Rationality and Behavioral Economics

Today I was listening to EconTalk on my way to class and Nassim Taleb, the guest speaker, discussed the issues of “rationality” and “risk”. One of the things that struck me as a misrepresentation or perhaps a “linguistic misunderstanding” is the idea that behavioral economics seeks to label what individuals do as “irrational”. My first instinct is to say that the view of the author may be a notion that is perpetuated by general-audience books like Predictably Irrational, which discuss some of the results of the behavioral economics literature without being careful to remind the reader of the academic diction.

Nevertheless, what seems to be missing in the commentary of the guest speaker is a more critical understanding on the behavioral economics literature. We need to keep in mind that economists have often described the expected utility approach as the benchmark for “rationality” and thus, in this context, deviations from the behavior prescribed by expected utility is “irrational”. Note that this is simply a linguistic faux pas. More importantly, this is not a statement as to whether a set of behaviors – no matter if these deviate from expected utility theory or not – are optimal.

First of all, there is a common understanding in behavioral economics that biased can be optimal. For instance, there is a large literature in psychophysics (which many behavioral economists are acquainted with) that shows that perception of angles is biased towards those that occur more frequently in nature. While a gut response may be to label our perceptive system as “irrational”, if we assume the agent is a Bayesian Observer (see work by Alan Stocker and coauthors), it becomes obvious that a biased perception will reduce the overall variance and thus lead to smaller mean-squared error (which corresponds to the objective function this model seeks to minimize and is one metric used to differentiate among estimators in statistics).

Furthermore, more recent work in economics from well-known academics like Michael Woodford tries to determine whether these “irrational”  behaviors (in the sense that they are not part of the classical expected utility framework) can arise as optimal responses to imprecise representations. In this line of work, Michael Woodford is able to explain some of the characteristic behaviors described in the behavioral economics literature such as the fourfold pattern of risk and other “anomalies” when it comes to risky choice (many of which were popularized by Kahneman and Tversky). This line of work largely represents the adoption of “optimal algorithms” and “bounded optimality” from the artificial intelligence literature and trying to bridge these notions with the findings of behavioral economics.

In light of some this evidence and the larger behavioral economics literature, I was struck by what appeared to be a gross misrepresentation, but more likely just a misunderstanding, in the commentary of Nassim Taleb in this episode of EconTalk. If I get a chance, I will upload some links to the literature that I mentioned above.

Regrets and Hidden Brain 

As I was listening to Hidden Brain, a podcast produced by NPR, this morning, a quote caught my attention, “[the reason why we regret acts of ommission as opposed to commision] is that the set of things we did yesterday is clearly finite [even for the most productive people in the world]. But the set of things we have missed out on [i.e., the opportunity cost] is certainly larger and possibly not finite.” 

The first thing this brings to mind is work by Loomes and Sugden on regret theory. Still need to think a bit more about how this can connect to other areas of decision theory. Food for thought!


Hello there! Since we do not know each other, let me tell you a bit more about me…

My name is Luis and I am a graduate of Columbia University where I majored in Economics and Psychology. I am now an economics graduate student at Cornell University. 

Throughout my time at Columbia, I devoted my free time to studying decision-making from the perspectives of psychology and economics. As such, some of my previous projects have focused on investigating the relationship between memory and preference formation, the spillover effects of choice architecture tools, the influence of competition in trust and communication, the impact of salience in choice behavior, and the impact of ambiguity in decision-making. Although this seems all over the place, I also have an interest in political economy and have collaborated on projects about voting and collective choice. 

For the most part this summarizes the breadth of my interests and tells you a bit more about me. But here is a fun fact: My introduction to research was in a biology lab, during my freshman year of college, where I worked with transgenic fruit flies (i.e., genetic engineering) to identify germ cell mutations. Needless to say that this path did not work out for me.