The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy and John List
|The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy and John List|
|Category: Politics and Society|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: What economic factors will motivate people to change their behaviour? An invigorating account of Gneezy and List’s ground-breaking research in behavioral economics, aka making the world a better place. Yes, really.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: January 2014|
|Publisher: Random House Books|
Wow! This is a most surprising economics book.
Behavioral economists (if you’ll excuse the American spelling) investigate people’s buying behaviour and consuming patterns. I guess we know about that already because supermarkets here lull us into buying three for the price of two, to come back next week for £10 off a £100, or to garner extra points on a loyalty card (Oh why can’t they just go for a cheaper price at the point of sale? Why do profits have to be in double percentage point increases year on year?). A fair bit of manipulation to ensure that a company survives is already part and parcel of our lives. If you’d asked me before I read this book, I would have lined up that sort of consumer marketing psychology alongside banking as profiteering. However … these guys are different: they really do seem to care about the plight of the underprivileged, and they come from an academic setting, rather than a commercial one.
Uri Gneezy and John List set out to discover empirically what economic factors would motivate people to change their behaviour, thereby developing behavioural economy as a new science. Using randomised controlled methodolgy, they pioneered experimental field work techniques, moving on from the optimal selling price for a bottle of wine to hugely more important unknowns to society, such as how to motivate disadvantaged kids to achieve better school grades, or how to drip-feed more learning into young children at home or in pre-school.
Benefits to individuals involved, if they can catch up with their more advantaged peers, are likely to be exponential in terms of future education, life chances and rewards. Economics still comes into the picture for society as a whole, because picking the right motivation is the most cost effective way forward for governments. Whether it’s preventing at-risk teenagers from ending up in the highly expensive US jail system, promoting female board members so that male-dominated companies do better, or eliciting the maximum charity donations to save sight or mend cleft palates in the Third World, for the bucks diverted into fund-raising: manipulating consumer behaviour in these areas makes economic sense to service providers and users.
Some of the experimental work in the early chapters was probably undertaken with small sample sizes (since they aren’t quoted), which might have made them less reliable. However, Gneezy and List were soon dealing with very large samples indeed. In 2008, they were called in to suggest radical changes to the rewards systems in the Chicago Heights District of the Chicago Public Schools system, which provides education to some of the most disadvantaged young people in the U.S. With the help of a £400,000 initial grant from the Griffin Foundation, they were able to set up alternative pre-school units to test theories proposed from previous research, about how best to move under-performing pre-schoolers forward. They also worked with teenagers in danger of dropping out, discovering some very successful ways of edging them back into the mainstream.
Some of their results were much in line with consumer habits discovered elsewhere, others revealed surprising anomalies with predicted behaviour. I’m not going into any more detail about their research, but I found each and every finding absorbing. If that weren’t enough, the book is easily written in a narrative format which makes it highly readable. As the authors are academics, however, it boasts a well-qualified reference list in support of the text.
There is also that interesting argument to be had about the morality of manipulating behaviour, addressed by the authors throughout. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.
If you have any reason to be interested in educating young people, or charity fund-raising or marketing a small business, I think you should read this book.
Here are some further thought-provoking, five star offerings that might interest you if you enjoyed The Why Axis and want to dig at some of the areas Gneezy and List considered.:
Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi
Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World by Tina Rosenberg
Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
What if Money Grew on Trees?: Asking the big questions about economics by David Boyle
Why Women Mean Business by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland
You can read more book reviews or buy The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life by Uri Gneezy and John List at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
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