A critical behavioural economics and behavioural science reading list

This reading list is a balance to the one-dimensional view in many popular books, TED talks, or conferences. For those who feel they have a good understanding of the literature after reading Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational and Nudge, this is for you.

The purpose of this reading list is not to argue that all behavioural economics or behavioural science is bunk (it’s not). It is also not designed to be balanced – you can combine this list with plenty of good reading lists from elsewhere for that (for example).

Please let me know if there are any other books or articles I should add, or if there are any particularly good replies to what I have listed. This list if a first cut based on articles and books I could recall, so I am sure I have missed some good ones.  I have set a mild quality bar on what I have included – I don’t agree with all the arguments, but everything on the list has at least one interesting idea.

Books

Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd and the ABC Research Group’s Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart: Simple heuristics can be both fast and accurate, particularly when we assess real-life performance rather than conformity with the principles of rationality.

Doug Kenrick and Vlad Griskevicius’s The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think: A good introduction to the idea that evolutionary psychology could add a lot of value to behavioural economics, but has the occasional straw man discussion of economics and a heavy reliance on priming research (and you will see below how that is panning out).

David Levine’s Is Behavioural Economics Doomed?: A good but slightly frustrating read. I agree with Levine’s central argument that rationality is underweighted, but the book is littered with straw man arguments.

Phil Rosenzweig’s Left Brain, Right Stuff: How Leaders Make Winning Decisions: An entertaining examination of how behavioural economics findings hold up for real world decision-making.

Gilles Saint-Paul’s The Tyranny of Utility: Behavioral Social Science and the Rise of Paternalism: Sometimes hard to share Saint-Paul’s anger, but some important underlying points.

General and methodological critiques

Nathan Berg and Gerd Gigerenzer’s As-if Behavioral Economics: Neoclassical economics in disguise: “As-if’ arguments are frequently put forward in behavioral economics to justify ‘psychological’ models that add new parameters to fit decision outcome data rather than specifying more realistic or empirically supported psychological processes that genuinely explain these data.” Includes a critique of prospect theory’s lack of realism as a decision-making process (pdf of working paper)

Ken Binmore’s Economic Man – or Straw Man? (pdf): The claim “economic man” is a failure can be both attacking a position not held by economics and ignoring the experimental evidence of people behaving like “economic man”.

Ken Binmore and Avner Shaked’s Experimental economics: Where next? (pdf): “[W]e urge experimentalists to … join the rest of the scientific community in adopting a more skeptical attitude when far-reaching claims about human behavior are extrapolated from very slender data”. See Avner Shaked’s webpage documenting the subsequent debate.

Gerd Gigerenzer debates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky: Gigerenzer tees off (pdf). Kahneman and Tversky respond (pdf – this pdf also includes a rejoinder to Gigerenzer’s later piece). Gigerenzer returns (pdf). I’m a fan of a lot of Gigerenzer’s work, but his strength has never been the direct attack. Kahneman and Tversky get the better of this exchange.

Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan’s The weirdest people in the world?: “[W]e need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity.”

Owen Jones’s Why Behavioral Economics Isn’t Better, and How it Could Be: “… Behavioral Economics, and those who rely on it, are falling behind with respect to new developments in other disciplines that also bear directly on the very same mysteries of human decision-making.”

Douglas Kenrick and colleagues’ Deep Rationality: The Evolutionary Economics of Decision Making: Many of our biases are in fact deeply rational. (My post).

David Levine and Jie Zheng’s The Relationship Between Economic Theory and Experiments (pdf): “[T]he impression that economic theory has little or no significance for explaining experimental results is misleading. Economic theory makes strong predictions about many situations and is generally quite accurate in predicting behavior in the laboratory. In situations where the theory is thought to fail, the failure is in the application of theory rather than the theory failing to explain the evidence.”

Steven Levitt and John List’s Homo economicus Evolves (pdf): “Economic models can benefit from incorporating insights from psychology, but behavior in the lab might be a poor guide to real-world behavior.”

Steven Levitt and John List’s What Do Laboratory Experiments Measuring Social Preferences Reveal About the Real World?: “[G]reat caution is required when attempting to generalize lab results out of sample: both to other populations and to other situations.”

Pete Lunn and Tim Harford debate Behavioural economics: is it such a big deal?: “[T]he idea that the very foundations of economics are being undermined is absurd.”

The Open Science Collaboration’s Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science (pdf): “Thirty-six percent of replications had significant results; 47% of original effect sizes were in the 95% confidence interval of the replication effect size; 39% of effects were subjectively rated to have replicated the original result.” Social psychology fares particularly poorly.

A note by Ariel Rubinstein on a couple of behavioural economics papers by Colin Camerer and Matthew Rabin: ” For Behavioral Economics to be a revolutionary program of research rather than a passing episode, it must become more open-minded and much more critical of itself.”

Counterpoints to famous biases, effects and stories

Choice overload: Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar’s famous jam study (pdf). A meta-analysis by Benjamin Scheibehenne and friends (pdf) – the mean effect size of changing the number of choices across the studies was virtually zero.

The Cornell Food and Brand Lab’s catalogue of eating biases: Jesse Singal catalogues the events. I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t place much weight on results coming out of that lab.

Depletion of willpower: Daniel Engber summarises the state of affairs. The meta-analysis referred to by Engber. And the failed replication that triggered the article.

