Posts Tagged ‘Behavioral Economics’

Should you face an extra tax if you drink soda? Eat potato chips? Uncork some wine? Light up a cigarette or joint? Toast yourself in a tanning booth? Many governments think so. Mexico taxes junk food. Berkeley taxes sugary soft drinks. Countless governments tax alcohol and tobacco. Several states tax marijuana. And thanks to health reform, the U.S. government taxes indoor tanning.

One rationale for these taxes is that some personal choices impose costs on other people, what economists call externalities. Your drinking threatens bystanders if you get behind the wheel. Tanning-induced skin cancer drives up health insurance costs.

Another rationale is that people sometimes overlook costs they themselves face, known as internalities. Limited self-control, inattention, or poor information can cause people to eat too many sweets, drink too much alcohol, or take up smoking only to later regret the harm.

In a new paper, Should We Tax Internalities Like Externalities?, I examine whether the internality rationale is as strong as the externality one. Economists have long argued that taxes can be a good way to put a price on externalities like the pollutants causing climate change, but does the same logic apply to internalities?

People who look down on certain activities sometimes think so, with taxes being a way to discourage “sinful” conduct. People who prioritize public health often favor such taxes as a way to encourage healthier behavior. Those who emphasize personal responsibility, by contrast, often oppose such taxes as infringing on individual autonomy—the overreaching “nanny state.”

Economists don’t have much to say about sin. But we do have ideas about balancing health and consumer autonomy. One approach is to focus on efficiency: How do the benefits of a tax compare to its costs? Internalities and externalities both involve people consuming too much because they overlook some costs. Taxes can serve as a proxy for those overlooked costs and reduce consumption to a more beneficial level. In that way, the logic of taxing internalities is identical to that for taxing externalities.

But that equivalence comes with a caveat. Internality taxes should be targeted only at harms we overlook. If people recognize the health risks of eating bacon but still choose to do so, there is no efficiency rationale for a tax. Informed consumers have decided the pleasure is worth the risk. Efficiency thus differs sharply from sin and public health views that would tax harmful products regardless of whether consumers appreciate the risks.

Economists often temper cost-benefit comparisons with concerns about the distribution of gains and losses. At first glance, taxes on internalities and externalities generate similar equity concerns. Both target consumption, so both may fall more heavily on poor families, which tend to spend larger shares of their incomes. But there’s another caveat. Internality taxes do not target consumption in general. Instead, they target products whose future costs consumers often overlook. Nearly everyone does that, but it may be more of a problem for people with low incomes. The stress of poverty, for example, can make it more difficult to evaluate the long-term costs of decisions today. As a result, taxes aimed at internalities are more likely to hit low-income families than are those aimed at externalities.

A third, paternalistic perspective focuses on people who overlook harms. Do internality taxes help them? To meet that standard, the benefit consumers get from reducing purchases must exceed their new tax burden. That can be a high hurdle. If consumers only buy a little less, they may end up with small health gains but a large tax bill. That might be a success from an efficiency perspective since the tax revenue ultimately helps someone. But it’s a loss from the perspective of affected consumers.

The economic case for taxing internalities is thus weaker than for taxing externalities. Internality taxes raise greater distributional concerns, and they place a new burden on the people they are intended to help. Internality taxes can still make sense if consumers find it easy to cut back on taxed products (so health gains are large relative to the new tax burden), if overlooked health risks are very large (as with smoking), or if governments rebate revenues to affected consumers. But when those conditions do not hold, we should be skeptical.

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Behavioral “nudges” can increase college enrollment by low-income students, boost health insurance take up, encourage federal workers to save for retirement, cut delinquencies on student loans, reduce vendor fraud, and save paper, according to the first annual report of the White House’s “nudge” unit.

President Obama established the unit—officially known as the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST)—to use insights from psychology, behavioral economics, and other decision sciences to improve federal programs and operations. Those social sciences increasingly appreciate what regular folks have long known: people are imperfect. We procrastinate. We avoid making choices. We get confused and discouraged by complex forms. We forget to do things. We sometimes lack the energy to weigh decisions thoroughly, so we act based on what we think our peers do or how choices are framed. And we sometimes cut corners when we think no one is looking.

