Since the release of 2008′s Nudge, behavioral economics (BE) has quietly invaded the public’s perception. Some of the most well-known examples include the creation of the Behavioral Insights Team in the UK, Cass Sunstein’s appointment in the Obama Administration, and the rise of popular economics books like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (and to a certain extentFreakonomics, which is not actually about BE).
This prominence has led to gut reactions, polarized opinions, and popular misconceptions. However ideas42’s Matt Darling and Saugato Datta, as well as ideas42 co-founder Sendhil Mullainathan, recently published an essay with the Center for Global Development to tackle this very topic.
They identify three common misconceptions, and delve into the nuances of each. The first, that“behavioral economics is about controlling behavior:”
Some people are worried that behavioral economics will be used, whether by corporations or the government, to control behavior. …What distinguishes the behavioral toolset, however, is that so many of the tools are about helping people to avoid making a decision that they themselves would consider a mistake. Elderly Americans who enroll in Medicaid Part D private drug plans are asked to choose from over 40 options. An intervention that reduced this overload – sending enrollees a letter with information about three alternative plans that would be cheaper for them — nearly doubled the proportion of enrollees who decided to switch plans… and saved $150 per year on average for each person who switched.