Tag Archives: behavioural-economics

Choice Architecture of Organ Donation

The supply of organs suitable for donation is vastly smaller than the demand. To try and increase the pool of potential donors a number of options have been tested:

Redefining death so ‘living’ organs can be taken from donors who have died through brain death (via Link Banana), provide incentives for potential donors, or employ choice architecture to get the results you want.

On the latter (the choice architecture option), Tim Harford provides a concise look at the rise of soft paternalism in politics and why we should be cautious:

For a business, the choice is not straightforward, even if the aim – to maximise profit without alienating customers – is simple. For a government, the decision should be harder still. Goldstein points out that 12 per cent of Germans and 99.98 per cent of Austrians are registered organ donors. Germans have to opt in to the donor scheme, Austrians have to opt out. The implication: few people really have a strong preference as to whether to be an organ donor or not, so they stay where they’re put.

The response to this is not obvious. Perhaps the government should use the default to maximise organ donations. A more cautious approach would be to try to figure out what people would prefer if they could be persuaded to give it some proper thought. One indication comes from research by Goldstein and Eric Johnson: in an experiment on organ donation, people forced to choose one way or the other acted like people who were placed in the donor pool by default. In this particular case, maximising the donor pool and doing what people really want seems to be much the same thing. Other cases will be less clear-cut.

The Economically-(Im)Perfect World of Online Games

Kristian Segerstrale–owner of online games company Playfish (acquired by Electronic Arts for $400m in November 2009)–discusses why online game environments are exciting places for economics research (and specifically: “how social factors influence economic decision making”):

When economists try to model behavior in the real world, they’re always dealing with imperfect information. “The data is always limited, and once you get hold of it there are tons of reasons to mistrust it,” Segerstrale says. In virtual worlds, on the other hand, “the data set is perfect. You know every data point with absolute certainty. In social networks you even know who the people are. You can slice and dice by gender, by age, by anything.”

Instead of dealing only with historical data, in virtual worlds “you have the power to experiment in real time,” Segerstrale says. What happens to demand if you add a 5 percent tax to a product? What if you apply a 5 percent tax to one half of a group and a 7 percent tax to the other half? “You can conduct any experiment you want,” he says. “You might discover that women over 35 have a higher tolerance to a tax than males aged 15 to 20—stuff that’s just not possible to discover in the real world.”

Of course, there’s a fairly obvious caveat:

One possible flaw in this economic model is that the kind of people who spend hours online taking care of imaginary pets may not be representative of the rest of the population. The data might be “perfect” and “complete,” but the world from which it’s gathered is anything but that.

Taxes (Not Subsidies) Control Calorie Intake

It’s not surprising to discover that in an experiment looking at how taxes and subsidies can be used to influence healthier food purchases it was the taxing of unhealthy food that improved choices, not the subsidisation of healthy options.

Strangely, though, it turns out that the health food subsidies actually worsened choices (the study theorises that the shoppers used the ‘saved’ money to treat themselves, while still purchasing the unhealthy goods).

Taxes were more effective in reducing calories purchased over subsides. Specifically, taxing unhealthy foods reduced overall calories purchased, while cutting the proportion of fat and carbohydrates and upping the proportion of protein in a typical week’s groceries.

By contrast, subsidizing the prices of healthy food actually increased overall calories purchased without changing the nutritional value at all. It appears that mothers took the money they saved on subsidized fruits and vegetables and treated the family to less healthy alternatives, such as chips and soda pop. Taxes had basically the opposite effect, shifting spending from less healthy to healthier choices.

via Nudge

Financial and Public Incentives to Perform: What Works

Large bonuses and salaries are in place to attract prime talent and as an incentive to improve performance, goes conventional wisdom and the bankers’ rhetoric. However recent research by Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) and colleagues suggests that while large pay will attract the best talent, large performance-based bonuses may hinder superior performance.

Interestingly big bonuses succeeded in increasing performance only when the tasks undertaken were mechanical in nature (e.g. tapping a key as fast as possible) but not when they were cognitive. When tasks were conducted in public (public scrutiny as a task motivator), performance did increase.

Like money, social pressure motivates people, especially when the tasks require only effort and not skill or thinking. But at some point, too much of it overwhelms the motivating influence.

If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.

Optimism as Incentive

Much has been written on the (ir)rationality of purchasing lottery tickets (Eliezer Yudkowsky’s viewpoint is particularly fine), but little has been said on applications of these biases that could improve the finances of all of those who buy a ticket.

Now behavioural economists are attempting to boost the historically poor household savings rate by using our lottery-like optimism as an incentive to save:

Psychologists have long known that people tend to overestimate the odds of rare events. Applying that behavioral insight, finance professor Peter Tufano of Harvard Business School has devised a clever program called “Save to Win.” Launched earlier this year for members of eight credit unions in Michigan, it is a cross between a certificate of deposit and a raffle ticket. Members who put $25 or more into a Save to Win one-year CD* are entered into a monthly “savings raffle” for prizes up to $400, plus one annual drawing for a $100,000 jackpot. […]

In 25 weeks, the program has attracted about $3.1 million in new deposits, often from people who have never been able to set money aside.

via Techdirt

* CD = Certificate of Deposit (similar to a savings account).