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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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