Category Archives: Behavioural Economics

100k Challenge on a Concept2 indoor rower

Although not technically Economics you could say it does relate to Behavioural Economics and Happiness – the utility of completing a 100k row after 3 months and over 800k’s of training. The marginal utility of the last 5k’s was very high

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Starting at 5.30am on Friday 10th May, myself and Jim Potts (Director of Sport at King’s College) rowed 100km each on a Concept2 rower – Jim 8 hours 10 minutes, myself 8 hours 15 minutes. The idea behind the challenge was to raise awareness for youth mental health issues and to raise much needed funds for the Key To Life Charitable Trust.

Assisting us in achieving 100km, we managed to persuade a crew of 15 other staff members and parents who sat along side us and row 100 minutes each in relay. Many thanks to:

Kris Brewin, Ged Leicester, Udi and Marcel Delport, Onasai Auvaa, Daryl Williams, Daniel Mitchell, John Payne, Matt Cowie, Yvette and Richard Hall, Jonathan Ogg, Matt Tooman, Brendan Boreham and Sarah Couillault. Thanks also to all the students and teachers who dropped by during the day – it definitely helped us through.

Below is a photo from the day – Jim is on the extreme left and I am on the lighter coloured Concept2 rowing machine.

You can still donate – see link below:

https://givealittle.co.nz/fundraiser/the-100-challenge

China and the Easterlin Paradox

I have blogged before on the Easterlin Paradox and was interested to read about the relationship between economic growth and happiness. In the mid 1970s Richard Easterlin drew attention to studies that showed that, although successive generations are usually more affluent that their parents or grandparents, people seemed to be no happier with their lives. It is an interesting paradox to study when you are writing about measuring economic welfare and the standard of living.

What is the Easterlin Paradox?

  1. Within a society, rich people tend to be much happier than poor people.
  2. But, rich societies tend not to be happier than poor societies (or not by much).
  3. As countries get richer, they do not get happier. Easterlin argued that life satisfaction does rise with average incomes but only up to a point. One of Easterlin’s conclusions was that relative income can weigh heavily on people’s minds.

GDP growth is generally held as the most reliable predictor of a country’s level of happiness but in China GDP has increased 5 fold over the last 20 years but the level of well-being is less that in 1990. The levels of well-being bottomed out in the period of 2000-2005 and although have recovered they are not a level to that of 1990 – levels of happiness were high for then a poor country. This was similar to Russia before its transition where high levels of subjective well-being were reported.

Growth not a reliable indicator of happiness in China

Chinese level of happiness was highest in the 1990’s In the days of the “iron rice bowl system” – Chinese term used to refer to an occupation with guaranteed job security, as well as steady income and benefits. So it transpires that GDP growth in China was highest when happiness levels were falling. In fact, none of the six predictors used in the World Happiness Reports prove to be reliable predictors in China as there was little or no correlation between happiness and the six predictors- see below:

  1. GDP per capita,
  2. healthy years of life expectancy,
  3. social support (defined as having somebody to rely on in times of trouble),
  4. trust (defined as perceived absence of corruption in government and business),
  5. perceived freedom to make life deci-sions,
  6. generosity (defined as giving to charity)

The two main factors explaining China’s trajectory in happiness levels are unemployment and the social safety net. Unemployment rose sharply after 1990, reaching its peak in 2000–2005—the trough of China’s happiness—and has since declined moderately, as happiness levels have risen moderately. The level of unemployment is mirrored by the relative coverage of the social safety net over the same time period.

It seems that the restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOE) has had the most profound effect on the happiness of Chinese people. This mirrors developments in Eastern European countries. In addition to unemployment rates and the social safety net, education and age are also important factors in determining Chinese people’s happiness over the period. Levels of education and of happiness are indeed linked; not only does a college education provide access to better job opportunities, but it also makes one more adaptable to changing circumstances.

Source:
Chinese Discourses on Happiness (2018) Edited by Gerda Wielander and Derek Hird

Hyperinflation – can be controlled with a different government.

Venezuela has been in the news for sometime with its economy spiralling out of control with the inflation rate last year at 100,000% – doubling roughly once a month. The occurrence of hyperinflation in economies has become more common with governments now printing money rather than that money being backed by the amount of gold that they held – gold standard. Because the gold supply is quite inelastic, being on the gold standard would theoretically stop government overspending and keep inflation under control. The country effectively abandoned the gold standard in 1933, and completely severed the link between the dollar and gold in 1971 – this was around the time of the Vietnam War.

