Update from Day 1, Beh Econ

Teaching undergraduates is a whole lot of fun, because generally speaking, their curiosity hasn’t been completely killed just yet. And this seems to be true with the people who have chosen to attend the behavioral economics workshop as well – they’ve (hopefully voluntarily) chosen to spend their afternoons attending a workshop over the course of every workday this week. Catch ’em young!

We kickstarted things yesterday by speaking about ways and means to think about microeconomics in a rather conventional sense. I chose to not bore them to death by talking about utility functions and all of that, firstly because it is the worst way on the planet to get people thinking about economics, and secondly because they are all economics students to begin with – the indoctrination has been done by their colleges already.

I spoke instead about the Choices, Costs, Incentives and Horizons framework, which I have spoken about earlier on the blog. Within each of these concepts, however, I added a sprinkling of behavioral economics. What, for example, are your choices when confronted with a buffet spread?

And how long before you realize, if at all, that not eating it is also a choice? Sometimes, being presented with a choice to consume blinds us to the option of not doing so – which explains why checkout counters at supermarkets tend to have chewing gum on sale.

When it comes to costs, we spoke about opportunity costs and how it is often misunderstood – the people attending the workshop are paying me the fees of the program, plus they are paying fifteen hours of their time. Fifteen hours that they could have spent doing something else.

In addition, we spoke about sunk costs. My favorite example is of how I and my wife were finally able to go out for a movie together after the birth of our daughter – and we ended up watching Happy New Year. And yet, even though the movie was tripe of exceptional quality, we chose to sit through the whole thing. Neither of us enjoyed the movie, and by the end, every second was exquisite torture, but we went through the whole experience. This after I’ve been teaching the concept of the sunk cost fallacy for over a decade.

Incentives are both fairly well understood and applied in conventional economics – but how about negative incentives? Rather than reward yourself with a nice shirt if you lose weight, how about allowing a friend of yours to post a picture of you on Facebook where the paunch is especially noticeable? Which is likelier to be more effective?

Finally, horizons: exercise today evening, or finish an episode of your favorite series on Netflix? We tend to go for short term pleasure over long term gains – and that is to our detriment in the long run. But our brain, unfortunately, is not trained to think about long term consequences.

Finally, we spoke a little bit about signaling and it’s importance to us. That’s a topic deserving of a separate blog post entirely, but I will ask you guys a question I asked everybody in class:

Imagine you are able to attend the best college in the world, and are able to handpick the people who will teach you whatever courses you want. The ideal education, structured just the way you want it. The only problem is, you won’t get a degree at the end of it. Or, you could get, right here and now, a degree of your choice from whichever college you like – but you will not be able to attend a single class. Which of these options would you pick?

The question is based, of course, on a question that Bryan Caplan asks in his excellent book: The Case Against Education. Let me know your answer, I am genuinely interested.

Finally, we spoke about Kahneman’s “fast and slow” thinking. How and why it evolved the way it did, why it may have been of help in the fast, but isn’t much use in the world we live in today.

It was an exceptionally fun session, and hopefully it will continue in a similar vein for the rest of the week.

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