Behavioural economics is an odd term. As Warren Buffett’s business partner Charlie Munger once said, ‘If economics isn’t behavioural, I don’t know what the hell is.’ It’s true: in a more sensible world, economics would be a sub-discipline of psychology. Adam Smith was as much a behavioural economist as an economist – The Wealth of Nations (1776) doesn’t contain a single equation. But, strange though it may seem, the study of economics has long been detached from how people behave in the real world, preferring to concern itself with a parallel universe in which people behave as economists think they should.
One day, Korzybski offered to share a packet of biscuits, which were wrapped in plain paper, with the font row of his lecture audience. ‘Nice biscuit, don’t you think?’ said Korzybski, while the students tucked in happily. Then he tore the white paper and revealed the original wrapper – on it was a picture of a dog’s head and the words ‘Dog Cookies’. Two students began to retch, while the rest put their hands in front of their mouths or in some cases ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. ‘You see,’ Korzybski said, ‘I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.’
There is a parallel in the behaviour of bees, which do not make the most of the system they have evolved to collect nectar and pollen. Although they have an efficient way of communicating about the direction of reliable food sources, the waggle dance, a significant proportion of the hive seems to ignore it altogether and journeys off at random. In the short term, the hive would be better off if all bees slavishly followed the waggle dance, and for a time this random behaviour baffled scientists, who wondered why 20 million years of bee evolution had not enforced a greater level of behavioural compliance. However, what they discovered was fascinating: with out these rogue bees, the hive would get stuck in what complexity theorists call ‘a local maximum’; they would be so efficient at collection food from known sources that, once these existing sources of food dried up, they wouldn’t know where to go next and the hive would starve to death. So the rogue bees are, in a sense, they hive’s research and development function, and their inefficiency pays off handsomely when they discover afresh source of food. It is precisely because they do not concentrate exclusively on short-term efficiency that bees have survived so many million years.
If you optimise something in one direction, you may be creating a weakness somewhere else.
Business, technology and, to a great extent, government have spent the last several decades engaged in an unrelenting quest for measurable gains in efficiency. However, what they have never asked, is whether people like efficiency as much as economic theory believes they do. Tje ‘doorman fallacy’, as I call it, is what happens when your strategy becomes synonymous with cost-saving and efficiency; first you define a hotel doorman’s role as ‘opening the door’, then you replace his role with an automatic door-opening mechanism.
The problem arises because opening the door is only the notional role of a doorman; his other, less definable sources of value lie in a multiplicity of other functions, in addition to door-opening: taxi-hailing, security, vagrant discouragement, customer recognition, as well as in signalling the status of the hotel. The doorman may actually increase what you can charge for a night’s stay in your hotel.
When every function of a business is looked at from the same narrow economic standpoint, the same game is applied endlessly. Define something narrowly, automate or streamline it — or remove it entirely — then regard the savings as profit.
But 10 x 1 does not equal 1 x 10. Imagine you have ten roles to fill, and you ask ten colleagues to each hire one person. Obviously each person will try to recruit the best person they can find — that’s the same as asking on person to choose the ten best hires he can find, right? Wrong. Anyone choosing a group of ten people will instinctively deploy a much wider variance than someone hiring one person. The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.
If you were only allowed to eat one food, you might choose the potato. Barring a few vitamins and trace minerals, it contains all the essential amino acids you need to build proteins, repair cells and fight diseases – eating just five a day would support you for weeks. However, if you were told you could only eat ten food for the rest of your life, you would not choose ten different types of potato. In fact, you may not choose potatoes at all — you would probably choose something more varied.
Let me give a simple example. The Uber map is a psychological moonshot, because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating. This innovation came from the founder’s flash of insight (while watching a James Bond film, no less) that, regardless of what we say, we are much bothered by the uncertainty of waiting than by the duration of a wait. The invention of the map was perhaps equivalent to multiplying the number of cabs on the road by a factor of ten — not because waiting times got any shorter, but because they felt ten times less irritating.
Robert Zion, the social psychologist, once described cognitive psychology as ‘social psychology with all the interesting variables set to zero’. The point he was making is that humans are a deeply social species (which may mean that research into human behaviour or choices in artificial experiments where there is no social contest isn’t really all that useful). In the real work, social context is absolutely critical. For instance, as the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu observes, gift giving is viewed as a good thing in most human societies, but it only takes a very small change in context to make a gift an insult rather than a blessing; returning a present to the person who has given it to you, for example, is one of the rudest things you can do. Similarly, offering people money when they do something you like makes perfect sense according to economic theory and is called an incentive, but this does not mean you should try and pay your spouse for sex.
The advertising agency J. Walter Thompson used to set a test for aspiring copywriters. One of the questions was simple: ‘Here are two identical 25-cent coins. Sell me the one on the right.’ One successful candidate understood the idea of alchemy. ‘I’ll take the right-hand coin and dip it in Marilyn Monroe’s bag. Then I’ll sell you a genuine 25-cent coin as owned by Marilyn Monroe.’
In maths it is a rule that 2 + 2 = 4. In psychology, 2 + 2 can equal more or less than 4. It’s up to you.