Vincent Li's Reviews > Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Misbehaving by Richard H. Thaler
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I have mixed feelings about this book. I wrote a brief article about how college doesn't teach you anything, and to my horror I realized that I already learned most of what this book has to say. For someone without any background in behavioral economics, I recommend reading this in conjunction with Thinking Fast and Slow, the two books will pretty much teach you everything you need to know.

Having studied most of the points mentioned in the book (as well as reading several of the papers summarized) I enjoyed the book mainly for the anecdotes and fun tidbits (for example that the exponential discount function was first posited by the great Samuelson). The book was interesting to me in that it also served as a memoir for Thaler, discussing the various phases of his academic life and his work. I was pleasantly surprised to confirm that Thaler's collection of anomalies was a nod to Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions. I also heavily agreed with Thaler's emphasis on randomized trials and use of experimental evidence over a priori axioms.

Now for the critique. Thaler seems like a bit of a braggart. He never seems to cease name dropping, and some of his claims seem overreaching. He makes it seem almost like he single-handedly set up behavioral economics. Additionally, the characterization of economists of the more rational mold seem unfair to me. Posner and Miller are reduced to stubborn silly one dimensional characters when both are accomplished and nuanced.

Thaler sets up certain classical problems such as the dividend puzzle, the equity premium puzzle and close ended funds and proclaims them solved by behavioral economics. I read the dividend puzzle paper, and while the "solution" seems reasonable, it has little to no empirical work (ironic, given Thaler's admonishment that "mainstream" economics doesn't look at evidence enough). Thaler claims to have solved the equity premium puzzle by looking at loss aversion rather than risk aversion, and argues that additionally the equity premium puzzle cannot be a risk premium because he looked at the betas of the equity and it didn't explain the equity premium. However, especially after Fama's work, there's widespread agreement that beta does not completely capture risk (it's hard to get a beta of the "market"). Thaler himself recognizes this when he discusses the Fama-French factors and the failure of CAPM. It seems disingenuous to try to refute a possible objection using a risk metric that he knows is not accurate. Lastly, Thaler criticizes Miller for dismissing his work on finding a correlation between close ended funds and small cap equity. It seems like Miller is correct, in that just because Thaler found a correlation, he shouldn't be able to attribute that correlation to investor sentiment. In other words, Thaler presents as fact what is still very controversial in the field.

Even during my studies I always found myself annoyed by Thaler's idea of mental accounting. For the record, I find the concept of mental accounting totally reasonable, and perhaps even true. However, scientifically speaking, it does not seem falsifiable. Any result that does not jive, seems to be able to be explained away, and it seems like mental accounting has little to no predictive power.

At least to me, Thaler needs to propose some empirical tests that can differentiate between behavioral explanation and other explanations. Otherwise, his explanations are as axiomatic as the "mainstream" economics he criticizes.
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July 24, 2015 – Shelved
July 24, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
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