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Not So Dismal After All

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is the last in a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

Pay-what-you-want is a bit of an oxymoron for economists. After all, if you had the choice of how much to pay, wouldn’t you always pick $0? But as we’ve found time and again, people are a lot more complicated than typical economists have assumed.

Case-in-point: in 2007 Radiohead made their album In Rainbows downloadable online for whatever price customers wanted to pay. Precise statistics are hard to come by, but one thing is clear: a lot of people paid a good amount of cash for the album. In fact, it was so successful that other acts have followed suit. Heck, even corporations like Panera have gotten into the act, setting up cafes in St. Louis and Chicago where customers pay what they can for certain menu items. 

What got us curious, though, was trying to answer why people were paying more than $0. In particular we wanted to know what sorts of levers could we pull that would induce people to pay more or pay less in an economic environment like Radiohead’s website? Luckily, right around this time we started working with Disney Research, and they were just as interested in these questions. Read More »



Does Early Education Reduce the Achievement Gap?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

The past 60 years in the U.S. has seen dramatic policy changes to the public-education system. The ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s saw desegregation and affirmative action, and since the ‘80s there have been efforts to increase school funding, the introduction of voucher systems, and the creation of countless charter schools. In between we’ve seen efforts to reduce class sizes, introduce technology into classrooms, improve teacher credentialing, and a massive attempt to leave No Child Left Behind. 

What do we have to show for all this? That’s hard to say. Even though many programs have a high price tag, they were never implemented with an eye towards assessment. The data we do have shows that not much has changed over the past 30 years. The figure attached shows how the racial achievement gap in test scores has persisted for white and black Americans since the late 1970s. 

If you don’t like the breakdown by race, then consider that the high school dropout rate among high-income families in 1972 was 2% and in 2008 it was still at 2%. For low-income families, though? In 1972 it was 14% and in 2008 it was still at 9%. This sort of trend (or lack thereof) is manifested in dozens of measures of academic achievement, all of which suggest that the past 60 years of educational reform has very little to show for itself. Read More »



What Makes People Do What They Do?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

Money is important. For a long time, economists thought that it was the only thing that mattered. And, in fact, if you want people to do what you want, money can be incredibly useful. Out to entice the best workers? Pay more. Want to sell a product? Discount it, a lot. Want to discourage a bad behavior? Impose a monetary fine.

It seemed a little silly to us though (as well as to other behavioral economists doing work back in the 1990s) to think that money was the only thing that mattered. So we set out to learn exactly when and how monetary incentives work. Along the way, we discovered some environments where incentives don’t work at all.  Read More »



How to End (Price) Discrimination

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act was a landmark civil rights bill. It afforded the disabled protections against discrimination that were similar to earlier landmark civil rights bills. In particular, the bill targeted two types of discrimination. One type was the discrimination against the disabled motivated by hatred or disgust. For example, one provision targeted employers that denied employment opportunities to those that truly qualified. Other parts of the bill focused on ensuring a level playing field for the disabled, like one requirement for businesses to make readily achievable retrofits to their businesses to afford the disabled access.

When economists think about the causes of discrimination, they tend to lump them into these two categories. The first is called animus discrimination, which is the type of discrimination we tend to associate with the treatment of African-Americans in the early 20th century. The second is called statistical discrimination, which is discrimination motivated by statistical trends associated with groups. For example, women tend to pay less for auto insurance because they are safer drivers.  Read More »



A Unified Theory of Why Women Earn Less

When it comes to the year 1991, history books will undoubtedly focus on the first Gulf War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but at least domestically, the biggest change was one you probably never heard about: 1991 was the first year that women overtook men in college attainment, a trend that has only gained steam since. Today 37.2% of women between the ages of 25 to 29 have a four-year college degree or higher versus just 29.8% for men.

Yet for all the academic achievement by women, men still earn a higher wage for equivalent jobs and continue to dominate the highest ranks of society. Senior management positions? Only one in five are held by women. Fortune 500 CEOs? Just 4% and fewer than 17% of the seats in Congress are held by women. 

Scholars have long theorized about the reasons why women haven’t made faster progress in breaking through the glass ceiling. Personally, we think that much of it boils down to this: men and women have different preferences for competitiveness, and at least part of the wage gaps we see are a result of men and women responding differently to incentives. Read More »



How Can We Save Ourselves From Ourselves?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

It’s a late-September afternoon in 2009 and the students of Fenger High School on Chicago’s South Side are crossing a vacant concrete lot. Some live in the Altgeld Greens housing project. Others live in a part of Chicago’s rough Roseland neighborhood (also called “The Ville”).  Some of the students from these areas have developed fierce antipathies toward each other, though the groups are more like cliques than gangs.

As the teenagers cross the lot, a fight breaks out. Someone pulls out a cell phone and starts recording a video of 15 to 20 kids fighting. Around a minute into the video, someone discovers a couple of two-by-fours lying in the empty lot. Eugene Riley, sporting a red motorcycle jacket, takes one of the big pieces of wood from a pal and swings it like a baseball bat into the back of 16-year-old honor student Derrion Albert’s head. Read More »



Charity and the Beauty Effect

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part a series adapted from their new  book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten; the post below offers a fuller description of an experiment discussed in that podcast.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in December, 2005, Jeanne, a bright, energetic junior at East Carolina University (ECU), trotted up the walk of a suburban home in Pitt County, N.C. Jeanne wore a shirt emblazoned with the name “ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center.” She also wore a badge with her photograph, name, and solicitation permit number on it. She knocked, and a middle-aged man opened the door. 

“Yes?” he said, eyeing her. 

“Hi,” she said, smiling brightly. “My name is Jeanne. I’m an ECU student visiting Pitt County households today on behalf of the newly formed ECU Natural Hazards Mitigation Research Center. Would you like to make a contribution today?” It’s probably safe to say that the last thing the middle-aged man had on his mind was the possibility of Jeanne being a double agent. Yes, she was really trying to raise money for the center. But she was also part of a bigger experiment involving dozens of college students knocking on the doors of 5,000 households in Pitt County.  Read More »



What Can the Olympics Teach Us About Closing the Achievement Gap?

John List and Uri Gneezy have appeared on our blog many times. This guest post is part of a series adapted from their book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. List also appeared in our recent podcast “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten.”

If you look at two pictures of two athletes: One is beaming, the other doesn’t seem too sure what she’s feeling. Which do you think won the silver? Which the bronze? Easy, right? Silver is better than bronze, so the smiling girl on the right must have won the silver. Which do you think won the silver? Which the bronze? Easy, right? Silver is better than bronze, so the smiling girl on the right must have won the silver. Read More »