Disfluency: The original N=40 paper (pdf). The N=7000 replication (pdf). Terry Burnham tells the story. (And interestingly, Adam Alter, author of the first paper, suggests that the law of small numbers should be more widely known).

The Florida effect: The poster child for the replication crisis. Ed Yong catalogues the story nicely.

Grit: The book. Daniel Engber reviews. (I like the way Angela Duckworth deals with criticism. Also listen to this Econtalk episode.)

Growth mindset: The Wikipedia summary. The bookScott Alexander’s initial exploration and clarification.

The hot hand illusion: The original Thomas Gilovich, Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky paper arguing people are seeing a hot hand in basketball when none exists. Work by Joshua Miller and Adam Sanjurjo shows the original argument was based on a statistical mistake. The hot hand does exist in basketball. (Although I will say that there is plenty of evidence of people seeing patterns where they don’t exist.) ESPN explores.

Hungry judges: Shai Danziger and friends find that favourable rulings by Israeli parole boards plunge in the lead up to meal breaks (from 65% to near 0). Andreas Glockner suggests this might be a statistical artefact. Keren Weinshall-Margela and John Shapard point out that the hearing order is not random (Danziger and friends respond). And Daniel Lakens suggests we should dismiss the finding as simply being impossible. (My post)

Hyperbolic discounting: Ariel Rubenstein’s “Economics and Psychology”? The Case of Hyperbolic Discounting (pdf) – “[T]he same type of evidence, which rejects the standard constant discount utility functions, can just as easily reject hyperbolic discounting as well.”

Illusion of control: Francesca Gino, Zachariah Sharek and Don Moore’s Keeping the illusion of control under control: Ceilings, floors, and imperfect calibration (pdf) – “[B]y focusing on situations marked by low control, prior research has created the illusion that people systematically overestimate their level of control.” (My post)

Money priming: Doug Rohrer, Harold Pashler and Christine Harris’s Do subtle reminders of money change people’s political views? – A replication finding no efect (pdf). Kathleen Vohs fights back (pdf). Miguel Vadillo, Tom Hardwicke and David R. Shanks respond – Analysis of the broader literature on money priming suggests, among other things, massive publication bias.

Organ donation: Does Austria have a 99.94% organ donation rate because of the design of their driver’s licence application? No.

Overconfidence: Don Moore and Paul Healy’s “The Trouble with Overconfidence” (pdf) – What does someone actually mean when they say “people tend to be overconfident”? (My post)

Power pose: Jesse Singal on Dana Carney’s shift from author of the classic power pose paper (pdf) to skeptic. Carney’s posted a document about her shift on her website.

Priming mating motives: Shanks and friends on Romance, risk, and replication: Can consumer choices and risk-taking be primed by mating motives? (pdf): A failed replication, plus “a meta-analysis of this literature reveals strong evidence of either publication bias or p-hacking.” (I have cited some of these studies approvingly in published work – a mistake.)

Scarcity: The book. My review.  Leandro Carvalho, Stephan Meier and Stephanie Wang’s Poverty and Economic Decision-Making: Evidence from Changes in Financial Resources at Payday – “We find that participants surveyed before and after payday performed similarly on a number of cognitive function tasks.”

Applications of behavioural economics (and nudging)

Philip Booth’s Behavioural economics – a critique of its policy conclusions: “We seem to have gone … to a situation where we have regulators who use economics 101 supplemented with behavioural economics to try to bring perfection to markets that simply cannot be perfected and perhaps cannot be improved.”

John Cochrane’s Homo economicus or homo paleas?: “The case for the free market is not that each individual’s choices are perfect. The case for the free market is long and sorry experience that government bureaucracies are pretty awful at making choices for people.” Noah Smith responds.

Reuben Finighan’s Beyond Nudge: The Potential of Behavioural Policy (pdf): “Policymakers often mistakenly see behavioural policy as synonymous with “nudging”. Yet nudges are only one part of the value of the behavioural revolution—and not even the lion’s share”

Ted Gayer’s Energy efficiency, risk and uncertainty, and behavioral public choice: “[T]he main failure of rationality is not with the energy-using consumers and firms, but instead the main failure of rationality is with the regulators themselves.” And two related papers by Gayer and W. Kip Viscusi: Overriding Consumer Preferences With Energy Regulations (pdf) and Behavioral Public Choice: The Behavioral Paradox of Government Policy (pdf)

Tim Harford on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy: “The appeal of a behavioural approach is not that it is more effective but that it is less unpopular.” (Google the article and go through that link if you hit the paywall.)

George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel’s Economics Behaving Badly: “[B]ehavioral economics is being used as a political expedient, allowing policymakers to avoid painful but more effective solutions rooted in traditional economics.”

If you want some background

I know this list is of critiques, but here the first three books I would recommend if you want a basic background.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow: Still the best overview of behavioural science. However, it is not standing the test of time particularly well. Here is a fantastic analysis of the priming chapter, and Kahneman’s response to that review in the comments (you can see why Kahneman is a giant in the field).

Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving: A pretty good (although very US-centric) history of behavioural economics.

The Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy: Probably the best book I have read about effective applications (and not the same old stories you always hear).

2 comments

  1. Thanks for putting the list together Jason. I read Misbehaving recently and as a non-expert in the field found it provided a great overview as well as some history. Keen to explore some more material now with your suggestions.

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