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Behavioral Economics: This Is Your Brain On Money

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that with recession-related anxiety saturating the very air we breathe, we might be a bit slow to trust our financial decisions.

For decades, economists did not find much merit in connecting psychology with finance. That changed when a young economics professor from the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler, introduced himself to two Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Together they are credited with founding behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics, and its close cousin, neuroeconomics, combines the disciplines of neuroscience, economics, and psychology to study how people make financial decisions.

Using Psychology to Save You From Yourself, an National Public Radio podcast, explains the origins and development of behavioral economics. Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Prize laureate for economics, studied what he called “the illusion of validity,” i.e. our judgment can be very wrong even though we are the last to acknowledge it.

For example, when a prospective employer is considering a candidate for a job they often weigh the job interview the heaviest in their decision making, a choice proven over and over again to be a mistake. Twice I hired people primarily on the basis of an impressive interview, only to let them go during the probationary period. Another time (after being burned) I hired the second runner up because her experience and credentials were the best. That person turned out to be golden.

Kahneman and Tversky pointed out lots of other errors humans commonly make in decision making, explaining why we can so easily be sucked in by clever marketing or most insidiously, credit card merchants. I found it fascinating to read their explanation of “anchoring bias”:

It turns out that whenever you are exposed to a number, you are influenced by that number whether you intend to be influenced or not.

This is why, for example, the minimum payments suggested on your credit card bill tend to be low. That number frames your expectation, so you pay less of the bill than you might otherwise, your interest continues to grow, and your credit card company makes more money than if you had not had your expectations influenced by the low number.

Boy, does that make me feel silly. Every single time I pay my credit card bill, I have to remind myself that it’s best to pay as much of the whole thing as I can, asap. But like bitter medicine I’d rather not and that low number beckons.

In the 1980’s Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky:

…began to publish their ideas — an integration of psychological research and economics with this new flawed decision-maker at the center. But initially, mainstream economists largely rejected the work.

The main point of contention, says Thaler, was the suggestion that humans are less than perfectly rational when it comes to decision-making. For the majority of the 20th century, and for the most part even today, the human beings imagined by economists and placed at the center of their economic models have had a Spock-like rationality.

Well, I’ve always loved Mr. Spock but for better or worse, most of us are more like the flawed, romantic, all too human, Kirk.

What can we do to regain trust in our financial decision-making ability?

> One thing is to address our anxiety so that we’re using our higher brain to think and not letting the overly excitable reptilian brain rule.

> If you know it’s best to save a certain amount from your paycheck, set up an automatic deposit to go to a savings account. That way the decision is made once and you don’t have to convince yourself over and over, every single month.

> Knowing that it’s possible your first instincts may be wrong, like deciding to sell your stock at the bottom of a recession, it’s a good idea to get a second opinion; preferably from an expert, like from a certified financial planner.

Photo courtesy of bitzcelt via Flickr

Behavioral Economics: This Is Your Brain On Money

Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D.

Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, founder of Explore What’s Next, wife, and mom of two teenagers. Dr. Aletta is a writer whose articles have been featured on the New York Times Well blog, the Wall Street Journal Online, Parents magazine, NPR and the BBC London Radio. To learn more about Dr. Aletta and Explore What's Next, visit her website and blog, or follow her on Twitter!

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APA Reference
Aletta, E. (2018). Behavioral Economics: This Is Your Brain On Money. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 26 Oct 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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