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Revisiting the Behavioral Revolution in Economics

Over the past 15 years, as behavioral sciences gained widespread recognition, economics has progressively acknowledged the significance of the biases that drive individuals and firms to behave irrationally. But the much-needed epistemic revolution has failed to materialize, owing to economists’ resistance to change.

CAMBRIDGE – In 2008, University of Chicago economist (and future Nobel laureate) Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein published their book Nudge, which popularized the idea that subtle design changes in the architecture of choice (“nudges”) can influence our behavior. The book became a global phenomenon and marked an intellectual watershed. But 15 years after its publication, the question remains: Has behavioral economics lived up to the hype?

Thaler and Sunstein based their thesis on the research and insights of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which they had previously applied to the field of law and economics in a Stanford Law Review article (co-authored with Christine Jolls). While the paper was one of the most cited law-review articles ever, it remained virtually unknown outside the discipline.

But following the publication of Nudge, and against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, behavioral economics burst into the mainstream, turning Thaler and Sunstein into superstars. Thaler received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017. Sunstein was recruited by the Obama administration to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and translate the book’s findings into policy, spawning more than 200 “nudge units” around the world.