Shiller on Behavioral Economics

An interview with Robert J. Shiller, the recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in economics, was recently published in Pacific Standard magazine. The discussion centered on the advent of behavioral economics—the introduction of other social sciences into the field of economics.

“It’s a revolution in economics that has taken place over the past 20 years or so. It’s bringing economics into a broader appreciation of reality,” says Shiller. While traditional economics has focused on the workings of a market based on “ideally rational” individuals, Shiller says that behavioral economics introduces the notion that we don’t always behave in our own best interests. He uses the example of the 2007 financial crisis which conventional economic theory couldn’t explain. Shiller’s argument is that “we had a speculative bubble driven by excessive optimism.”

This occurs, he argues, because people look for patterns that are representative of history. “While home prices were going up and up,” he explains, “it just seemed as if anyone who raised the observation that they might fall wasn’t making an intuitively plausible observation. Until they started falling.” Twenty years ago, Shiller says, the word “bubble” would have been considered unprofessional by economists because “markets are smarter than any of us and anything that happens in the market has a rational explanation.”

But there are more layers to how people act and react in their world, and the field of behavioral economics takes that into account. “There’s a lot going on,” Shiller asserts. “It turns out that the human mind is very complicated.”