Making Money from Behavioral Social Science?
| Peter Klein |
Longtime readers of this blog expect skepticism about behavioral social science. One of my issues is the assumed, but unexplored, assumption that private actors and market institutions cannot deal with behavioral anomalies, and therefore government intervention is necessary to make people act “rationally.” But if we can really improve health outcomes by putting the chocolate cake behind the carrot sticks in the display case, why wouldn’t profit-seeking entrepreneurs exploit this fact? Consumers pay substantial price premiums for organic produce, grass-fed meats, and other healthy products, even when the purported health benefits are long-term and uncertain. Wouldn’t some patronize the behavioral-economics-influenced grocer? “Our shelves are arranged to encourage healthy food choices.” Add earth tones, hipster music, an onsite juice bar, and the place will make as much money as your local Whole Foods.
To be a little less flippant: consider adverse selection theory. Many people misread Akerlof’s famous paper as a call for government regulation of used-car markets (or, worse, as a demonstration that used-car markets can’t exist). In fact, as Akerlof states plainly in the original piece, his theory explains the existence of private assurance mechanisms such as warranties, third-party certification, quality signalling, and the like.
A recent Forbes piece puts it this way: How do you make money by helping mitigate behavioral anomalies? Cognitive biases “have been accepted into the mainstream of economics and pop culture, particularly since the recent publication of popular books such as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Even so, relatively few companies have attempted to use behavioral economics to try to change people’s behavior around overeating, smoking, or other bad habits many are desperate to break.” The focus is on the diet company StickK, which takes advantage of loss aversion (pun intended) to help people achieve weight and other goals.
StickK is a cool site, and I hope it is successful. But, if behavioral theory is so powerful and general, why aren’t more entrepreneurs taking advantage of it?