In our search for universal truths we should bear in mind the importance of the context
Nobel prizes don’t typically cause much commotion outside their respective scientific domains. Occasionally though, something about the award resonates more widely, perhaps because some people in the media believe it is of particular interest to their readers, viewers or listeners.
So it was when Richard Thaler was awarded the prize for economics on 9 October. Only people who were on a different planet last week will be unaware that Professor Thaler is a behavioural economist. Pretty much every self-respecting newspaper and news programme around the world ran a profile of the man. And local experts were wheeled out to explain what behavioural economics is all about, with stories of (mostly) boosted retirement savings and healthier eating.
You may have been left with the idea that there has been a revolution in the staid old dismal science of Economics. But we should keep a sense of proportion. Thaler himself is rather modest about the status of his niche. At the end of Misbehaving, his very readable autobiography, he sees Behavioural Economics eventually disappear: “All economics will be as behavioural as it needs to be.”
Yet that didn’t stop (and probably won’t stop for a long time) semi-informed journalists going on about the quasi miraculous insights of behavioural economics that have the potential to transform our lives and our businesses. Watch out for articles the title of which consists of a claim and the phrase “according to behavioural economics”. Be critical of what they proclaim. Better still: just skip them. Such headlines are rarely the sign of a nuanced discussion.
A bit of a crisis
Uncritical treatment of behavioural economics (and more general behavioural science) findings is not confined to the popular press, though. One of the most widely discussed instances is that of the so called priming effect, referring to the phenomenon in which people’s behaviour is influenced by subconscious cues.
In 1996, John Bargh, a psychologist (then) at New York University, and colleagues conducted an experiment in which they purported to activate an ‘elderly stereotype’ in a group of…