Magnus JOHANNESSON: Professor Thaler, please, the stage is yours.
THALER: Thanks to all the members of the committee. And thanks for that great introduction. So, I’ve been interested in gravitational waves for a long time—oh no!
DUBNER: In an earlier episode about the Nobel Prize and how to win one, we did speak with your colleague and our friend Steve Levitt, and he said:
Steve LEVITT: [From “How to Win a Nobel Prize”] The way I know it’s Nobel season is that around Chicago, a lot of people tend to get haircuts in the few days leading up to the announcement of the prize. And so if I see all my colleagues with really short and well-maintained hair, I know that the prize must be somewhere right about the corner.
DUBNER: So we have a question here from a listener named Aaron Wicks. He writes to say, “Dear Professor Thaler, did you get a haircut in hopeful anticipation of receiving your Nobel Memorial Prize?”
THALER: No, I didn’t. And I will also say that I have heard of economists and other scientists who set their alarm.
DUBNER: And then do they practice sounding sleepy?
THALER: — like 3:45 — so that they’ll be alert, which I was the opposite of when the phone rang. And I’m a good enough amateur psychologist to know that this is a horrible idea, a really dreadful idea. So, let’s suppose my chances of winning were one in 20. Setting my alarm gives me a 95 percent chance of being awake to get the bad news. Whereas my strategy had always been to sleep soundly and then hear on NPR in the morning or now, breaking news on your phone, “Oh, isn’t that nice that Jean Tirole, a fabulous fellow, won the Nobel Prize?” And you can be happy about that. So, no, I didn’t get a haircut, and my alarm was not set.
DUBNER: In the very near aftermath of having been informed that you won the Nobel, you said this:
THALER: [At University of Chicago post-Nobel conference] And unlike Bob Dylan, I do plan to go to Stockholm.
DUBNER: And you did go to Stockholm. Tell us about that experience …
THALER: Well it’s a week-long marathon. The laureates are there for eight days of constant interviews and dinners and talks and various things. And there’s a hierarchy in the Stockholm prizes. The Peace Prize is given by Norway, and is done in Oslo. And the hierarchy is: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, economics. And so my line is that among sciences, the Swedes consider economics just after literature. And that’s because, of course, the economics prize, as we know, and as I’m sure some of your listeners will call in and inform, “You idiots, it’s not a real Nobel prize.”
DUBNER: Well, before you go on, let’s just get it straight. The Nobel Prize in economics is not what they call an original Nobel. It was established in 1968. It’s officially called the Central Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. But, as you point out, a small but vocal contingent always seeks to remind us of this fact whenever the economic prize is referred to as a Nobel Prize. What do you say to that small, vocal contingent that says, “Well, it’s not really a Nobel Prize?”
THALER: You know, it’s a pretty good substitute. And I will say, the Nobel Foundation makes exactly no distinction. So, you’re all treated the same way. But, because of this order, I spent a lot of time standing in lines and sitting next to Kazuo Ishiguro, the Literature winner, who was charming and wonderful.
But I will say that I found the whole thing to be pretty emotional, partly because of where I came from intellectually. So, as we were saying, I’m not someone that you would have predicted would be a Nobel Prize winner. And when that finally happened, it was an emotional experience.
DUBNER: Are either of your parents still alive?
THALER: No. They’re very slow.
DUBNER: They, the Nobel Committee, you’re talking about.
THALER: Yeah, the Nobel committee — they’re working their way through the 1980’s. So that means that people are typically in their late 60’s and early 70’s when they win the Nobel Prize, which means there are very few parents that get to see their children win.
DUBNER: Who do you think was most proud of you?
THALER: Danny Kahneman. Well, he was happiest. He kept telling me, “Come on, win this before I die!” And he’s 84, and he’s a friend, so I had to do it. The bribes were finally well worth it.
DUBNER: So let’s move on to talking about how behavioral economics has been applied by various people in various intensities in many different places around the world. You’ve said there are roughly 75 what are called “Nudge units” named after your and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge, about using behavioral economics in policy, essentially. Policy-making.
THALER: The latest number is 200.
DUBNER: Goodness gracious, that’s a tripling in what span of time, just a year or two?
THALER: I don’t know, and I’m not the one keeping track, but someone at the O.E.C.D. has a map with 200. Some of these are in—
DUBNER: Municipal governments.
THALER: Cities — there’s one in Chicago, for example.
DUBNER: Alright, but what would you say to date has been the greatest kind of specific contribution of behavioral economics? In other words, the greatest instance in which the research and the ideas have been applied to policy in successful measures?