The more recent hyperinflation in Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Argentina etc have come about through government’s not been able to control the printing presses and succumbing to the desire to stay in power at the expense of crippling the economy. Huge fiscal deficits and excessive borrowing are the common denominator here – see flow chart below:

Hyperinflation usually happens amongst chaotic domestic conditions, whether social unrest or that country being involved in conflict – e.g. post war Germany. However as reported by The Economist hyperinflation can occur under more mundane circumstances. For instance in Bolivia’s inflation reached 60,000% which was started by a commodity boom which allowed them to borrow heavily from overseas but once resource prices tumbled there was a significant reduction in government revenue. The  government under Hugo Banzer increased spending to satisfy the voters who supported them in the election and this created further inflationary pressure. In a way this is similar to the Venezuela experience with high oil prices generating significant revenue for the government but once the oil prices fell the printing presses started to work overtime. And once inflation starts to accelerate Inflationary expectations kick in and then it becomes very difficult to control. However these inflationary expectations could reflect the lack of seriousness of government policy to rectify the problem as a change of government which is focused on prices can end hyperinflation in weeks. This reflects the trust in the incoming regime and was true of Bolivia (see video below).  Here the incoming government under Gonzalo (Goni) Sánchez de Lozada were serious about the ravages of inflation and to deal with it  didn’t use highly sophisticated economic theory.  See below:

  • Government spending was slashed
  • Price controls were scrapped
  • Import tariffs were cut
  • Government budgets were balanced.
  • No borrowing from the Central Bank

As Jeff Sachs – advisor to the Bolivian government –  said:

“All this gradualist stuff just doesn’t work. When it really gets out of control you’ve got to stop it, like in medicine. You’ve got to take some radical steps; otherwise your patient is going to die.”

Sources:

The Economist – February 2nd 2019

Commanding Heights – PBS Video

Is Artificial Intelligence like a typical economist?

Diane Coyle wrote a piece on the Project Syndicate website discussing that computers are designed to think like economists. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a faultless version of homo economicus as it is a rationally calculating, logically consistent, ends-orientated agent capable of achieving its desired outcomes with finite computational resources. They are perceived as much more effective than a human in achieving the maximum amount of utility for an individual. Coyle does go onto say that economists today cannot offer a measure of actual utility.

Jeremy Bentham’s famous formulation of utilitarianism is known as the “greatest-happiness principle”. It holds that one must always act so as to produce the greatest aggregate happiness among all sentient beings, within reason. John Stuart Mill’s method of determining the best utility is that a moral agent, when given the choice between two or more actions, ought to choose the action that contributes most to (maximises) the total happiness in the world. However this assumption can produce some unease.

  • Most of those designing algorithms are utilitarians who believe that if a ‘good’ is known, then it can be maximised. Therefore how much thought is there about possible societal impacts of algorithms as they are designed to optimise efficiency and profitability.
  • Algorithms are created using current and future data that is full of bias. The result could be the institutionalisation of biased and damaging decisions with the excuse of, to quote ‘Little Britain’, ‘the computer says no’. see video below.
  • Algorithms make it easy for consumers to decide things and it acts as a short-cut (heuristic). Therefore we become a slave to the algorithm rather than taking more ownership of our thinking /reasoning. Those who  control of the algorithm have an unfair position.

There is no doubt in certain aspects of society AI is extremely useful and can cut down bureaucracy and lead to improved efficiency in everyday life. The real issue extends beyond the use of algorithmic decision-making in corporate and political governance, and strikes at the ethical foundations of our societies. As Coyle points out we need to engage in self-reflection and decide if we really want to encode current social arrangements into the future.

Ireland’s first home win against the All Blacks – Behavioural Economics

You maybe aware that the rugby game this morning (NZ time) between Ireland and the New Zealand All Blacks in Dublin created history. It was the first time that Ireland have beaten the All Blacks on Irish soil. Remember they did beat the ABs in Chicago two years ago.

Image result for ireland v all blacks

Irish supporters, including myself, will take great pleasure in talking about such a result – lets face it we lost it in the last few minutes 5 years ago on Irish soil at Croke Park in Dublin. What all this alludes to is the fact that as part of this entertainment comes without the public paying for it, the public benefits from an externality.

Those who travelled to Dublin (and those local supporters) for the game and will have no doubt spent a significant amount of Euros tonight in the bars and restaurants around town. Nevertheless the satisfaction (utility) derived in Euros from the game would have been much greater than the price they paid for the ticket. This suggest that there is a lot of consumer surplus present – the difference between the price that a consumer WOULD BE WILLING TO PAY, and the price that he or she actually HAS TO PAY. The success of the Irish team will boost merchandise sales and interest for the World Cup next year in Japan but more importantly it has been good for rugby in general with throwing the World Cup wide open. When the All Blacks play overseas there are significant externalities whether it be the revenue generated in hosting the match or the social benefits to society. Furthermore the lead up to the game brings about a sense of delayed gratification (Behavioural Economics). Looking ahead the fact that people have paid for tickets to the World Cup means that they can reap the pleasures of anticipation of being there. Research (Smarter Spending – see previous post) shows that owning material things from expensive homes to luxurious cars turn out to provide less pleasure than holidays, concerts or even witnessing Ireland beating the All Blacks – where were you when Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin? With Ireland’s win national pride increases, along with patriotism and people feeling better about themselves. This is turn brings people together and boosts well-being of the nation. As for the All Blacks they will learn from this defeat as they did against the Springboks earlier in the season. All in all it makes for a great World Cup with supporters experiencing the pleasures of anticipation.

