Consumer Choices

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 2, 2010    •    745 Views

If you were asked today to plan next week’s snacks, would you select fruit or chocolate? In a 1998 study, 74% of those surveyed said fruit. However, when the same people had to decide between fruit and chocolate for today’s snack, 70% chose chocolate.

As explained by behavioral economists, those who chose chocolate for today’s snack were “overvaluing” current gratification and “undervaluing” the future benefits from fruit. Behavioral economists also believe that people tend to choose the status quo instead of other choices that require active decision-making. 

This takes me to a question. If we tend to overvalue current gratification and stick with the status quo, then how can we make wise decisions about health care insurance, retirement planning, and mortgages? In a recent column, New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki suggests “choice architecture” through which optimal choices are the default option. For example, a fixed rate, self amortizing 30 year mortgage would be the default rather than a more risky loan. Another possibility is just having a brief explicit disclosure that buyers have to sign. For example, when getting a risky mortgage, they would have to indicate that they knew that, ” You could lose your home.” (Researchers have found that this works.) Surowiecki also recommends that government protect us and that schools mandate financial literacy courses.

The Economic Lesson

Behavioral economics offers some insight that legislators should recognize. Still though, we have the convergence of the profit seeking sell side and the buy side with a plethora of exploitable tendencies. Add to that congressmen with reelection concerns and you start to wonder how 2300 pages of financial reform can reflect our collective wisdom.  


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