Yielding to temptation

An introduction to behavioural economics.

One human weakness that we are all familiar with is that we are forever making plans for the future that involve some kind of self-improvement, but later on we renege on these plans and yield to temptation, taking an "easy way out". For example, we plan on going for a run this evening, but then decide to lay back on the couch and watch TV instead; we may go to bed planning to rise at 6am, but when the alarm rings we rapidly hit the snooze button and end up oversleeping. On a more long-term basis, we plan to make regular savings for retirement, but then decide we should spend our money on new furniture for the living room, a new set of golf clubs, and so it goes on. In general we make plans to achieve a larger benefit later, but then change our minds and settle for a smaller benefit sooner.

For a long time, economists have abstracted from such complexities of human decision making. The standard model of economic rationality suggests that we should only change our minds if and when appropriate new information is received. But often the change of mind is not caused by new information. Why humans tend to behave in this way is still a subject of controversy. However, rather than continuing to regard them as an anomaly, economists have begun treating these variations in our behaviour more seriously. Under the label of behavioural economics, new approaches to the study of decision making have been emerging which are catching the imagination of politicians.

Saving for retirement for example is a serious problem for many. Much evidence from the UK and US suggests that a large proportion of people do not save sufficiently for retirement. Various measures that have become known as ‘nudge’ policies are being suggested to address this as an issue of public policy. Unlike traditional regulation by government, nudge policies do not seek to compel us to behave in certain ways, but change what is called the ‘choice architecture’ of the situation, providing incentives for us to act in certain ways. A common nudge policy is to change the default option in a choice situation. Thus, if employers’ pension plans require employees to opt in, there will be a tendency for many to go with the default of remaining outside the scheme. Evidence from the US suggests that the simple measure of reversing this option can substantially increase the number of employees contributing to retirement plans. Furthermore, options can be framed in a way to encourage greater contributions than employees might otherwise make. For example, if people are given 3 options in terms of size of contribution, say £100, £120, and £140 per month, many will choose the middle option. Simply changing the options to £160, £180, and £200 per month automatically increases people’s willingness to contribute, as once again people tend to go for the middle option.

The UK government has taken some of these findings of behavioural economists on board. The 2011 Pensions Act has established default enrollment options which will be implemented in the UK economy over the next six years. A Behavioural Insights Team attached to the Cabinet Office is exploring further applications of nudge policies in other areas such as eating habits or organ donation. However, their effectiveness remains controversial. Many doctors doubt that nudge policies are sufficient to encourage people to change their dietary or smoking habits, and believe that more radical intervention is necessary. Wider debates have focused on the merit and scope of the underlying 'benevolent paternalism' and its implied call for the large scale engineering of choice architectures across the economy. But this does not detract from the fact that the behavioural turn in economics is proving to have a lasting impact on public policy and is rapidly reshaping the economics curriculum taught at universities today.

Nick Wilkinson and Matthias Klaes are the authors of An Introduction to Behavioral Economics, 2nd ed, (Palgrave Macmillan) which will be published in April. A companion blog to the book can be found at http://economicbehavior.wordpress.com/

Decisions, decisions, Getty images.

Nick Wilkinson and Matthias Klaes are the authors of An Introduction to Behavioral Economics, 2nd ed, (Palgrave Macmillan) which will be published in April. A companion blog to the book can be found at http://economicbehavior.wordpress.com/.

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What will the 2017 local elections tell us about the general election?

In her timing of the election, Theresa May is taking a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher's book. 

Local elections are, on the whole, a much better guide to the next general election than anything the polls might do.

In 2012, Kevin Cunningham, then working in Labour’s targeting and analysis team, surprised his colleagues by announcing that they had lost the 2015 election. Despite gaining 823 councillors and taking control of 32 more local authorities, Cunningham explained to colleagues, they hadn’t made anything like the gains necessary for that point in the parliament. Labour duly went on to lose, in defiance of the polls, in 2015.

