is absurd.

Moreover, in defining what we buy when we buy digital goods by reference to analog goods, P&H are comparing apples and oranges, without acknowledging that both apples and oranges are bought.

There has been a fair amount of discussion about the nature of digital content transactions (including by the USPTO and NTIA), and whether they are analogous to traditional sales of objects or more properly characterized as licenses. But this is largely a distinction without a difference, and the nature of the transaction is unnecessary in understanding that P&H’s assertion of deception is unwarranted.

Quite simply, we are accustomed to buying licenses as well as products. Whenever we buy a ticket — e.g., an airline ticket or a ticket to the movies — we are buying the right to use something or gain some temporary privilege. These transactions are governed by the terms of the license. But we certainly buy tickets, no? Alchian and Demsetz again:

The domain of demarcated uses of a resource can be partitioned among several people. More than one party can claim some ownership interest in the same resource. One party may own the right to till the land, while another, perhaps the state, may own an easement to traverse or otherwise use the land for specific purposes. It is not the resource itself which is owned; it is a bundle, or a portion, of rights to use a resource that is owned. In its original meaning, property referred solely to a right, title, or interest, and resources could not be identified as property any more than they could be identified as right, title, or interest. (Emphasis added).

P&H essentially assert that restrictions on the use of property are so inconsistent with the notion of property that it would be deceptive to describe the acquisition transaction as a purchase. But such a claim completely overlooks the fact that there are restrictions on any use of property in general, and on ownership of copies of copyright-protected materials in particular.

Take analog copies of copyright-protected works. While the lawful owner of a copy is able to lend that copy to a friend, sell it, or even use it as a hammer or paperweight, he or she can not offer it for rental (for certain kinds of works), cannot reproduce it, may not publicly perform or broadcast it, and may not use it to bludgeon a neighbor. In short, there are all kinds of restrictions on the use of said object — yet P&H have little problem with defining the relationship of person to object as “ownership.”

Consumers’ understanding of all the terms of exchange is a poor metric for determining the nature of property interests

P&H make much of the assertion that most users don’t “know” the precise terms that govern the allocation of rights in digital copies; this is the source of the “deception” they assert. But there is a cost to marking out the precise terms of use with perfect specificity (no contract specifies every eventuality), a cost to knowing the terms perfectly, and a cost to caring about them.

When we buy digital goods, we probably care a great deal about a few terms. For a digital music file, for example, we care first and foremost about whether it will play on our device(s). Other terms are of diminishing importance. Users certainly care whether they can play a song when offline, for example, but whether their children will be able to play it after they die? Not so much. That eventuality may, in fact, be specified in the license, but the nature of this particular ownership relationship includes a degree of rational ignorance on the users’ part: The typical consumer simply doesn’t care. In other words, she is, in Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon’s term, “boundedly rational.” That isn’t deception; it’s a feature of life without which we would be overwhelmed by “information overload” and unable to operate. We have every incentive and ability to know the terms we care most about, and to ignore the ones about which we care little.

Relatedly, P&H also fail to understand the relationship between price and ownership. A digital song that is purchased from Amazon for $.99 comes with a set of potentially valuable attributes. For example:

  • It may be purchased on its own, without the other contents of an album;
  • It never degrades in quality, and it’s extremely difficult to misplace;
  • It may be purchased from one’s living room and be instantaneously available;
  • It can be easily copied or transferred onto multiple devices; and
  • It can be stored in Amazon’s cloud without taking up any of the consumer’s physical memory resources.

In many ways that matter to consumers, digital copies are superior to analog or physical ones. And yet, compared to physical media, on a per-song basis (assuming one could even purchase a physical copy of a single song without purchasing an entire album), $.99 may represent a considerable discount. Moreover, in 1982 when CDs were first released, they cost an average of $15. In 2017 dollars, that would be $38. Yet today most digital album downloads can be found for $10 or less.

Of course, songs purchased on CD or vinyl offer other benefits that a digital copy can’t provide. But the main thing — the ability to listen to the music — is approximately equal, and yet the digital copy offers greater convenience at (often) lower price. It is impossible to conclude that a consumer is duped by such a purchase, even if it doesn’t come with the ability to resell the song.