Changing how people engage with the choices they face—“nudging” them—can reduce those imperfections and substantially affect their decisions. The SBST is exploring how that insight can improve government activities. To date, it’s completed more than 15 pilots exploring such questions as:

  • Can prompted choice and sending reminders increase service-member participation in employee retirement plans? Yes.
  • Can personalized text messages reduce “summer melt,” the failure to enroll of low-income students accepted to colleges? Yes.
  • Can reminder emails reduce student loan delinquencies? Yes, modestly.
  • Can a simple change to a form reduce vendor low-balling of the fees they owe the government? Yes, a bit.
  • Can redesigning a collection letter increase debt recovery? No, at least not the letter that SBST tested.
  • Can notifying doctors that they are especially high prescribers of controlled substances reduce inappropriate prescriptions in Medicare? No, but SBST is trying new notifications.
  • Can a pop-up box get employees to print double-sided rather than single-sided? Yes.

These examples run the gamut from the life-changing to the almost trivial. But they illustrate a common theme: details matter. Policy debates usually focus on high-level issues. Should health insurance be offered on exchanges? Should student loan repayments be limited as a share of a borrower’s income? But after such issues are settled, their impact depends on how policies are implemented. The nitty-gritty of designing forms, deciding how and when to prompt people, and framing and communicating options really matter.

The SBST’s first year also demonstrates the importance of testing new approaches before rolling them out at large scale. It isn’t enough to recognize that particular nudges can influence people. Where possible, agencies should test different approaches to see how they work in specific circumstances. Letters comparing your behavior to your peers’ may encourage people to conserve electricity and pay their taxes, for example, but as one pilot found, that doesn’t mean that they will get doctors to prescribe fewer opioids.

On Tuesday, President Obama signed an executive order making the SBST a permanent part of the White House and directing government agencies to use behavioral sciences to improve their programs and operations. That move is consistent with a larger, bipartisan effort to bring more evidence to bear on the design and implementation of federal programs. The government shouldn’t operate in the dark when there’s an opportunity to use evidence to make programs more efficient and effective.

That potential comes with responsibility, however. One of the most important lessons from behavioral science is that framing matters. Government nudges are a perfect case in point. I’ve been characterizing the SBST’s efforts as “pilots” and “testing new approaches” to improve government activities. Those words are innocuous or positive. As a recent headline illustrates, however, this effort can also be characterized as “President Obama Orders Behavioral Experiments on American People.” That sounds much more ominous.

That characterization reflects concern about the goals of government nudging and the oversight of experiments. Are they really trying to improve our government and lives? Or are they manipulating us to do whatever Uncle Sam wants?

The most effective response is transparency. Tell the American people about the experiments, their goals, and their results. The SBST deserves good marks on that dimension. Its first report provides a good deal of information about each of the pilot studies, both the successes and the failures. As behavioral approaches spread, the government should build on that transparency to ensure that policymakers, media, and the public have the evidence they need to judge their merits.

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Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen, and Robert Shiller won the Nobel Prize in Economics this morning for their work studying asset prices. In one sense, they are a motley trio: Fama is famous for emphasizing efficient markets, Shiller for emphasizing investor psychology and inefficient markets, and Hansen for high-tech econometric techniques that are used well beyond finance. The unifying theme is their shared interest in understanding the predictability, if any, of asset prices.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences posted an accessible summary of their work. Here’s the intro:

There is no way to predict whether the price of stocks and bonds will go up or down over the next few days or weeks. But it is quite possible to foresee the broad course of the prices of these assets over longer time periods, such as, the next three to five years. These findings, which may seem both surprising and contradictory, were made and analyzed by this year’s Laureates, Eugene Fama, Lars Peter Hansen and Robert Shiller.

Fama, Hansen, and Shiller have developed new methods for studying asset prices and used them in their investigations of detailed data on the prices of stocks, bonds and other assets. Their methods have become standard tools in academic research, and their insights provide guidance for the development of theory as well as for professional investment practice. Although we do not yet fully understand how asset prices are determined, the research of the Laureates has revealed a number of important regularities that are helping us to arrive at better explanations.

The predictability of asset prices is closely related to how markets function, and that’s why researchers are so interested in this question. If markets work well, prices should have very little predictability. This statement may seem paradoxical, but consider the following: suppose investors could predict that a certain stock would increase a lot in value over the next year. Then they would buy the stock immediately, driving up the price until it is so high that the stock is no longer attractive to buy. What remains is an unpredictable price pattern, with random movements that reflect the arrival of news. In technical jargon, prices then follow a “random walk.”

There are, however, reasons why prices may follow somewhat predictable patterns even in a well-functioning market. A key factor is risk. Risky assets are less attractive to investors, so on average, a risky asset will need to deliver a higher return. A higher return for the risky asset means that its price can be predicted to rise faster than for safe assets. To detect market malfunctioning, then, one would need to have an idea of what a reasonable compensation for risk ought to be. The issue of predictability and the issue of normal returns that compensate for risk are intertwined. The three Laureates have shown how to disentangle these issues and analyze them empirically.

