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Review: Tomer’s Advanced Introduction to Behavioral Economics

January 25, 2018 - 06:40 -- Admin

In the next couple of months I shall post, in preparation for an invited longer review essay on recent books on BE, reviews of individual books such as Tomer’s, Angner’s A course in behavioral economics, Cartwright’s An Introduction to Behavioral Economics, and Dhami’s The Foundations of Behavioral Economic Analysis. Comments are welcome.

Here we go with the first review:

Tomer, John F. Advanced Introduction to Behavioral Economics. Elgar (2017). ISBN: 978 1 78471 991 3 (cased), ISBN: 978 1 78471 993 7 (paperback)

Tomer , an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Manhattan College, covers much ground in a fairly superficial manner. We are being lectured about the scientific practices of “mainstream economics” (narrow, rigid, intolerant, mechanical, separate, individualistic; see p. 10) and the emergence of behavioral economics (BE). In passing, we hear about different “strands” of BE (chapter 3: “The bounded rationality strand”, chapters  4 and 5: “the psychological economics strand”, chapter 6: “behavioral finance”), “BE, public policy, and nudging” (chapter 7), “law and BE” (chapter 8), “behavioral macroeconomics” (chapter 9), “the empirical methods of BE” (chapter 10), and neuroeconomics (chapter 12).  We are also treated to an answer (I am sure you can guess it) to the question: “Are mainstream economists open-minded toward behavioral economics or do they resist it?” (chapter 11) In chapter 13 the author enlightens us about paths “Toward a more humanistic BE” and in chapter 14 we can read about “Behavioral economic trends”.

Each of these chapters are about 10 – 12 pages long. Along the way we hear about ENE’s  (Early Neoclassical Economics) and NE’s (Neoclassical Economics) “lack of behavioral realism. NE’s lack of connection to other social sciences in particularly regrettable for those who place a high value on a unified social science or at least on having many viable linkages among the different social sciences.” (p. 9) Referring to a decade-old study of his that was published in an inconsequential journal, we learn that “The results for NE (also referred to as mainstream economics) are quite clear. NE is rated high on all six dimensions (narrowness, rigidity, intolerance, mechanicalness, separateness, and individualism,” (p. 12)  After this paper tiger has been successfully constructed, we are being told how it is being torn to smithereens: “ In contrast, the eight strands of BE … are in general far less narrow, rigid, intolerant, mechanical, separate, and individualistic than NE. … Overall, there is clear evidence that BE is 1) less positivistic than NE … , 2) distinctively different from NE, and 3) much more integrated with other social science disciplines than NE. In other words, BE is arguably better than NE in the way it conducts its scientific practices.” (p. 12)

This tired rhetorical figure has been used by those marketing BE for a long time. It also shows regularly up in the press (e.g., Elliott 2017 but see Attanasio et al. 2017 or for that matter Ortmann 2012), the related blogosphere, and even literature (Schumacher 2014): while BE is much more realistic and useful, NE is the old staid economics (that has done little for us). In the words of the protagonist of Dear Committee Members, “ … sociology has gone the way of poli-sci and econ, now firmly in the clutches of rabid number crunchers who have abandoned or forgotten the link between their abstruse theoretical  musings and the presence of human beings on the planet’s surface; .. “ (p. 152)

That lack of behavioral realism is, so we learn, addressed by behavioural economists’ wholesale adoption of psychological insights which inevitably “enrich” the dismal models of mainstream  economists.  Nevermind the interesting question what the trade-off is that these richer models come with – in this book this trade-off is never discussed –, there is at least two issues here.

First, and to repeat a theme that I have belabored elsewhere (see also this comment here), there is no such thing as a monolithic body of evidence in psychology that economists could mine to inject more behavioral realism in their allegedly dismal models. The fact is that much of the evidence on heuristics and biases that is being appealed to, has been questioned left and right and every halfway knowledgeable (behavioral) economist will agree, that the only interesting question about cognitive biases (such as reference dependence, endowment effects, availability, anchoring & adjustment, and representativeness) is when, and under what circumstances, they exist (if they exist at all).

Second, and more importantly, psychology as a field has, at least since Bem (2011), gone through what many people have called a replicability crisis (e.g., OSC 2015, Spellman 2015, Schimmack 2018) that has played at first in blogs and discussion groups such as the Facebook Psychological Methods Discussion Group but increasingly also journals and their practices. You would not know that some such upheaval is happening from reading Tomer’s book.

Take, for example, Tomer’s telling discussion of Zak’s oxytocin research in chapter 13. We learn that he is “a well-known economist who appreciates the softer, more intangible side of human behavior” (p. 145) and has shown through his research that “there is a direct link between the amount of oxytocin in humans’ blood and brains and humans’ concerns for each other. … Most importantly, oxytocin fosters trust. Oxytocin surges in a person’s bloodstream when an individual is shown a sign of trust and/or when something engages in a person’s sympathies and they experience empathy. ” (lit cit) Unfortunately, these claims have been thoroughly debunked and even been effectively ridiculed in one of John Oliver’s excellent shows. All the literature I know suggests strongly that IN oxytocin has no discernible effect and claims to the contrary are about as much bogus science as claims of ego depletion and the empowering effects of power poses:  what these alleged phenomena reflect is little but shoddy science that people got away with for too long, demonstrating a cavalier attitude to questionable research practices from p-hacking over lack of proper powering up to hiding unsuccessful trials in drawers. You would not know about this crisis if you trusted Tomer who seems completely unaware of these developments that slowly also start to be recognized in economics.

Yes, I am not impressed by Tomer’s book. The knowledge laid out in Tomer’s slim volume is severely out of date and unabashedly partisan. According to the December 2017 IDEAS/RePeC data there are at least 50,000 research economists out there world-wide and they innovate every day in which is most likely one of the most brutally competitive industries the world has seen. The idea that someone (“mainstream economics”) somewhere has a monopoly on doctrinal truth and can enforce it, shows a stunning cluelessness about the current state of the art (and the science) of economics and its sociology.  In his recent presidential address, Alvin E. Roth – an outsider of sorts himself — has argued that economics has been very open to various outsiders and their ideas and practices and you have surely seen that in the emergence of experimental economics and also in some quarters of BE (although BE remains afflicted with many charlatans, often of the non-academic kind that sell BE as panacea to everyone who thinks they can get something for nothing).

I doubt that Tomer’s slim volume is “particularly useful for advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, policymakers, and other professionals who participate economic-related matters.“  (statement on the  back of the book)  In fact, I fear it will promote more sloppy science of the kind that is on display in this book. That kind of sloppy science is also too often on display when you speak with policy makers and Behavioral Insights architects and the like these days.

When all is said and done, it is this kind of sloppiness that undermines trust in the joint enterprise called science.