Matt Singh, the founder of NumberCruncherPolitics, famously called the polling failure wrong, in part because Labour under Ed Miliband had underperformed their supposed poll share in local elections and parliamentary by-elections throughout the parliament.

The pattern in parliamentary by-elections and local elections under Jeremy Corbyn before the European referendum all pointed the same way – a result that was not catastrophically but slightly worse than that secured by Ed Miliband in 2015. Since the referendum, thanks to the popularity of Theresa May, the Conservative poll lead has soared but more importantly, their performance in contests around the country has improved, too.

As regular readers will know, I was under the impression that Labour’s position in the polls had deteriorated during the coup against Corbyn, but much to my surprise, Labour’s vote share remained essentially stagnant during that period. The picture instead has been one of steady deterioration, which has accelerated since the calling of the snap election. So far, voters buy Theresa May’s message that a large majority will help her get a good Brexit deal. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

If the polls are correct, assuming a 2020 election, what we would expect at the local elections would be for Labour to lose around 100 councillors, largely to the benefit of the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives to pick up around 100 seats too, largely to the detriment of Ukip.

But having the local elections just five weeks before the general elections changes things. Basically, what tends to happen in local elections is that the governing party takes a kicking in off-years, when voters treat the contests as a chance to stick two fingers up to the boost. But they do better when local elections are held on the same day as the general election, as voters tend to vote for their preferred governing party and then vote the same way in the elections on the same day.

The Conservatives’ 2015 performance is a handy example of this. David Cameron’s Tories gained 541 councillors that night. In 2014, they lost 236, in 2013 they lost 335, and in 2012 they lost 405. In 2011, an usually good year for the governing party, they actually gained 86, an early warning sign that Miliband was not on course to win, but one obscured because of the massive losses the Liberal Democrats sustained in 2011.

The pattern holds true for Labour governments, too. In 2010, Labour gained 417 councillors, having lost 291 and 331 in Gordon Brown’s first two council elections at the helm. In 2005, with an electoral map which, like this year’s was largely unfavourable to Labour, Tony Blair’s party only lost 114 councillors, in contrast to the losses of 464 councillors (2004), 831 councillors (2003) and 334 councillors (2002).  This holds true all the way back to 1979, the earliest meaningful comparison point thanks to changes to local authorities’ sizes and electorates, where Labour (the governing party) gained council seats after years of losing them.

So here’s the question: what happens when local elections are held in the same year but not the same day as local elections? Do people treat them as an opportunity to kick the government? Or do they vote “down-ticket” as they do when they’re held on the same day?

Before looking at the figures, I expected that they would be inclined to give them a miss. But actually, only the whole, these tend to be higher turnout affairs. In 1983 and 1987, although a general election had not been yet called, speculation that Margaret Thatcher would do so soon was high. In 1987, Labour prepared advertisements and a slogan for a May election. In both contests, voters behaved much more like a general election, not a local election.

The pattern – much to my surprise – holds for 1992, too, when the Conservatives went to the country in April 1992, a month before local elections. The Conservatives gained 303 seats in May 1992.

What does this mean for the coming elections? Well, basically, a good rule of thumb for predicting general elections is to look at local election results, and assume that the government will do a bit better and the opposition parties will do significantly worse.

(To give you an idea: two years into the last parliament, Labour’s projected national vote share after the local elections was 38 per cent. They got 31 per cent. In 1985, Labour’s projected national vote share based on the local elections was 39 per cent, they got 30 per cent. In 2007, the Conservatives projected share of the vote was 40 per cent – they got 36 per cent, a smaller fall, but probably because by 2010 Gordon Brown was more unpopular even than Tony Blair had been by 2007.)

In this instance, however, the evidence suggests that the Tories will do only slightly better and Labour and the Liberal Democrats only slightly worse in June than their local election performances in May. Adjust your sense of  what “a good night” for the various parties is accordingly. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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