In fact, given the price-to-value ratio, it is perhaps reasonable to think that consumers know full well (or at least suspect) that there might be some corresponding limitations on use — the inability to resell, for example — that would explain the discount. For some people, those limitations might matter, and those people, presumably, figure out whether such limitations are present before buying a digital album or song For everyone else, however, the ability to buy a digital song for $.99 — including all of the benefits of digital ownership, but minus the ability to resell — is a good deal, just as it is worth it to a home buyer to purchase a house, regardless of whether it is subject to various easements.

Consumers are, in fact, familiar with “buying” property with all sorts of restrictions

The inability to resell digital goods looms inordinately large for P&H: According to them, by virtue of the fact that digital copies may not be resold, “ownership” is no longer an appropriate characterization of the relationship between the consumer and her digital copy. P&H believe that digital copies of works are sufficiently similar to analog versions, that traditional doctrines of exhaustion (which would permit a lawful owner of a copy of a work to dispose of that copy as he or she deems appropriate) should apply equally to digital copies, and thus that the inability to alienate the copy as the consumer wants means that there is no ownership interest per se.

But, as discussed above, even ownership of a physical copy doesn’t convey to the purchaser the right to make or allow any use of that copy. So why should we treat the ability to alienate a copy as the determining factor in whether it is appropriate to refer to the acquisition as a purchase? P&H arrive at this conclusion only through the illogical assertion that

Consumers operate in the marketplace based on their prior experience. We suggest that consumers’ “default” behavior is based on the experiences of buying physical media, and the assumptions from that context have carried over into the digital domain.

P&H want us to believe that consumers can’t distinguish between the physical and virtual worlds, and that their ability to use media doesn’t differentiate between these realms. But consumers do understand (to the extent that they care) that they are buying a different product, with different attributes. Does anyone try to play a vinyl record on his or her phone? There are perceived advantages and disadvantages to different kinds of media purchases. The ability to resell is only one of these — and for many (most?) consumers not likely the most important.

And, furthermore, the notion that consumers better understood their rights — and the limitations on ownership — in the physical world and that they carried these well-informed expectations into the digital realm is fantasy. Are we to believe that the consumers of yore understood that when they bought a physical record they could sell it, but not rent it out? That if they played that record in a public place they would need to pay performance royalties to the songwriter and publisher? Not likely.

Simply put, there is a wide variety of goods and services that we clearly buy, but that have all kinds of attributes that do not fit P&H’s crabbed definition of ownership. For example:

  • We buy tickets to events and membership in clubs (which, depending upon club rules, may not be alienated, and which always lapse for non-payment).
  • We buy houses notwithstanding the fact that in most cases all we own is the right to inhabit the premises for as long as we pay the bank (which actually retains more of the incidents of “ownership”).
  • In fact, we buy real property encumbered by a series of restrictive covenants: Depending upon where we live, we may not be able to build above a certain height, we may not paint the house certain colors, we may not be able to leave certain objects in the driveway, and we may not be able to resell without approval of a board.

We may or may not know (or care) about all of the restrictions on our use of such property. But surely we may accurately say that we bought the property and that we “own” it, nonetheless.

The reality is that we are comfortable with the notion of buying any number of limited property interests — including the purchasing of a license — regardless of the contours of the purchase agreement. The fact that some ownership interests may properly be understood as licenses rather than as some form of exclusive and permanent dominion doesn’t suggest that a consumer is not involved in a transaction properly characterized as a sale, or that a consumer is somehow deceived when the transaction is characterized as a sale — and P&H are surely aware of this.

Conclusion: The real issue for P&H is “digital first sale,” not deception

At root, P&H are not truly concerned about consumer deception; they are concerned about what they view as unreasonable constraints on the “rights” of consumers imposed by copyright law in the digital realm. Resale looms so large in their analysis not because consumers care about it (or are deceived about it), but because the real object of their enmity is the lack of a “digital first sale doctrine” that exactly mirrors the law regarding physical goods.

But Congress has already determined that there are sufficient distinctions between ownership of digital copies and ownership of analog ones to justify treating them differently, notwithstanding ownership of the particular copy. And for good reason: Trade in “used” digital copies is not a secondary market. Such copies are identical to those traded in the primary market and would compete directly with “pristine” digital copies. It makes perfect sense to treat ownership differently in these cases — and still to say that both digital and analog copies are “bought” and “owned.”

P&H’s deep-seated opposition to current law colors and infects their analysis — and, arguably, their failure to be upfront about it is the real deception. When one starts an analysis with an already-identified conclusion, the path from hypothesis to result is unlikely to withstand scrutiny, and that is certainly the case here.