THALER: I guess you’d have to say retirement saving plans. Because 401(k) plans and their ilk — defined-contribution plans — have really been transformed because of behavioral-economics research, on two dimensions. One is changing the default, so what’s called automatic enrollment. So you’re in unless you actively take some step to opt out. That has gotten enrollment rates to be north of 90 percent. And then what my colleague Shlomo Benartzi and I called “Save More Tomorrow,” which is a plan where you ask people if they want to increase their saving rates every year until they hit some reasonable level. The generic version of that is now called automatic escalation.
DUBNER: So what that means is, you get a raise and you contribute a higher percentage, but because you’re getting a raise, you still are bringing home a little bit more money and you don’t feel the pain, is that the idea?
THALER: Right. And you commit yourself to this off in the future, because we all have more self-control next month, when we’re going to start going to the gym every morning at 6:00.
DUBNER: You’ve written that “the subfield of economics in which the behavioral approach has had the greatest impact is finance.” I’d love you to talk about that for a minute. One thing I’ve never understood about behavioral finance is: once the notion of behavioral anomalies is widely accepted — and they seemed to be, now, in finance and in investing — aren’t they just subsequently priced out of the market?
THALER: Well, that’s an interesting question. And the answer is, to some extent, yes. But I’ve been involved with a money-management firm, called Fuller and Thaler, that’s been around for 25 years or so. And the things we do don’t seem to work any less well than they did 20 years ago.
DUBNER: I know Fuller and Thaler describes itself as having “pioneered the application of behavioral finance to investment management.” In what ways is the firm’s strategy actually behavioral?
THALER: So we’re explicitly thinking about, what are a class of situations in which people are likely to make a mistake? So it’s like, you go into some restaurant and somebody is leading you to your table, and there’s that one step down, and they say, “watch your step.” And they say that because if they don’t, three people a night will fall down, and they’ll have lawsuits. So, you can be a spectator watching that and say, “Oh, that guy’s about to make a mistake.” Now, you would have made that mistake, too. So, what we try to do is find those steps that are not quite in sight that will throw a majority of market participants off.
DUBNER: Let me ask you a related question. This is from Colm Ryan, who writes that he’s an accountant in Dublin, Ireland. Related to what we’ve been speaking about, with very high stakes, I should say. So here’s his question: “Given that you could apply behavioral principles to help understand what led to the 2007 crash, do you see any similarities, or, indeed, differences in what’s going on in the world today?” And before we let you answer the question, we should say that you, Richard Thaler, would seem particularly well-suited to answer this difficult question because in the film The Big Short, Selena Gomez helps you explain synthetic C.D.O.’s — collateralized debt obligations.
Ryan GOSLING: Well, here is Dr. Richard Thaler, father of behavioral economics, and Selena Gomez to explain:
Selena GOMEZ: Okay, so here is how a synthetic C.D.O. works. Let’s say I bet $10 million on a blackjack hand.
THALER: $10 million because this hand is meant to represent a single mortgage bond.
DUBNER: So first of all, was she a pretty good teacher? You understood C.D.O.’s better after that filming?
THALER: Yeah, let me just say that Selena, unlike me, was very good at memorizing lines. And I think it’s fair to say — she was a very charming young woman, and I’m deeply grateful to her because being in that movie is the only thing that I’ve done that has impressed my granddaughters, who are big Selena Gomez fans — but I think it’s fair to say, Selena knew nothing about collateralized debt obligations nor blackjack.
DUBNER: So she’s a great actress, then, because the impression is, she knows quite a bit about both.
THALER: Yeah, she’s much better actor than me. And so a possibly funny story is that in the script, the first hand, she’s dealt a 21, which of course in blackjack means you win. And she was dealt 21 and didn’t react. And so I had to take over as blackjack coach and director — both of which are uncredited in the movie, I might add — and say, “Selena, when you get dealt 21, that means you win.” And there’s a shot in there where we’re high five-ing, and that’s because she had learned in subsequent takes that when she gets dealt 21, that she’s supposed to be happy.
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s get back to Colm Ryan’s question about the 2007 meltdown and now — similarities? Differences? What do you see?
THALER: Well, I don’t think we will repeat that mistake. But that crisis followed pretty quickly after the tech crash in 2000. Right? And it started like in 2006. So we’re barely over the tech bubble, and we get this real-estate bubble. And we seem to learn one lesson and then are not able to extrapolate it to the next one. I don’t know what the next bubble will be, or whether we’re already in one. I do think that we have done some things to make banks less fragile, especially big ones. But, there are things like Bitcoin around —
DUBNER: Of which you’re not a fan, we should say.
