Undercover Economist

Nominations for a silly economics prize with a deeper purpose

While the Nobel Prizes are no doubt a splendid thing, the Ig Nobels are far more fun. Ig Nobel prizes have been awarded for discovering that every language has a word for “huh?” (Literature, 2015) and for comparing the discomfort of looking at an ugly painting with the discomfort of being shot with a laser beam (Art, 2014), and of course for studying farts (Biology, 2004; Literature, 1998).

They do not seem very important, and indeed Robert May, then the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, requested in the 1990s that Ig Nobels not be awarded to British scientists for fear of damaging their reputations.

That seems a little po-faced. It may be better for researchers to laugh at themselves than to let politicians do it for them. The late William Proxmire, a former US senator, relished his “Golden Fleece” awards, a destructive and sometimes inaccurate mockery of research conducted at taxpayers’ expense.

Proxmire did not seem to care that silly research sometimes has serious benefits. The Ig Nobels are designed to “make you laugh, then make you think”, and they have a surprising record of turning up gems. Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel for levitating a live frog, en route to his Nobel Prize in physics for his work on graphene. David Dunning and Justin Kruger received an Ig Nobel prize in psychology for discovering that incompetent people are too incompetent to know they are incompetent. It seemed funny at the time; nobody is laughing these days.

I have been disappointed, however, with the quality of Ig Nobel prizes in economics and business, which have recognised rogue trader Nick Leeson, Lloyd’s of London, Enron, WorldCom, and the entire banking system of Iceland. This is a shame, because if silly-seeming research in physics and biology might lead somewhere intriguing, why not recognise silly research in economics and business?

I have a few candidates in mind. I’d like to nominate Benjamin Scheibehenne, Peter Todd and Rainer Greifeneder for discovering that whether you offer shoppers a choice between a few types of jam, or lots of types of jam, it doesn’t make much difference to whether they buy jam. This finding might seem unremarkable, but the received wisdom in behavioural economics had been that consumers simply stop buying if offered too many choices. Prof Scheibehenne’s team examined 50 studies and concluded that on average, offering more choices made no difference either way.

I also nominate economists Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, for studying fake news by inventing fake fake news. They conducted their study immediately after the 2016 presidential election, in an effort to measure how much fake news was around, and how many people had seen it. The use of “fake” fake news was to test people’s recall of “real” fake news stories: some people will say they remember seeing things that they did not, and so Profs Allcott and Gentzkow put fake fake news alongside real fake news and real real news in order to understand what was really going on. Clear?

Perhaps the Ig Nobel committee is concerned that the pair are trespassing on the domain of recent winner Gordon Pennycook (a psychologist) with the economist David Rand. Profs Pennycook and Rand are studying “bullshit receptivity”, a tendency to read profound meanings into randomly generated sentences such as “we are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself” and “hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty”. Highly bullshit-receptive experimental subjects were more likely to believe in fake news headlines, even when part of the study was conducted on April 1.

If all this seems rather obvious, note that there’s an important difference between the kinds of things people believe because they don’t stop to think (for instance, that Pope Francis endorsed US president Donald Trump), and the kinds of things people believe because their political identities depend on it (for instance, that Mr Trump is “draining the swamp”). Anyone trying to restore sanity to political debate needs to understand the distinction. If you think this isn’t an important issue, I have a story about EU cabbage regulations to tell you.

Finally, I nominate Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, for discovering that being “hangry” is a major impediment to economic development. In their book, Scarcity (UK) (US), Profs Mullainathan (an economist) and Shafir (a psychologist) argue that there is a common response to being short of almost anything: money, time, and even food. Scarcity absorbs our mental energies and makes us act in ways that can be deft in the short term but self-defeating over the long haul.

The Ig Nobels glory in the opposite: a surplus of weird ideas that are foolish in the short term but may pay dividends in the end. And if they do not? There’s no harm in being silly.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 21 September 2018.

My book “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy” (UK) / “Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy” (US) is out now in paperback – feel free to order online or through your local bookshop.

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