My paper with Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg (D.C. Circuit; NYU Law), Behavioral Law & Economics: Its Origins, Fatal Flaws, and Implications for Liberty, is posted to SSRN and now published in the Northwestern Law Review.

Here is the abstract:

Behavioral economics combines economics and psychology to produce a body of evidence that individual choice behavior departs from that predicted by neoclassical economics in a number of decision-making situations. Emerging close on the heels of behavioral economics over the past thirty years has been the “behavioral law and economics” movement and its philosophical foundation — so-called “libertarian paternalism.” Even the least paternalistic version of behavioral law and economics makes two central claims about government regulation of seemingly irrational behavior: (1) the behavioral regulatory approach, by manipulating the way in which choices are framed for consumers, will increase welfare as measured by each individual’s own preferences and (2) a central planner can and will implement the behavioral law and economics policy program in a manner that respects liberty and does not limit the choices available to individuals. This Article draws attention to the second and less scrutinized of the behaviorists’ claims, viz., that behavioral law and economics poses no significant threat to liberty and individual autonomy. The behaviorists’ libertarian claims fail on their own terms. So long as behavioral law and economics continues to ignore the value to economic welfare and individual liberty of leaving individuals the freedom to choose and hence to err in making important decisions, “libertarian paternalism” will not only fail to fulfill its promise of increasing welfare while doing no harm to liberty, it will pose a significant risk of reducing both.

Download here.

 

Given the enthusiasm for application of behavioral economics to antitrust analysis from some corners of the Commission and the academy, I found this remark from Alison Oldale at the Federal Trade Commission interesting (Antitrust Source):

Behavioral economists are clearly correct in saying that people and firms are not the perfect decision makers using perfect information that they are portrayed to be in many economic models. But alternative models that incorporate better assumptions about behavior and which give us useful ways to understand the likely effects of mergers, or particular types of conduct, aren’t there yet. And in the meantime our existing models give us workable approximations. So we haven’t done much yet, but we’ll keep watching developments.

For myself, I wonder whether the first place behavioral economic analysis might be brought to bear on antitrust enforcement will be in areas like coordinated effects or exchange of information. These are areas where our existing theories are not very helpful. For example when looking at coordinated effects in merger control the standard approach focuses a lot on incentives to coordinate. But there are lots and lots of markets where firms have an incentive to coordinate but they don’t seem to be doing so. So it seems there is a big piece of the puzzle that we are missing, and perhaps behavioral economics will be able to tell us something about what to look at in order to get a better handle when coordination is likely in practice.

I certainly agree with the conclusion that the behavioral economics models are not yet ready for primetime.  See, for example, my work with Judd Stone in Misbehavioral Economics: The Case Against Behavioral Antitrust or my series of posts on “Nudging Antitrust” (here and here).

WSJ has an interesting story about the growing number of employer efforts to import “game” like competitions in the workplace to provide incentives for employees to engage in various healthy activities.  Some of these ideas sound in the behavioral economics literature, e.g. choice architecture or otherwise harnessing the power of non-standard preferences with a variety of nudges; others are just straightforward applications of providing incentives to engage in a desired activity.

A growing number of workplace programs are borrowing techniques from digital games in an effort to encourage regular exercise and foster healthy eating habits. The idea is that competitive drive—sparked by online leader boards, peer pressure, digital rewards and real-world prizes—can get people to improve their overall health.

A survey of employers released in March by the consulting firm Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health found that about 9% expected to use online games in their wellness programs by the end of this year, with another 7% planning to add them in 2013. By the end of next year, 60% said their health initiatives would include online games as well as other types of competitions between business locations or employee groups.

How well do these programs work in practice?  The story reports mixed evidence of the efficacy of the various game-style competitions; this is not too surprising given the complexity of individual incentives within organizations and teams.

Researchers say using videogame-style techniques to motivate people has grounding in psychological studies and behavioral economics. But, they say, the current data backing the effectiveness of workplace “gamification” wellness programs is thin, though companies including WellPoint Inc. and ShapeUp Inc. have early evidence of weight loss and other improvements in some tests.

So far, “there’s not a lot of peer-reviewed evidence that it achieves sustained improvements in health behavior and health outcomes,” says Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics.

Moreover, some employees may feel unwanted pressure from colleague-teammates or bosses when workplace competitions become heated, though participation is typically voluntary.

