The Anthologist doesn’t serve cashew nuts, so I order a bowl of smoked almonds instead. When they arrive, caramelised and brown as barbecue sauce, I ask for them to be put right in front of Richard Thaler. He protests that the waiter isn’t in on the joke.
The readers will be, I assure him. “The educated ones, perhaps,” he concedes.
Those educated readers may know that Professor Thaler is a Nobel laureate economist, but even more famous as the co-author of Nudge. They may even know — from his later book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics — that the 73-year-old is fond of telling an anecdote about a bowl of cashew nuts that sheds light on his approach to economics.
He served the notorious bowl to some guests while dinner was roasting in the oven, then watched everyone compulsively munch on the nuts and gradually spoil their appetites. So Thaler decided to remove the temptation by hiding the cashews in the kitchen. His guests thanked him.
It would be an unremarkable tale, except that such behaviour simply does not fit the rational economic model of human behaviour. Either eat the cashews or don’t eat the cashews, says classical economics, but don’t thank the person who moves them out of easy reach.
Reflecting on such stories helped Thaler create “behavioural economics” — a branch of the discipline that aims at psychological realism. Doing so also helped him with the equally difficult task of persuading other economists to take the behavioural view seriously.
True, it’s just a story about cashews — but if you don’t think short-termism and weak willpower are economically significant in the grand scheme of things, I have a payday loan, a pension drawdown scheme and an auto-renewing gym membership to sell you.
And, sure enough, Thaler’s ideas about the importance of realistic human behaviour have permeated into the economic mainstream, particularly the study of finance.
His policy proposals have influenced tax collection, organ donation, energy efficiency drives — and most notably pensions, where participation in workplace schemes dramatically increases when people must explicitly opt out if they are not to be automatically enrolled.
Thaler cultivates a happy-go-lucky persona, a man whose own weaknesses help him understand the weaknesses of others. “You assume that the agents in the economy are as smart as you are,” he once told Robert Barro, one of the pillars of the economics establishment, “and I assume that they’re as dumb as me.” Barro was happy to agree with that.
I will say that David Cameron never talked to anybody at the Behavioural Insight Team about the Brexit referendum
This sunny July, however, Thaler is a model of self-control. “Notice how many nuts I’ve had so far,” he announces, 20 minutes into our conversation. He gestures for emphasis. “Zero.”
I’m not surprised by that, although I am when Thaler — who struck me as a bon vivant — admits that he has been skipping lunch entirely. He’s in London for a fortnight, teaching a course at the London campus of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and after a generous breakfast he says he has neither the need nor the time for lunch.
This may also explain his lack of interest in the restaurant itself. We meet at the business school, and he’s chosen the closest place — announcing “it’s me again” to the waitress who stands outside. I don’t even glimpse the interior of The Anthologist, because she promptly directs us to a pavement table, which has a large masonry wall on one side and on the other — if you squint — a view down Gresham Street to a back corner of the Bank of England. The scooters and trucks roar past a couple of yards away, but Thaler has no trouble making himself heard.
He used to squeeze more out of his annual fortnights in London. “I would spend the morning with the Behavioural Insight Team” — the famous “nudge” unit established by David Cameron and inspired by Thaler’s book with the law professor Cass Sunstein — “then come and teach all afternoon. And then half the nights there would be dinners with friends. And I was comatose at the end of the first week.”
He does admit to having a few dinners planned, though — and to timing his visit to coincide with the Wimbledon Men’s Final. He and his wife, the photographer France Leclerc, had Centre Court tickets. Was he a fan of Djokovic or Federer?
“We support Rafa. Although if he had been playing in a match like that it might have got too much for my wife. She would have been hiding somewhere by the fifth set.”
It was the same on election night: the Trump/Clinton contest reduced his wife to a nervous wreck.
“And who were you supporting in that one?” I ask.
He gives me a withering look. “At least credit me with sentience.”
President Barack Obama seemed to appreciate behavioural economics and gave Thaler’s co-author, Cass Sunstein, a senior appointment. The Trump administration, observes Thaler, has no interest in behavioural economics. “Look, there’s no demand for expertise of any sort . . . The lack of competence and expertise is like nothing anyone has ever seen.”
Whitehall’s Behavioural Insight Team seems to be displaying more longevity than the White House equivalent.
“The key move they made very early on was to extricate themselves from government.” They’re now a semi-autonomous social enterprise in which the Cabinet Office retains a stake. They made that move, of course, before Cameron’s referendum-induced autodefenestration.
“I will say that David Cameron never talked to anybody at the Behavioural Insight Team about the Brexit referendum”.
And what should they have said if he had?
“One thing for sure is Remain is a horrible name. It’s weak. Whereas Leave is strong.”
Thaler has written about the referendum before in the Financial Times. He reminds me that Theresa May said, before the referendum: “The reality is that we do not know on what terms we would have access to the single market.”
The waiter interrupts us and presses Thaler to order some wine. He waves him away. “No, I have to teach for the next three hours.”
We return to May, and her explanation that a vote to Leave would be a vote for something undefined and unknowable. Yet as prime minister, she felt that it was quite sufficient to declare that Brexit means Brexit.
“Brexit means Brexit — that is one of the dumbest statements that has ever been uttered by a head of state. And I’m aware that there are thousands of tweets one could compare it with. I mean, it’s simultaneously meaningless and wrong.”
The waiter finally manages to get us to order something. Thaler goes for a crispy duck salad. “It’s called salad, you know it has at least the illusion of being healthy”. I’m tempted by the Wagyu beef burger but feel ashamed (social pressure means nothing to homo economicus but is a powerful nudge for human beings), so I order some cod with samphire. The waiter is keen to upsell. Spritzer? Some halloumi?
