“As a social psychologist, I have long been amused by economists and their curiously delusional notion of the ‘rational man.’” writes Carol Tavris. “Rational? Where do these folks live?”
In a review of behavioral economist Richard Thaler’s new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, Tavris notes how economists are slowly beginning to see — or, one could argue, finally returning to the notion — that the discipline ought treat man as more than a mere robot or calculator.
“Researchers in this field are making up for lost time,” Tavris continues, “or perhaps realizing that they are social psychologists after all.”
As human beings who arrogantly and often wrongly consider ourselves “sapiens,” we simply don’t match the model of human behavior favored by economists, one that “replaces homo sapiens” (whom Mr. Thaler calls Humans) with “a fictional creature called homo economicus” (whom he calls Econ). “Econs do not have passions; they are cold-blooded optimizers,” he says. “Compared to this fictional world of Econs, Humans do a lot of misbehaving”—thus the book’s title.
The problem, Mr. Thaler argues, is that although economists “hold a virtual monopoly” on giving policy advice, the very premises on which that advice rests are deeply flawed. That is why “economic models make a lot of bad predictions”: some small and trivial, some monumental and devastating. “It is time to stop making excuses,” he admonishes his colleagues. Mr. Thaler calls for an “enriched approach to doing economic research, one that acknowledges the existence and relevance of Humans.” By injecting economics with “good psychology and other social sciences” and by including real people in economic theory, economists will improve predictions of human behavior, make better financial and marketing decisions, and create a field that is “more interesting and more fun than regular economics.” In that way, Mr. Thaler believes, economists will finally produce an “un-dismal science.”