Incentives are powerful; but when and how they matter depends upon institutions.  Gneezy et al have an excellent survey of the literature in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, where they conclude:

When explicit incentives seek to change behavior in areas like education, contributions to public goods, and forming habits, a potential conflict arises between
the direct extrinsic effect of the incentives and how these incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivations in the short run and the long run. In education, such incentives seem to have moderate success when the incentives are well-specifified and well-targeted (“read these books” rather than “read books”), although the jury is still out regarding the long-term success of these incentive programs. In encouraging contributions to public goods, one must be very careful when designing the incentives to prevent adverse changes in social norms, image concerns, or trust. In the emerging literature on the use of incentives for lifestyle changes, large enough incentives clearly work in the short run and even in the middle run, but in the longer run the desired change in habits can again disappear.

HT: Salop.

 

TOTM alumnus Todd Henderson recently pointed me to a short, ten-question interview Time Magazine conducted with Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman.  Prof. Kahneman is a founding father of behavioral economics, which rejects the rational choice model of human behavior (i.e., humans are rational self-interest maximizers) in favor of a more complicated model that incorporates a number of systematic irrationalities (e.g., the so-called endowment effect, under which people value items they own more than they’d be willing to pay to acquire those same items if they didn’t own them). 

 I’ve been interested in behavioral economics since I took Cass Sunstein’s “Elements of the Law” course as a first-year law student.  Prof. Sunstein is a leading figure in the “behavioral law and economics” movement, which advocates structuring laws and regulations to account for the various irrationalities purportedly revealed by behavioral economics.  Most famously, behavioral L&E calls for the imposition of default rules that “nudge” humans toward outcomes they’d likely choose but for the irrationalities and myopia with which they are beset.

 I’ve long been somewhat suspicious of the behavioral L&E project.  As I once explained in a short response essay entitled Two Mistakes Behavioralists Make,  I suspect that behavioral L&E types are too quick to reject rational explanations for observed human behavior and that they too hastily advocate a governmental fix for irrational behavior.  Time’s interview with Prof. Kahneman did little to allay those two concerns.

Asked to identify his “favorite experiment that demonstrates our blindness to our own blindness,” Prof. Kahneman responded:

It’s one someone else did.  During [the ’90s] when there was terrorist activity in Thailand, people were asked how much they’d pay for a travel-insurance policy that pays $100,000 in case of death for any reason.  Others were asked how much they’d pay for a policy that pays $100,000 for death in a terrorist act.  And people will pay more for the second, even though it’s less likely.

 This answer pattern is admittedly strange.  Since death from a terrorist attack is, a fortiori, less likely than death from any cause, it makes no sense to pay the same amount for the two insurance policies; the “regardless of cause” life insurance policy should command a far higher price.  So maybe people are wildly irrational in comparing risks and the value of risk mitigation measures.

 Or maybe, as boundedly rational (but not systematically irrational) beings, they just don’t want to waste effort answering silly, hypothetical questions about the maximum amount they’d pay for stuff.  I remember exercises in Prof. Sunstein’s class in which we were split into groups and asked to state either how much we’d pay to obtain a certain object or, assuming we owned the object, how much we’d demand as a sales price.  I distinctly recall thinking how artificial the question was.  Given the low stakes of the exercise, I quickly wrote down some number and returned to thinking about what I would have for lunch, what was going to be on Sunstein’s exam, and whether I had adequately prepared for my next class.  I suspect my classmates did as well.  Was it not fully rational for us to conserve our limited mental resources by giving quick, thoughtless answers to wholly hypothetical, zero-stakes questions?

If so, then there are two possible reasons for subjects’ strange answers to the terrorism insurance questions Kahneman cites:  Subjects could be wildly irrational with respect to risk assessment and the value of protective measures, or they might rationally choose to give hasty answers to silly questions that don’t matter.  What we need is some way to choose between these irrational and rational accounts of the answer pattern.

Perhaps the best thing to do would be to examine people’s revealed preferences by looking at what they actually do when they’re spending money to protect against risk.  If Kahneman’s explanation for subjects’ strange answers were sound, we’d see people paying hefty premiums for terrorism insurance.  Profit-seeking insurance companies, in turn, would scramble to create and market such risk protection, realizing that they could charge irrational consumers far more than their expected liabilities.  But we don’t see this sort of thing.

That suggests that the alternative, “rational” (or at least not systematically irrational) account is the more compelling story:  Subjects pestered with questions about how much hypothetical money they’d spend on hypothetical insurance products decide not to invest too much in the decision and just spit out an answer.  As we all learn as kids, you a ask a silly question, you get a silly answer.