Thaler and I are baffled by the suggestion of halloumi with cod and duck, although I would have cracked if the waiter had tried to sell us French fries.
We turn to the state of economics, and how it became so wrapped up in the idea of rational agents. Some of those models have a hypnotic pull, I suggest: they’re so ingenious, so difficult, and once you’ve understood how they work you don’t want to abandon them in favour of the bowl-of-cashews guy.
I’m recalling a time I was reading a classic article by Barro — in the emergency room, having dislocated my jaw after a spectacular yawn, which I protest was unconnected to the research paper in question. I don’t get far.
“You should change this story!” hoots Thaler. “It should be that you read this paper and, literally, your jaw dropped.”
It’s a reminder that Thaler is a storyteller as well as a sharp theorist. Misbehaving is full of stories.
“I decided to just start writing things that would amuse me,” he says — including an account of a huge academic bunfight over the allocation of corner offices at the University of Chicago economics department that cannot fail to provoke Schadenfreude. “I sent that to my friend Michael Lewis. I said, ‘How much of the book could be like this?’ and he said ‘All’.”
Lewis isn’t a bad sounding board: he’s the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball and The Big Short. He also wrote a biography of Thaler’s friends and colleagues, the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. I wouldn’t mind getting him to look over my first drafts.
When it arrives, the cod is pleasant enough, but there isn’t much of it. I’m regretting not ordering the fries. The smoked almonds look tasty, but they’re across the table sitting beside Thaler’s left hand. He hasn’t so much as twitched towards them.
The key message of Nudge was that governments could improve the health and wellbeing of their citizens without infringing on their liberty, simply by more thoughtfully designing their rules, procedures, or even labelling.
“If you want people to do something, make it easy.” Put the cashews in the kitchen and the fruit by the cafeteria checkout.
More recently, Thaler has been thinking and writing about what he calls “sludge”. It’s the same procedure in reverse: if you want people not to do something, make it difficult.
Reaching for an example, Thaler has a bone to pick with The Times. The first review of Misbehaving was published there, and Thaler’s editor sent him a link.
“And I can’t get past the paywall without subscribing.”
But then he notices there’s an offer of a month’s trial subscription at an introductory rate. “But I read further, having written a book about this, and I see that it will be automatically renewed.”
Not only that, it will be renewed at full price, “and that in order to quit, I have to give them 14 days’ notice. So the one month free trial is actually two weeks. And I have to call London [from Chicago] in London business hours, not on a toll free line.”
He pauses and chides me to check that the FT isn’t placing similar sludge in the way of readers who wish to unsubscribe. I assure him that nobody would ever want to unsubscribe, but in any case such knavery would be beneath us. But part of me wonders. “Check your policy at the FT,” he advises.
(Later, I check. The FT offers a very similar introductory offer, but I am relieved to discover that the newspaper offers regional phone numbers and you can also cancel online.)
While we’re talking about the consumption of digital goods, I am keen to ask him about how he deals with email, smartphones and social media. We’re in the middle of a colossal set of experiments in behavioural manipulation that would have been hard to imagine when Sunstein and Thaler wrote Nudge over a decade ago. Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are constantly running little trials to see what we do in response.
“The world has changed. I remember that while we were writing the book, I got my first iPhone.”
But does it tempt him? Distract him? An iPhone, it seems to me, is a bottomless bowl of digital cashews. But he’s not worried.
“I’m not on Facebook at all . . . I am on Twitter and I find much of it to be quite useful. There’s a growing academic economics Twitter that’s fantastic. There’s almost no ad hominem. There are people live-tweeting conferences. Fantastic. There are people who will give a 10-tweet summary of some new paper.”
Thaler stops eating his salad — he’s managed to get most of it down, in between his answers. I’ve long since finished my little piece of fish. The smoked almonds have somehow migrated into the centre of the table, easily within my reach. They are untouched. “Let the record be noted that my consumption so far is zero,” he declares.
Thaler isn’t interested in coffee or dessert, but says he has time if I want something. I order espresso. After it arrives, I take a sip, and then my hand moves instinctively towards the almonds before I catch myself. He laughs. “That was a trembling hand.”
My involuntary slip prompts us to start talking about accidents.
“Here’s something I was thinking about this morning,” he says. “All these announcements to mind the gap. Can that conceivably be useful?”
“Mind the gap,” is part of the sonic wallpaper of the London Underground, a reminder not to accidentally stumble into the space between Tube train and platform. I wonder if Transport for London has run an experiment.
“I’m wondering that too.” Although we both doubt it.
“Now here’s my hypothesis. 99.9 per cent of the people on the Tube have blocked this out long ago. And whatever the percentage of tourists is, half of them have no idea what ‘mind the gap’ means. It could be ‘cheerio’.”
In short, the people who might conceivably benefit from the warning probably don’t understand it. So why not experiment with some different approaches to see if that reduces accidents?
The proposal is typical Thaler. He’s noticed a feature of everyday life that most of us either overlook or take for granted — and he’s turned it into an easily implementable experiment that might actually make the world a better place.
It’s time for him to go and teach. We shake hands, and then he reaches forward, slowly and deliberately, for a smoked almond. He holds it up in front of me as though displaying a fine diamond.
“One!” he says. Then he pops it into his mouth, and ambles off towards the business school.
Only when his back is turned do I dare grab one myself.
Tim Harford will be speaking at the FTWeekend Festival on Sept 7th. Tickets and programme at ftweekendfestival.com
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