THALER: Of which I’m not a fan.
DUBNER: You’re not not a fan of blockchain itself, correct? But as a currency, not a fan. Is that about right?
THALER: Correct. I don’t know why anyone engaged in strictly legal activities would want to use a currency that is so volatile. It’s just the opposite. Suppose you sell another book and the publisher offers you an advance in Bitcoin. Unless you were trying to cheat the I.R.S., you would say, “No, tell me what it’s going to be in dollars. Because I could end up getting half of what you’re offering me, and that’s not an attractive feature.”
DUBNER: So have you shorted Bitcoin?
THALER: No, because Warren Buffett says a lot of smart things, and one of the things he says is, don’t make investments in things you don’t understand. And I have no clue. I don’t think that the intrinsic value of Bitcoin is worth thousands of dollars. But I also think it’s entirely possible that it will go up rather than down. So “stay away” is the best advice.
DUBNER: Some people, including some economists, argue that behavioral economics is really just another way to suggest that individuals can’t be trusted to make good decisions. And so institutions, particularly the state, should take more control. Indeed, your co-author on the book Nudge, the legal scholar Cass Sunstein, for several years ran a White House unit called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which sounds about as Orwellian as you can. There are “Nudge units” in dozens of federal governments around the world. You’ve described your work as libertarian paternalism, and, furthermore, argued that that phrase is not an oxymoron. Why shouldn’t we dismiss your work as a kind of new, softer form of statism?
THALER: Well, first of all, when we use this phrase libertarian paternalism, we’re using libertarian as an adjective. And so we’re trying to say we’re going to design policies that don’t force anyone to do anything. So the claim that we’re trying to tell people what to do, or force them to do things, is just completely wrong. We are also not trying to tell them to do what we think is smart. We’re trying to help people do what they want to do.
I like to use G.P.S. as an analogy of what we’re trying to do. So, I have a terrible sense of direction. And Google Maps is a lifesaver for me. Now, if I want to go visit you, I can plug in your address, and suppose I’m walking across the park, and I see, “Oh, there’s a softball game over there. I think I’ll go watch that for a while,” Google Maps doesn’t scold me. It will re-compute a new route if I’ve gone a bit out of my way. It doesn’t suggest addresses to me. It just suggests a route. And if there’s a traffic jam, it suggests maybe you should alter your route.
So, we don’t think people are dumb. We think the world is hard. I mean, figuring out how much to save for retirement is a really hard cognitive problem that very few economists have solved for themselves. And it’s not only cognitively hard, it involves delay of gratification, which people find hard. It’s just like navigating in a strange city is hard. So, why not try to help? When I first was working with the U.K. Behavioral Insight Team, the first “Nudge unit,” the phrase I kept saying in every meeting with some minister was, “If you want to get people to do something, make it easy. Remove the barriers.” That’s what we’re about.
DUBNER: Let me go back to you and the Nobel. So, what would you say have been the biggest changes in your life since winning the prize? Both of the observable sort and unobservable?
THALER: Well, I think I spend more time talking to people like you. My inbox, my email, is completely out of control. And there are some downsides. The university all of a sudden has a lot of things that they would like you to do.
THALER: Of that ilk. So, I was a pretty happy guy. You’ve known me for years. And we saw each other recently. Did I seem demonstrably happier?
DUBNER: You looked a little taller and better-looking, but otherwise — I think that was my perception. I think you were exactly the same, actually.
THALER: No, that was just your jealousy. But look, I absolutely don’t want to sound like a sore winner or an ungrateful winner. I’m saying that most of the people who win were already pretty successful people with pretty good lives. And there’s what psychologists call a ceiling effect. So I had a pretty happy life, as you know, I have a nice wife and I have kids I love. And yes, this made me happy. And it was very gratifying. But you have this image that you’re going to be on cloud nine. And then there is life, you still get flat tires even if you have a Nobel Prize. You still have leaks at home that nobody seems to be able to fix. So they need to fix that and say that if you get a Nobel Prize, nothing can leak in your house.
DUBNER: I’ll end with where I should have started. Congratulations.
THALER: Thank you, Stephen.
DUBNER: I know everybody who listens to you is happy for you, proud of you, and most of all, we’re pleased in a selfish way to keep learning from you, because we learn a lot. And I thank you especially for that. And I look forward to the next time we speak.
THALER: So do I.