So again we see the behavioralist tendency to discount the rational account too quickly.  But what about the second common behavioralist mistake (i.e., hastily jumping from an observation about human irrationality to the conclusion that a governmental fix is warranted)?  On that issue, consider this portion of the interview:

Time:  You endorse a kind of libertarian paternalism that gives people freedom of choice but frames the choice so they are nudged toward the option that’s better for them.  Are you worried that experts will misuse that?

Kahneman:  What psychology and behavioral economics have shown is that people don’t think very carefully.  They’re influenced by all sorts of superficial things in their decisionmaking, and they procrastinate and don’t read the small print.  You’ve got to create situations so they’ll make better decisions for themselves.

Could Prof. Kahneman have been more evasive?  The question was about an obvious downside of governmental intervention to correct for systematic irrationalities, but Prof. Kahneman, channeling Herman “9-9-9” Cain, just ignored it and repeated his affirmative case.  This is a serious problem for the behavioral L&E crowd:  They think they’re done once they convince you that humans exhibit some irrationalities.  But they’re not.  Just as one may believe in anthropogenic global warming and still oppose efforts to combat it on cost-benefit grounds, one may be skeptical of a nudge strategy even if one believes that humans may, in fact, exhibit some systematic irrationalities.  Individual free choice may have its limits, but governmental decisionmaking (executed by self-serving humans whose own rationality is limited) may amount to a cure that’s worse than the disease.

Readers interested in the promise and limitations of behavioral law and economics should check out TOTM’s all-star Free to Choose Symposium.

 

There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

Others have linked to this, but its really a fantastic video of a discussion between Justin Wolfers and Robert Frank discussing happiness and economic growth.

Daniel Kahnemann and co-authors discuss, in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review (HT: Brian McCann), various strategies for debiasing individual decisions that impact firm performance.  Much of the advice boils down to more conscious deliberation about decisions, incorporating awareness that individuals can be biased into firm-level decisions, and subjecting decisions to more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.  The authors discuss a handful of examples with executives contemplating this or that decision (a pricing change, a large capital outlay, and a major acquisition) and walk through how thinking harder about recognizing biases of individuals responsible for these decisions or recommendations might be identified and nipped in the bud before a costly error occurs.

Luckily for our HBS heroes they are able to catch these potential decision-making errors in time and correct them:

But in the end, Bob, Lisa, and Devesh all did, and averted serious problems as a result. Bob resisted the temptation to implement the price cut his team was clamoring for at the risk of destroying profitability and triggering a price war. Instead, he challenged the team to propose an alternative, and eventually successful, marketing plan. Lisa refused to approve an investment that, as she discovered, aimed to justify and prop up earlier sunk-cost investments in the same business. Her team later proposed an investment in a new technology that would leapfrog the competition. Finally, Devesh signed off on the deal his team was proposing, but not before additional due diligence had uncovered issues that led to a significant reduction in the acquisition price.

The real challenge for executives who want to implement decision quality control is not time or cost. It is the need to build awareness that even highly experienced, superbly competent, and well intentioned managers are fallible. Organizations need to realize that a disciplined decision-making process, not individual genius, is the key to a sound strategy. And they will have to create a culture of open debate in which such processes can flourish.

But what if they didn’t?  Of course, the result would be a costly mistake.  The sanction from the marketplace would provide a significant incentive for firms to act “as-if” rational over time.  As Judd Stone and I have written (forthcoming in the Cardozo Law Review), the firm itself can be expected to play a critical role in this debiasing:

Economic theory provides another reason for skepticism concerning predictable firm irrationality. As Armen Alchian, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, Benjamin Klein, and Oliver Williamson (amongst others) have reiterated for decades, the firm is not merely a heterogeneous hodgepodge of individuals, but an institution constructed to lower transaction costs relative to making use of the price system (the make or buy decision). Firms thereby facilitate specialization, production, and exchange. Firms must react to the full panoply of economic forces and pressures, responding through innovation and competition. To the extent that cognitive biases operate to deprive individuals of the ability to choose rationally, the firm and the market provide effective mechanisms to at least mitigate these biases when they reduce profits.