Action bias and penalty kicks – is it best if the goalkeeper does nothing?

Action bias is a situation where we would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing. This has been the case in numerous government elections as the voting population like to see some action from politicians when in some cases the best option is to let the economy run its course. President Nixon (US President 1969-74) was a great one for doing something even though it would have been better to do nothing – I refer to the wage and price controls introduced in 1971 – the controls produced food shortages, as meat disappeared from supermarket shelves and farmers drowned chickens rather than sell them at a loss. So when the economy is doing badly the government maybe tempted to intervene, even if the risks associated with the changes not necessarily outweigh the possible benefits. Furthermore if an economy is doing well policy makers may feel that they shouldn’t do anything even though the changes could improve the economy further.

According to classical assumptions in economics, when a people face decision problems involving uncertainty, they should choose what to do according to their utility from the possible outcomes and the probability distribution of outcomes that follows each possible action. Bar-Eli, Azar, Ritov, Keidar-Levin, & Schein, 2007

In a 2007 study, Michael Bari-Eli at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, analyzed 286 professional soccer penalty kicks. They discovered that goalkeepers almost always jump right or left because the norm is to jump — a preference for action (”action bias”). The goalkeepers jumped to the left 49.3% of the time, to the right 44.4% of the time, but stayed in the centre only 6.3% of the time. Analysis revealed that the kicks went to the left 32.2%, to the right 39.2% and to the centre 28.7% of the time. This means that the goalkeepers were much more likely to stop a kick if they had just stayed put – see table below.

The table above suggests that the decisions taken by the kicker and goalkeeper are made roughly simultaneously. The fact that the directions of the kick and the jump match in 43% of kicks rather than in 0% or 100% of the kicks suggests that neither kicker nor goalkeeper can clearly observe what the other chose when choosing their action.

A goalkeepers’ decision making.

In order to suggest a best option for goalkeepers it is necessary to examine the probability of stopping the ball following each combination of kick and jump directions. The table below presents the average saving chances using the formula

Number of penalty kicks saved ÷ Number of penalty kicks x 100

Jumping left = 20 ÷ 141 x 100 = 14.2%
Staying Centre = 6 ÷ 18 x 100 = 33.3%
Jumping right = 16 ÷ 127 x 100 = 12.6%

The research conclusions state that goalkeepers jump to the right or the left during penalty kicks more than they should. In analysing the 286 kicks Bar-Eli et al show that while the utility-maximising behaviour for goalkeepers is to stay in the goal’s centre during the kick, in 93.7% of the kicks the goalkeepers chose to jump to their right or left. This non-optimal behaviour suggests that a bias in goalkeeper’ decision making might be present. The reason that they suggest is ‘action bias’. However you also need to look at the psychological aspects of a goalkeeper. Arsenal and former Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said that he never liked to stay in the centre as it might look to the fans that he wasn’t trying. Although he would be in a good position to save a penalty that was kicked down the centre, he would feel a lot worse if he stayed in the centre and the ball went into the goal either side of him.

Sources:

Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O. H., Ritov, I., Keidar-Levin, Y., & Schein, G. (2007). Action Bias Among Elite Soccer Goalkeepers: The Case of Penalty Kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28(5), 606-621.

An “Action Bias” Can Be Counterproductive

Behavioural Economics – Good Better Best Pricing

I was interested in an article about approaches to pricing – ‘Good, Better, Best’ by Rafi Mohammed from the September – October 2018 Harvard Business Review. Know as G-B-B pricing it involves adding or subtracting product features to create variably priced bundles targeted to customers of varying economic means or those who value features differently. This model is very evident with many products and services – for instance the airline industry:

  • Good – the standard economy fare
  • Better – premium economy with extra leg-room
  • Best – business class with extravagant meals and a bed

However with all three tickets the basic service is the same – e.g. flying a passenger from Auckland to Doha. Below is another example with an oil change. Some G-B-B strategies are more general responses to consumer psychology.

Image result for good better best pricing

In giving consumers too much choice a lot will feel overwhelmed and confused – the paradox of choice which Barry Schwartz studied in his book of the same name. However a G-B-B plan helps consumers focus on particular aspects of each option and direct them to consider the incremental value and spending. With three choices consumers tend to decide whether to buy the product or not and they typically see the ‘Good’ as the default option which makes them amenable to an upgrade.