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Does your brain freeze when offered too many options? Do you put off repainting your bathroom because you can’t bear to select among fifty shades of white (or, for the more adventurous, grey)?

If so, take heart. A famous experiment by psychologists Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar, published in 2000, suggests that you are not alone. In supermarket tests, they documented what’s known as the Paradox of Choice. Customers offered an array of six new jam varieties were much more likely to buy one than those offered a choice of 24.

That makes no sense in the narrow sense of rationality often used in simple economic models. More choice should always lead to more sales, since the odds are greater that a shopper will find something they want. But it didn’t. On those days, in those supermarkets, with those jams, more choice meant less buying.

This result resonates with many people. I certainly behave that way occasionally. With limited time and cognitive energy, I sometimes avoid or defer choices that I don’t absolutely need to make … like buying a new jam. Making decisions is hard. Just as consumers have financial budget constraints, so too do we have decision-making budget constraints.

Today’s TED Blog provides links and, naturally, videos for a series of studies documenting similar challenges of choice, from retirement planning to health care to spaghetti sauce. All well worth a view.

But how general are these results? Perhaps not as much as we’d think from the TED talks. A few years ago, Tim Harford, the Financial Times’ Undercover Economist, noted that some subsequent studies in the jam tradition failed to find this effect:

It is hard to find much evidence that retailers are ferociously simplifying their offerings in an effort to boost sales. Starbucks boasts about its “87,000 drink combinations”; supermarkets are packed with options. This suggests that “choice demotivates” is not a universal human truth, but an effect that emerges under special circumstances.

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.”

In short, the Paradox of Choice is experiencing the infamous Decline Effect. As Jonah Lehrer noted in the New Yorker in late 2010, sometimes what seems to be scientific truth “wears off” over time. And not just in “soft” sciences like the intersection of psychology and economics, but in biology and medicine as well.

Some of that decline reflects selection pressures in research and publishing … and invitations to give TED talks. It’s easy to get a paper published if it documents a new a paradox or anomaly. Only after that claim has gained some mindshare does the marketplace then open to research showing null results of no paradox.

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In Sunday’s New York Times, Richard Thaler laments that “as a general rule, the United States government is run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists.”

That makes for better policy than a tyranny of lawyers alone. But it certainly isn’t enough. Policy is ultimately about changing the way people behave. And to do that, you need to understand more than just economics (as an increasing number of economists, Thaler foremost among them, already recognize).

Thaler thus makes two important suggestions: First, he argues that behavioral scientists deserve a greater formal role in the policy process, perhaps even a Council of Behavioral Science Advisers that would advise the White House in parallel with the Council of Economic Advisers. Second, he urges government to engage in more experimentation so it can learn just what policy choices best drive behavior, and how.

As an example, he cites the efforts of Britain’s Behavioral Insights Team, which was created when David Cameron’s coalition government came to office in 2010.

As its name implies, the team (which he advises) works with government agencies to explore how behavioral insights can make policy more effective. Tax compliance is one example.

Each year, Britain sends letters to certain taxpayers—primarily small businesses and individuals with non-wage income—directing them to make appropriate tax payments within six weeks. If they fail to do so, the government follows up with more costly measures. Enter the Behavioral Insights Team:

The tax collection authority wondered whether this letter might be improved. Indeed, it could.

The winning recipe comes from Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and author of the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”

People are more likely to comply with a social norm if they know that most other people comply, Mr. Cialdini has found. (Seeing other dog owners carrying plastic bags encourages others to do so as well.) This insight suggests that adding a statement to the letter that a vast majority of taxpayers pay their taxes on time could encourage others to comply. Studies showed that it would be even better to cite local data, too

Letters using various messages were sent to 140,000 taxpayers in a randomized trial. As the theory predicted, referring to the social norm of a particular area (perhaps, “9 out of 10 people in Exeter pay their taxes on time”) gave the best results: a 15-percentage-point increase in the number of people who paid before the six-week deadline, compared with results from the old-style letter, which was used as a control condition.

Rewriting the letter thus materially improved tax compliance. That’s an important insight, and I hope it scales if and when Britain’s tax authority applies it more broadly.

But there’s a second lesson as well: the benefit of running policy experiments. Policymakers have no lack for theories about how people will respond to various policy changes. What they often do lack, however, is evidence about which theory is correct or how big the potential effects are. Governments on both sides of the Atlantic should look for opportunities to run such controlled experiments so that, to paraphrase Thaler, evidence-based policies can be based on actual evidence.

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Jared would be proud of me. Whenever I grab lunch to eat in my office, I head over to Subway for a six-inch Veggie Delite with provolone. Just 280 calories. Yum.

