By the Blouin News Business staff

The overselling of behavioral economics

by in U.S..

Shopping For iPhone 5S At Apple's Flagship Store.

Homo economicus or a nudged consumer? Photo Credit: Getty Images/Mary Turner

It’s rare for an Ivory Tower discipline to dazzle Washington, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue. But behavioral economics has been hailed as a policy cure-all in the U.S., the U.K. and beyond.

At stake are complex regulatory ailments, from consumer credit and fuel economy to poverty and public health. Remarkably, the marriage between economics and psychology that explores how behavior influences financial decisions also has become a go-to theory for gamification, targeted mobile ads and other tools to attract eyeballs. Even The Colbert Report has weighed in, calling behavioral economics’ well-known nudging apparatus “Big Mother.”

Yet behavioral economics’ power as a problem-solving miracle might be oversold. A forthcoming paper in the Harvard Law Review by NYU Law School professors Rick Pildes and Ryan Bubb claims that the discipline has led to some ineffectual or harmful policies. Its shortfalls take several forms. One is that behavioral economics creates a new set of failures stemming from an individual’s inability to optimize decision-making. Another is that behavioral economics can be so bogged down in the appearance of preserving choice that choice is stifled. And behavioral economics’ emphasis on disclosure as a means of influencing behavior contradicts its own findings about irrational actors in the markets, including the work that led to Yale economist Robert Shiller’s recent Nobel Prize.

At first glance, the notion almost sounds alarming. How could the widely-embraced darling of once-staunch bureaucrats like Peter Orszag and Cass Sunstein be so gimmicky that it leads to neutral or bad outcomes? And what could be so wrong about a regulation theory that brings together conservatives, liberals, even progressives?

Pildes and Bubb’s meticulous analysis make behavioral economics’ shortcomings crystal clear. Consumer credit is a case in point. Instead of outlawing teaser rates and overdraft protection that might lead to reckless spending, consumers get transparency. Then there are the default rules, such as the “sticky opt-out” mortgage system that the Obama administration championed. Lenders are required to offer consumers a standard contract for a so-called plain vanilla, fixed-rate mortgage, but borrowers can opt for one with stricter disclosure requirements aimed at conveying risks and terms presumably more favorable to lenders.

Behavioral economics is so bogged down in the cloak of choice that options can get stymied.

The consequences of behavioral economics’ foray into consumer credit are still unknown. The “plain-vanilla” contract was cut from Dodd-Frank because of financial industry complaints. But the act directed regulators to define terms of a residential mortgage, which Pildes and Bubb say might lead to exemption from new rules that require securitizers to retain an interest in the mortgage-backed assets they sponsor. The result could be a version of the “sticky opt-out” mortgage system that encourages comparison-shopping and, presumably, choice while allowing lenders to exploit consumer weaknesses.

Behavioral economics’ application to consumer credit is baffling, too, because a central tenet is that humans suffer from “bounded rationality” and “bounded willpower.” They might not know or don’t have the capacity to know what the presumably best decisions are based on a lack of knowledge, and they can’t hold themselves back from making the wrong choices. In other words, humans are flawed and not always pragmatic. They make mistakes in judgment and perception. The policy shift from product regulation to disclosure mandates has exploited the very cognitive limitations laid out by behavioral economics scholars and has not improved consumer credit woes.

Behavioral economics is so bogged down in the cloak of choice that options can get stymied. Take retirement savings. Automatic enrollment began in 2006 with the uncontroversial Pension Protection Act. Orszag, then-director of the Retirement Security Project, and his colleagues had turned to scholarly behavioral literature for applying so-called choice-preserving tools to encourage savings. Workers would opt out of retirement plans, rather than opt in.

The idea was well-meaning. Automatic enrollment would benefit people who otherwise might not allot part of their paycheck for retirement funds, while still preserving choice. But a study of one company found that while more people had retirement savings accounts, they saved less than they would have if they had chosen the plan because the default rate was set too low. Another found that overall retirement savings has fallen. Moreover, these retirement policies are tax incentives to the tune of $72 billion, but every $1 of tax expenditure increases total savings by only one cent. ” Automatic enrollment in retirement savings plans has functioned, in effect, as a poorly-designed system of mandates,” write Pildes and Bubb.

There are times when behavioral economics has been applied and the analysis has been less than rigorous. Hard to believe, but the nuances of how nudges function do not always seem to seriously take into account why people act the way they do. So it’s almost impossible to know whether crucial policy prescriptions that challenge traditional solutions involving decision-making and choice are the way to go.

Paternalism is a concept that has made Americans wary since the revolution. Americans prize self-determination, even when it is expressed in self-destructive ways. The irony of behavioral economics is that it can rein in the very autonomy it seeks to preserve, if quietly, without clear-cut advantages to the social welfare. And what’s the point of paternalism if it doesn’t even get results?

— Jill Priluck. Published with permission of Reuters.