One of the key insights to behavioural pricing is that items that don’t sell can change what does. The William-Sonoma chain once offered a fancy bread maker for $279. They later added a somewhat bigger model, pricing it a $429. The $429 model was a flop as unless you require it for major catering purposes. However the $279 model nearly doubled. Clearly, they were people charmed by the idea of a quality breadmaker from William-Sonoma. The only thing that stopped them from buying was the price. It seemed high at $279. Once the store added the $429 model, the $279 machine was no longer seen as such an extravagance. It could be rationalised as a useful product that did nearly everything the the $429 model did, at a bargain price. Adding another price point, even though hardly anyone chose it, increased the price consumers were willing to pay for a breadmaker. William-Sonoma didn’t plan things this way but since then retailers have gotten wise to contrast effects of prices. Tversky and Simonson (1992) identified two rules of manipulative retail pricing.

1. Extremeness aversion – this means that when consumers are uncertain, they shy away form the most expensive item offered or the least expensive: the highest quality or the lowest quality; the biggest or the smallest. Most favour something in the middle therefore the way to sell $800 shoes is to display some $1,200 shoes next to them. The same product may appear attractive on a background of less attractive alternatives and unattractive on a background of more attractive alternatives.

2. Trade-off contrast – go into a leather a leather goods store and there will be dozens of handbags, none of them indisputably the best by anyone’s standards. One bag can be:

  • more practical,
  • more stylish,
  • more colourful
  • less expensive

The customer being loss averse is uncomfortable with the abundance of choice and fear that she will pick the wrong bag. The trade-off contrast rule says when item X is clearly better than an inferior choice Y, consumers tend to buy X – even when there are many other choices and it’s impossible to say whether X is the best choice of all. Just the fact that X is better than Y is a selling point, and it carries more weight than it reasonably should. Apparently the shopper tries to reduce anxiety by choosing an item that can be justified – she is able to talk herself into X because it’s so much better than Y.

G-B-B pricing structure

The G-B-B pricing structure for most companies will be to identify a product which is Better and subtract features to create Good and add features to create Best.

Better – features = Good
Better + features = Best

As mentioned earlier too much choice is risky. Research by Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper which offered samples of jam to shoppers in an upscale grocery store – results:

  • When offered 6 flavours, 30% of tasters made a purchase.
  • When offered 24 flavours 3% of tasters made a purchase.

Before a company can begin to identify the potential benefits of G-B-B it must address 3 questions:

1. Does the feature have mass appeal or low appeal?
2. How would adding or subtracting it affect the cost of producing the good or offering the service?
3. And is it a “fence” attribute—one that constitutes a barrier preventing existing customers from crossing over to something cheaper?

Many retailers focus on the Best option as they see this as the greatest opportunity to generate revenue but fence attributes is an area that is the most challenging task to G-B-B because of the risks of existing customers moving to lower priced options and thereby reducing sales. Fence attributes prevent this, by making the downgrade a difficult, unpleasant, or painful choice. For instance, when the New York Times launched its digital subscriptions, in 2011, it moved to a G-B-B model in which the physical paper (which many subscribers were loath to discontinue, and which is costly to print and deliver) served as a fence attribute. That fence is effective enough to support a hefty price differential: An all-access digital subscription currently costs $324 a year, whereas adding print delivery brings the price to $481 and up, depending on location.

G-B-B and The Economist subscription

I recently received a letter from The Economist (see image below) concerning the renewal of my subscription. Could the same pricing system of the New York Times be applied here? Does the print package acts as the fence attribute and is it effective enough to support the price differential? The combination of high appeal and high cost means that if the feature is part of the Better but not the Good offering, relatively few people accustomed to Better (that is, existing customers) will consider Good—but those willing to do without the feature can enjoy a significant discount. 1 year Subscription is:

Good – Digital Package – NZ$460
Better – Print Package – NZ$530
Best – Print + Digital Package – NZ$640

Conclusion
Most companies could implement some form of G-B-B. Every company already offers the equivalent of a Better offering, and even if some firms can’t implement both Good and Best, many could gain new customers, additional revenue, or both by adding either a Good or a Best to their lineup.

Sources:

‘Good, Better, Best’ by Rafi Mohammed. September – October 2018 Harvard Business Review.

Priceless (2010) – William Poundstone

Has banking culture changed since GFC?

Below is an excellent video by Gillian Tett of the FT looking at banking culture. She discusses the ‘flaw’ in Alan Greenspan’s thinking and how culture has been overlooked at the cost to the global economy 10 years on from the financial crisis. By understanding the role of culture in banking, are we more resilient to another crisis now? She also talks of trust in the modern economy and in order to build it you must understand it and how human culture works. And once trust or credit is lost it is very hard to regain.