“Behavioural economics” versus “behavioural science”


Jason Collins


October 31, 2013

In the comments, Rory Sutherland writes:

One favour to ask. I completely agree with you that Behavioural Economics should be called Behavioural Science. But

  1. We don’t really to decide what things are called. Darwin only used the word “evolution” a handful of times.

  2. It is a very valuable term as a Trojan Horse. If I want to get people studying for MBAs, say, or people in finance, to take behavioural science seriously, anything with the word “economics” in it will get their attention: anything with the word “psychology” in it, by contrast, will probably make them think of couches and hypnosis.

  3. Since economics has become a dominant ideology in business and policy-making, and since one pressing job for behavioural science is to encourage people in such positions of influence to incorporate behavioural science into their thinking, any name which suggests that their pre-existing model (in which they have already invested an immense amount of thought and effort) needs be improved will be more successful than any head-on assault which suggests their model is wrong and needs to be replaced. After all, loss aversion and the endowment effect apply to ideas as well as things. There is hence nothing wrong with sugaring this pill if it helps people swallow it. It is simply easier to switch from “economics” to “behavioural economics” than it is to give up “economics” entirely – just as it is easier to switch from cigarettes to e-cigarettes than it is to give up smoking completely.

So, As a definition, “behavioural economics” is rather dodgy; but as a rebranding effort, it is genius.

I work in advertising not academia. For a mixture of principled and self-interested reasons I would like behavioural science to have an influence commensurate with its importance. If that means it’s sometimes called something different, it’s a trade-off I can easily accept. But it is monstrously unfair to those people in psychology and behavioural science who must sometimes feel the baton has being snatched from them within sight of the finishing line.

That’s a fairly important “but”. How much of what I do is enabled in economics faculties because there is a body of work labelled “behavioural economics”?