Does Behavioral Economics Offer Anything New and True?
| Peter Klein |
One of my frustrations with behavioral economics is that it often seems to restate common, obvious, well-known ideas as if they are really novel insights (e.g., that preferences aren’t stable and predictable over time). More novel propositions are questionable at best (e.g, the paradox of choice).
Dan Ariely’s column in this month’s HBR is particularly frustrating. He claims as a unique insight of behavioral economics that when people are evaluated according to quantitative measures of performance, they tend to focus on the measures, not the underlying behavior being measured. Well, duh. This is pretty much a staple of introductory lectures on agency theory (and features prominently in Steve Kerr’s classic 1975 article). Ariely goes on to suggest that CEOs should be rewarded not on the basis of a single measure of performance, but multiple measures. Double-duh. Holmström (1979) called this the “informativeness principle” and it’s in all the standard textbooks on contract design and compensation structure (e.g., Milgrom and Roberts, Brickley et al., etc.) (Of course, agency theory also recognizes that gathering information is costly, and that additional metrics are valuable, on the margin, only if the benefits exceed the costs, a point unmentioned by Ariely.)
Ariely says firms should not evaluate CEO’s on stock price, but on a variety of measures. What, for example? Here the story gets a bit murky:
Ideally, they’d vary by industry, situation, and mission, but here are a few obvious choices: How many new jobs have been created at your firm? How strong is your pipeline of new patents? How satisfied are your customers? Your employees? What’s the level of trust in your company and brand? How much carbon dioxide do you emit?
Ariely seems unaware that stock price is the most frequently used measure of firm performance precisely because it is a composite measure that captures all of those things. Stock price reflects the best available information about current and expected future performance — products, jobs, customer satisfaction, etc. Is it a perfect measure? Hardly. But it isn’t obvious how owners or Boards can create their own quantitative, composite measure by by picking their favorite elements, proxies, weighting schemes, and so on, in a way that provides better overall assessments of performance than market valuations. Boards, after all, may be predictably irrational too.