The winner of this year’s Nobel prize in economics, Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, is a controversial choice. Thaler is known for his lifelong pursuit of behavioural economics (and its subfield, behavioural finance), which is the study of economics (and finance) from a psychological perspective. For some in the profession, the idea that psychological research should even be part of economics has generated hostility for years.
Not from me. I find it wonderful that the Nobel Foundation chose Thaler. The economics Nobel has already been awarded to a number of people who can be classified as behavioural economists, including George Akerlof, Robert Fogel, Daniel Kahneman, Elinor Ostrom, and me. With the addition of Thaler, we now account for approximately 6% of all Nobel economics prizes ever awarded.
But many in economics and finance still believe that the best way to describe human behaviour is to eschew psychology and instead model human behaviour as mathematical optimisation by separate and relentlessly selfish individuals, subject to budget constraints. Of course, not all economists, or even a majority, are wedded to this view, as evidenced by the fact that both Thaler and I have been elected president, in successive years, of the American Economic Association, the main professional body for economists in the United States. But many of our colleagues unquestionably are.
I first met Thaler in 1982, when he was a professor at Cornell University. I was visiting Cornell briefly, and he and I took a long walk across the campus together, discovering along the way that we had similar ideas and research goals. For 25 years, starting in 1991, he and I co-organized a series of academic conferences on behavioural economics, under the auspices of the US National Bureau of Economic Research.
Over all those years, however, there has been antagonism – and even what appeared to be real animus – toward our research agenda. Thaler once told me that Merton Miller, who won the economics Nobel in 1990 (he died in 2000), would not even make eye contact when passing him in the hallway at the University of…