An (accidental) behavioural economist takes a break

A collection of vignettes illustrating the quirky (but not necessarily irrational) behaviour and decision-making of us human beings (primarily the author’s)

Koen Smets

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Taking some time off work changes one’s focus and perspective, but some thought processes just keep on running. If observing and seeking to understand human behaviour is your stock in trade, a holiday can be a rich seam of interesting and intriguing sightings. Here this spring’s collection.

Our destination was Cornwall this time, a stone’s throw from the southwestern extremity of mainland UK, Land’s End. That is a long drive from the Midlands where we live, and we were hoping to leave quite early so we would get there in good time to unload the car and get our provisions without needing to hurry.

But there was an unexpected fly in the ointment. The day before our departure, my phone battery had died (it had been walking on its last legs for a good while, but you know how it goes — there is never a good time to have it replaced). Among the worst possible times, though, is surely the morning you want to leave on time for a six-hour drive. Overnight on the charger, the battery appeared to have come to life again, but could it be trusted? I had a choice to make: leave later so I could get it changed, or leave on schedule but risk a week with a phone that didn’t hold its charge and that might actually die. Hmm…

Two utilities

Many people, including yours truly, can get a bit stressed about leaving later than planned. Understandable when you risk missing a train or a plane, but is it really that big an issue when it is just a drive to one’s final destination? Delaying our departure certainly felt very immediate and salient, while the potential problem of a failing phone felt remote and uncertain.

It reminded me of a paper by Adam Oliver, a behavioural economist at the London School of Economics, in which he contrasts remembered utility (how we recall it after the event) with decision utility (how we anticipate it at the point of decision). How did the utility of leaving on time (and arriving on time) compare with that of having a new battery in my…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius