My title is yet another rip off. This time from Dan Ariely et al.’s 2006 paper Tom Sawyer and the construction of value. In my opinion, this paper lifts the lid on economics. Let me explain.
The majority of economists (there are exceptions) take the preferences of individuals as a given. I prefer watermelons to rockmelons if I am willing to pay more for watermelons. The study of economics can then be seen to answer the following question – given a group of individuals with given preferences, how are resources allocated?
Determining how these preferences are formed in the first place, and how they can be manipulated is an entirely different question, and one economists are only now beginning to grapple with. Psychologists and marketing departments have known for a long time how to influence peoples preferences, but economists have thus far remained quite ignorant.
Personally, I see a serious issues with overlooking the formation of individual preferences by economists. Ignoring the ability to manipulate preferences ignores an important feedback loop when attempting to explain inequalities of wealth. Not only does wealth provide the ability to accumulate more wealth, it provides the ability to manipulate the preferences of others in society. In fact, it is quite interesting to theorise about the impacts of a tradable commodity called a 'preference manipulation service' in a market economy. How would such a theoretical economy compare to one in which all preferences are fixed through time?
But getting back to the main point, that our preferences are revealed by our decisions, how then would we quantify preferences for non-market goods? Non-market goods are those which we cannot directly buy and sell such as air quality, clean oceans and other such things. This is a real dilemma for environmental policy makers.
The problem with surveying peoples’ willingness to pay is that they don’t actually have to pay, and can respond consistently with social expectations. For example a recent ABS survey found that "around one-third of households who were aware of GreenPower were willing to pay extra for electricity generated from renewable sources, but not all of them were using it, with around 10% of households paying for GreenPower electricity". Maybe if we use a conversion factor for such surveys, such as one third or one quarter, we might be close to the truth (if there is a truth).
There is a clear link between Dan Arierly's paper and the methods for surveying peoples preferences. For example, there are substantial priming effects. As a general rule, the more information supplied to the survey participant, the more they are willing to pay for anything! Tell them all the intricate details about the plight of penguins and we will admit that they are more valuable to us. A one liner that penguins are in danger and we won't take too much notice.
The economists dilemma then is whether or not we even have a preference unless we are forced into making the decision. Are preferences up for grabs until the last moment when we commit ourselves to a purchase? Are preferences the quantum mechanics of economics - not really there until observed?
Then again, maybe we shouldn't delve to deeply into this or we might find out just how easily we can all be manipulated and how little we know about ourselves.