With so much talk of doom, gloom, and Great Depressions, why do so many Americans oppose the just-passed "bailout" plan? Is the lack of urgency rooted in a lack of understanding or are there other forces at work?
Dan Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. I recently talked with him about some hidden forces shaping the current financial crisis.
Mac Greer: You have a lot of Americans seeing this as a Wall Street crisis and not so much as a "Main Street" crisis. What do you think it will take for most Americans to reach some sort of a consensus that this crisis really requires immediate action?
Dan Ariely: Well, one thing is we have been telling a lot of people for a long time that whatever they have in the stock market is about long-term strategy and not any short-term things. So the current change in speak, in some sense, doesn't seem to be very effective. We have been telling people for 20 years the money you have in the stock market is about retirement, it is not about anything urgent. Don't look at it. It is all about long-term strategy. It is very hard to convince people that all of a sudden that it is short term. That is one thing.
The second thing is that nothing has changed much in the short term living of people. In some sense, this is smaller than the effect of the increasing gas prices.
Ariely: What is happening? Basically the thing is we are creatures of habit, if you think about it. The best predictor of what we will do tomorrow is what we did today. That is it. Habits are good and bad. They are good because they help us save energy. We don't have to think about it. We don't have to contemplate every cup of coffee if it is worth it or not. As a consequence, we get into habits.
Now the question is, when will we change habits? I think we change habits only when we have to. Right now, because salaries have not changed and prices in the markets have not really changed, we don't have to change habits, so we don't see anything happening. The moment we will start seeing those, the moment stores will be closed, people we know will start losing their jobs, anything like that will happen, people would revise -- and revise big time.
But the other thing is, I think there is a huge sense of kind of justice. And people have been watching executives on Wall Street making a lot of money for a long time. There is clearly a feeling that they haven't produced anything useful to justify that amount. There's a kind of happiness with the fall of Wall Street.
Greer: A little schadenfreude. I think you're right.
Ariely: So I think it is a very complex, very complex phenomenon. The growth of the economy last year was mostly in the financial sector. Think from the perspective of an individual who sees the salaries, who sees the amounts of money and they think, what are these guys doing? They are managing my money that I worked very hard for and every year they take 1% out of it for the privilege of doing what? Following the S&P 500? So there is a sense of justice.
There is actually a very interesting paper by a group of Swiss economists who basically looked at people's desire to punish and there is a game we call the trust game. Imagine that you and I each get $10. And you get to pass to me $10 or you can keep your money. If you keep your money, the game is over. If you pass me the $10, the money quadruples on the way to me, so when I get it, I have my own $10, plus I have the $40 that you passed me. Now I have $50 and I can decide one of two things. I can either send you back nothing or I can send you back $25. If I send you $25, everybody is better off and everybody is happy. What happened if I send you nothing? You are unhappy, right?
Ariely: But now I give you a chance to punish me. I say, look, if you spend a dollar, the experiment will take $2 away from me. Another question is, would you be willing to suffer to punish me even more? And what happens is a lot of people are willing to punish other people, even when it costs them money.
What is more interesting is that this experiment they did was actually in the PET scan … So basically they measured what parts of the brain work as people think about it. It turns out that the part of the brain we call the striatum, which is usually related to reward -- it is the place that gets activated when we eat food and get sex and heroin and stuff like that -- is also activated when people make decisions about punishing others.
So the interesting thing is that there is some kind of pleasure in punishing others who have kind of violated some social fairness or norms.
Greer: So that may explain why I wouldn't support legislation, even if I think there is going to be some short-term pain for me because at the end of the day I think the chickens are coming home to roost and these fat cats on Wall Street had it coming. It is going to hurt them more than it is going to hurt me, so it is going to be worth any short-term pain that I have to endure.
Ariely: That is exactly right. So we are willing to lose money, the people with small portfolios are willing to lose a little bit of money if these guys would really hurt.
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