I recently finished George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s latest book Phishing For Phools. While I also enjoyed their earlier book Animal Spirits I have to say that Phishing For Phools is a hidden gem. So I decided to devote today’s post to the book and why every student of Economics should have a copy of it.
What makes Phishing For Phools different?
Phishing for Phools is different because Akerlof and Shiller give the reader a new perspective on Economics. It is not a re-iteration of New Behavioural Economics because it addresses:
- The Role of Equilibrium in Competitive Markets,
- The Difficulties with ‘Revealed Preference’ and
- Story Grafting.
First, Akerlof and Shiller in their perspective on Economics endorse that economic systems converge towards a general equilibrium, albeit a phishing equilibrium. In contrast, work in Behavioural Economics tends to centre on shrouded markets and economic actors having certain weaknesses (e.g. present bias). While these assumptions make phishing undeniable, the results of these studies are not generalisable. Shiller and Akerlof level criticism at Behavioural Economics in its current form because it misses the generality of phishing for phools in our economy. They describe a range of examples in the book with their favourite probably being Cinnabon® bakeries in airports and shopping malls to show that when “people have informational or psychological weaknesses that can be profitably exploited” (p.170), then we can be certain that phishing for phools is going to happen. Hence phishing for phools is a general feature of our economy rather than an externality of shrouded markets or biases of non-rational economic actors.
I am thinking of Akerlof and Shiller’s phishing equilibrium in the Cinnabon® example as a Pareto-inferior equilibrium in a simple two-player “Phishing Game” with a consumer (C) and a firm (F). Here the consumer, that is the row player, has some true preferences and some monkey-on-the shoulder tastes. Both preferences map into some choice. However, the choice based on the consumer’s true preferences yields a higher payoff for her than her choice based on her monkey-on-the-shoulder tastes (assuming that the firm simultaneously chooses to provide her with that specific good and not the alternative). The column player, that is the firm, has two profit opportunities. It can open a healthy shop or a sweet & tasty shop in the airport or shopping mall where the consumer can easily be phished for a phool. I have arranged the firm’s and consumer’s payoff similar to the Battle of the Sexes game with the modification that the consumer receives a payoff of 3 and not 2 in the optimal equilibrium. This allows us to distinguish the two equilibria into an equilibrium which maximises social welfare (Healthy Shop | True Preferences) and a Pareto-inferior one, i.e. a phishing equilibrium (Sweet & Tasty Shop | Monkey-on-the-Shoulder Tastes). Both the consumer and firm want to coordinate in the sense that the consumer wants to consume and the firm wants to sell. However, the firm wants to maximise profits by selling its sweet and tasty products rather than selling a healthy product (which might allow for a lower mark-up).
Crucially, Akerlof and Shiller argue that such a ‘general equilibrium’ perspective with phishing for phools as a general feature of the economy gives an answer to why economists did not see the financial crisis coming: they did not look for phishes stemming from the informational and psychological weaknesses of economic actors and the counterparts that profitably exploited them.
Moving on to the second argument; the book is also not a re-iteration of Behavioural Economics because it challenges Revealed Preference. The authors criticise this concept and the general acceptance of it in Behavioural Economics. As mentioned above, Akerlof and Shiller distinguish between what people really want and what they think they want, i.e. their monkey-on-the shoulder tastes (and hence the book’s caption The Economics of Deception and Manipulation). Akerlof and Shiller criticise that both standard economic theory and Behavioural Economics assume that people optimise and therefore make choices which maximise their utility. Both fields tend to assume that people reveal their preferences if free to choose and given all the necessary information. This allows for the simple assumption that, in theory and practice, people’s choices reflect their true preferences. However, this is not what we observe: Akerlof and Shiller give plenty of examples in their book which they call the NO-ONE-COULD-POSSIBLY-WANTs. They categorise them into the areas of (1) personal financial security, (2) the stability of the macroeconomy, (3) health, and (4) the quality of government in order to highlight how prevalent they are. The book therefore challenges both standard economic theory and Behavioural Economics for overlooking this subtle but important difference between true preferences and what people think they want.
Third, Story Grafting makes the book different from Behavioural Economics. Akerlof and Shiller make the case for a new variable in Economics, that is the story that people are telling themselves. While Behavioural Economics has come up with a choice menu of psychological biases to explain non-rational behaviours, it has often eschewed the underlying mental frames of decision-making. Daniel Kahneman (1999, in Kahneman and Tversky, 2000, p.xiv) once said that we
apply the label “frame” to descriptions of decisions at two levels: the formulation to which decision makers are exposed is called a frame and so is the interpretation that they construct for themselves.
New Behavioural Economics has very much focused on the latter. It is the frame which decision-makers have control about. In contrast, the frame which decision-makers are exposed to is much broader and in some sense out of their control. Akerlof and Shiller’s stories describe these broader frames which are shaped in great deal by the media and our environment and peers. Rather than having a choice menu of psychological biases, Akerlof and Shiller argue for recognising these broad mental frames that influence individuals’ decisions. Stories, like phishes, are a general feature of our economy. Economics as a study of society needs to go beyond the analysis of the exchange of scarce resources. It needs to become more inclusive. In particular, Akerlof and Shiller argue that “we should be inclusive of whatever thinking, conscious or subconscious, is the basis for people’s decisions” (p.172).
In my opinion, Akerlof and Shiller have crafted a hidden gem with their book Phishing For Phools because it really offers a new perspective on Economics which goes beyond recent work in New Behavioural Economics. It makes the case for phishes and stories as a general feature of our economy and makes the subtle but important differentiation between true preferences and monkey-on-the-shoulder tastes. This New Economic perspective is more inclusive and much needed to understand how people make decisions.
So I hope that my post today has inspired you to give the book a chance. Many thanks for reading,
Akerlof, G.A., and Shiller, R. (2015). Phishing For Phools: The Economics of Deception and Manipulation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kahneman, D. (1999). Preface. In: Kahneman, D., and Tversky, A., eds. (2000). Choices, Values and Frames. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. ix-xvii.