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I Get to Pretend That I Am a Scientist for a Day…

… because today the Science journal published a short commentary [subscription required] written by myself and John List, on the topic of behavioral economics. Our piece begins like this:

The discipline of economics is built on the shoulders of the mythical species Homo economicus. Unlike his uncle, Homo sapiens, H. economicus is unswervingly rational, completely selfish, and can effortlessly solve even the most difficult optimization problems. This rational paradigm has served economics well, providing a coherent framework for modeling human behavior. However, a small but vocal movement in economics has sought to dethrone H. economicus, replacing him with someone who acts “more human.” This insurgent branch, commonly referred to as behavioral economics, argues that actual human behavior deviates from the rational model in predictable ways. Incorporating these features into economic models, proponents argue, should improve our ability to explain observed behavior.

But we remain somewhat skeptical:

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing behavioral economics is demonstrating its applicability in the real world. In nearly every instance, the strongest empirical evidence in favor of behavioral anomalies emerges from the lab. Yet, there are many reasons to suspect that these laboratory findings might fail to generalize to real markets. We have recently discussed several factors, ranging from the properties of the situation — such as the nature and extent of scrutiny — to individual expectations and the type of actor involved. For example, the competitive nature of markets encourages individualistic behavior and selects for participants with those tendencies. Compared to lab behavior, therefore, the combination of market forces and experience might lessen the importance of these qualities in everyday markets.