A critical battleground for behaviorally-based regulatory intervention, including antitrust but not limited to it, is the question of whether agencies and courts on the one hand, or firms on the other, are the least cost avoiders of social costs associated with cognitive bias.  Stone & Wright argue in the antitrust context — contrary to the claims of Commissioner Rosch and other proponents of the behavioral approach — that the claim that individuals are behaviorally biased, and that because firms are made up of individuals, they too must be biased, simply does not provide intellectual support for behavioral regulation.  The most obvious failure is that it lacks the comparative institutional perspective described above.  Most accounts favoring greater implementation of behavioral regulation at the agency level glide over this question.  Not all, of course.

For example, Commissioner Rosch has offered the following response to the “regulators are irrational-too” critique:

My problem with this criticism is that it ignores the fact that, unlike human beings who make decisions in a vacuum, government regulators have the ability to study over time how individuals behave in certain settings (i.e., whether certain default rules provide adequate disclosure to help them make the most informed decision). Thus, if and to the extent that government regulators are mindful of the human failings discussed above, and their rules are preceded by rigorous and objective tests, it is arguable that they are less likely to get things wrong than one would predict. Of course, it may be the case that the concern with behavioral economics is less that regulators are imperfect and more than they are subject to political biases and that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking.24 My response to that is that political capture is everywhere in Washington and that to the extent behavioral economics supports “hands on” regulation it is no more political than neoclassical economics which generally supports “hands off” regulation. On a more serious note, perhaps the best way behavioral economics could counter this critique over the long run would be to identify ways in which the insights from behavioral economics suggest regulation that one would not expect from a “left-wing” legal theory.

For my money, I find this reply altogether unconvincing.  It amounts to the claim that government agencies can be expected to have a comparative advantage over firms in ameliorating the social costs of errors.  The fact that government regulators might “get things wrong” less often than one might predict is besides the point.  The question is, again, comparing the two relevant institutions: firms in the marketplace and government agencies.  “We’re the government and we’re here to help” isn’t much of an answer to the appropriate question here.  There are further problems with this answer.  As I’ve written in response to the Commissioner’s claims:

But seriously, human beings making decisions “in a vacuum?”  It is individuals and firms who are making decisions insulated from market forces that create profit-motive and other incentives to learn about irrationality and get decisions right — not regulators?   The response to the argument that behavioral economics is simply liberalism masquerading as economic thinking (by the way, the argument is not that, it is that antitrust policy based on behavioral economics has not yet proven to be any more than simply interventionism masquerading as economic thinking — but I quibble) is weak.

As calls for behavioral regulation become more common, administrative agencies are built upon its teachings, or even more aggressive claims that behavioral law and economics can claim intellectual victory over rational choice approaches, it is critical to keep the right question in mind so that we do not fall victim to the Nirvana Fallacy.  The right comparative institutional question is whether courts and agencies or the market is better suited to mitigate the social costs of errors.   The external discipline imposed by the market in mitigating decision-making errors is well documented in the economic literature.  The claim that such discipline can replicated, or exceeded, in agencies is an assertion that remains, thus far, in search of empirical support.

With the recent announcement of Sendhil Mullainathan as the Assistant Director for Research at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (WSJ profile here), while one turns to the question of how economic input will be incorporated into agency decision-making.

Luke Froeb makes a nice point about the organization of economists in administrative agencies:

The FTC, which enforces identical consumer protection laws, is organized along functional lines, with attorneys and economists each writing memos to a bipartisan Commission. By design, this results in conflict between the economists and attorneys, which allows benefit-cost analysis done by economists to be heard at the highest levels of the organizations.

Watch the organizational design of the new agency. I suspect it will put economists, if it has them at all, under the supervision of attorneys to reduce their influence, as was done during the FTC early years.

For those more interested in how Mullainathan’s economic views will translate to policy, the correct place to start is in his October 2008 piece (co-authored with Michael Barr and Eldar Shafir) on Behaviorally Informed Financial Services Regulation, which includes discussions of at least ten policy ideas, including:

  • Full information disclosure to debias home mortgage borrowers.
  • A new standard for truth in lending.
  • A “sticky” opt-out home mortgage system.
  • Restructuring the relationship between brokers and borrowers.
  • Using framing and salience to improve credit card disclosures.
  • An opt-out payment plan for credit cards.
  • An opt-out credit card.
  • Regulating of credit card late fees.
  • A tax credit for banks offering safe and affordable accounts.
  • An opt-out bank account for tax refunds.

I also believe, but not with great confidence, that this particular paper was the first to propose the well-known “plain vanilla” requirement.