Depending on my mood and workload, I usually gobble down my Subway lunch between 12:15 and 1:00pm.

On Monday, though, I started eating at 11:22.

Like any good economist, I asked myself why. What inspired me to eat an hour early? Did I face some new incentive or new constraint that caused me to eat sooner?

No, I didn’t. Monday was a normal day. No new incentives, no new constraints, no other changes.

Except for one other thing: I brought lunch from home. Two slices of leftover BBQ chicken pizza. Also yum.

Small slices - this pizza will go far

If you are a well-trained neoclassical economist, your initial inclination will be to search for a subtle link between these facts. Perhaps cold pizza tastes better at 11:22 than an hour later. But that’s not true. Perhaps I ate early because I saved on travel time to Subway. No dice; Subway is only 90 seconds away.

Perhaps these facts are unrelated, a mere happenstance. No again. From long experience I can tell you that I always eat lunch earlier when I bring it from home than when I get it at Subway. It’s a law of nature. Indeed, I have sometimes eaten lunch as early as 10:30 on days I brought it to work with me. This is particularly likely if I put the lunch in my desk, rather than in the refrigerator down the hall.

The explanation for this behavior is, of course, psychological or, in the lingo of economics, behavioral. My lizard brain excels at knowing when food is near. And in getting me to eat it. Millions of years of natural selection didn’t favor creatures that wait an extra hour or two before they grab lunch. If the food is at hand, eat it now.

So every time I bring lunch to work, I set off a battle of wills. My rational, patient, busy self who likes to eat around 12:30, and my primordial brain that wants to eat when the eating is good.

That old brain has, if you will, the upper hand. It knows how to get what it wants. All it needs to do is remind me that food is near. I often feel as though lunch is calling to me from my desk drawer or, slightly more faintly, from the refrigerator. But that’s really the lizard brain doing its thing.

Ignoring that voice takes willpower. But that saps the mental energy I need to focus on my work. To shut my lizard brain up, I have only one choice – to get lunch over with. So on Monday I happily started in on my six slices of pizza at 11:22, washed them down with some iced green tea, and got back to work.

Perfectly rational behavior, I should note, given my urges, yet irrational as well measured against my “real” eating preferences. So it goes in the battle between our inner selves.

But wait. Didn’t I say I brought two slices of BBQ chicken pizza from home? How did I end up eating six?

Don’t worry, I didn’t steal a co-worker’s pizza from the refrigerator (if such thefts are a problem for you, please see this post).

Instead, I played along with another feature of my lizard brain. Eating six slices of pizza is much more filling than eating two. So I divided each of the two large pizza slices into three smaller ones. I then got to enjoy eating six slices, not just two.

I realize that sounds kind of insane. My rational, neoclassical side agrees. But it works. Perfectly rational given my urges, yet irrational as well. Such is life.

Note: Pizza photo from Chocolate on my Cranium.

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On January 1, Washington DC introduced a 5-cent tax on disposable shopping bags at grocery, drug, convenience, and liquor stores. The fee had two goals: to reduce the number of bags, in particular plastic ones, that end up blighting the landscape and to raise funds for cleaning up the Anacostia River.

The fee appears to be succeeding on both counts, but not equally so. As Sara Murray and Sudeep Reddy report over at the Wall Street Journal, shoppers have cut back on bag use more than anticipated; as a result revenues are running below expectations:

[T]he city estimated that [bag use] would decline by 50% in the first year after the tax was imposed. …. [A]n informal survey of corporate headquarters for grocery stores and pharmacies with dozens of locations in the city estimated a reduction of 60% or more in the number of bags handed out. … Through the end of July, the city collected more than $1.1 million from the bag fee and small donations. At that rate, receipts are likely to fall short of the expected $3.6 million in the first year.

I’ve witnessed the sharp decline in bag use during my daily lunch run. Last year, the Subway folks would automatically put your sandwich and a napkin in a plastic bag. Now they ask if you want one. I always decline, as do most other customers.

Why has there been such a strong reaction to a nickel fee? I think it’s a combination of two factors.

  • The first is a traditional microeconomic explanation: there are often good substitutes for a disposable shopping bag. For example, I find it just as easy to carry the wrapped sandwich as to carry the old Subway bag. And if I buy some dental floss at CVS, I can just pop it in my pocket for the trip home. So even a relatively small fee can get results.
  • The second is a behavioral explanation: people act weird when things are free–they acquire things without really thinking about it. If you start charging a price–and thus change the default from “here’s your bag” to “do you want a bag?”–you can witness large responses.

P.S. As noted in a previous post on the bag fee, Arthur Cecil Pigou is the father of environmental taxes.

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