Hersh Shefrin, Richard Thaler, and the beginning of the fight to have behavioral economics taken seriously. There was yelling involved.
Santa Clara University finance professor Hersh Shefrin could not be prouder that Richard Thaler, the man he worked with for more than 15 years to bring psychological and behavioral insights into mainstream economic models, just won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Shefrin also happens to be one of the few people who remembers that this world-changing work didn’t start out auspiciously. In fact, it started with yelling.
“I knew in the ’70s we were breaking new ground,” recalls Shefrin of the work that he and Thaler first embarked on as junior faculty at the University of Rochester. “But when Dick and I would speak to our faculty colleagues in seminars, the hostility was very strong. Yelling, displays of temper, people telling us that what we were doing was crazy.”
Their crazy notion? The idea that traditional, or “neoclassical” economics, had for decades wrongly assumed that people would always behave in ways that best served their overall self-interest. If people know they must save for the long-term, for instance, neoclassical models presumed they would coolly assess their income, assets, and spending, and put aside the optimal amount to accumulate assets over their lifetimes.
The two upstart junior faculty members argued otherwise. They believed neoclassical economics was failing to factor in the reality that—due to psychological influences such as self-delusional behaviors—humans quite often behaved differently from the norms assumed by traditional economic models. And, they argued, that reality had serious implications—as more and more Americans were being put in charge of their own long-term financial well-being, with the decline in traditional pensions and an uncertain Social Security safety net.
Shefrin and Thaler also had some support at Rochester from their colleague Tom Russell, now professor emeritus of economics at Santa Clara, who arrived at SCU at the same time as Shefrin, and who also eventually published with Thaler.
Shefrin and Thaler shook off their numerous critics and spent the subsequent decades studying many fascinating questions about how psychology impacts financial and economic behavior.
Among the descriptions of Thaler’s accomplishments in the Scientific Notes accompanying the award by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences were numerous mentions of the foundational work he co-authored with Shefrin, now SCU’s Mario L. Belotti Professor of Finance.
Planners and Doers
Shefrin and Thaler’s early, seminal paper titled “An Economic Theory of Self-Control,” sought to model the concept of temptation in a formal way, “something that was totally absent from the economics literature at that time,” recalls Shefrin.
The paper discussed “simultaneous internal conflict” involving two parts of the brain, in which people know they want to do something but can’t get themselves to actually do it. At Thaler’s suggestion, they called the part of the brain that wants to do something “the planner” and the other part “the doer.” The “planner-doer” model became a highly influential way of approaching economics, and would later be credited with substantially helping to increase the rate at which Americans save.
Thaler and Shefrin’s fascination with behavioral economics had different origins for each of them.
Thaler, who taught in the University of Rochester’s business school, became intrigued after a dinner party at his home, when guests implored him to take away some cashew nut hors d’oeuvres, lest they spoil their dinner. The classically trained economist in him wondered, “Well, if you’re rational, you simply choose to stop eating,’” at some optimal point, Shefrin explains. But because the guests felt helpless to do so, Thaler “asked the question, ‘What’s going on in our heads, and why is it that people don’t behave rationally in these kinds of situations?’”
Shefrin, then in the economics department at Rochester, had his own “aha moment” as his wife, a dental hygiene faculty member, was working on a research project which sought to help people with eating disorders make better healthcare decisions. Shefrin started thinking about eating disorders as an extreme example of people not acting in their own long-term best interest, and decided he wanted to study how non-rational behavior played out in economics.
Before long, he and Thaler found each other and began a 15-year collaboration, which continued even as Shefrin moved to Santa Clara University in 1978 and Thaler moved on to Cornell University.
One such collaboration was a 1986 study of Santa Clara University MBA students, designed to investigate how individuals think about money differently based on how they acquire it.
The study’s central question: Is the way a person spends or saves money dependent on the source of the money—a paycheck vs. a home or investment vs. a windfall inheritance—or is the total value of their wealth all that matters? The students in the survey were presented with three scenarios, all of which were equivalent from a financial perspective but differed in how those finances were described. The survey results showed that even though acquiring money in each scenario increased their wealth by precisely the same amount, students were much more willing to spend certain kinds of wealth (especially from their paychecks) and inclined to save a far greater portion of certain other types of wealth (especially future wealth from an inheritance).
“Our Santa Clara students were the first to provide evidence in a systematic way that said it really matters in what form you get your wealth,” said Shefrin. The power of that concept—a special case of a phenomenon called “mental accounting”—loomed large in the Nobel Prize committee’s praise for Thaler.
Shefrin managed to infect fellow Santa Clara colleague Meir Statman, the Glenn Klimek Professor of Finance, with the behavioral bug, and the two began a decades-long collaboration, exploring how people save and invest, factoring in the impact of psychological phenomena. The Royal Swedish Academy mentioned the work of Shefrin and Statman in their Notes, pointing out that they “provided the first empirical evidence” of the so-called “disposition effect,” in which investors are loath to unload losing stocks.
The Santa Clara pair won the William F. Sharpe Award for Scholarship in Financial Research from the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis for their work on behavioral portfolio theory, and the Graham and Dodd Scroll Award from the Association for Investment Management and Research for their paper “Ethics, Fairness and Efficiency in Financial Markets.” Notably, Shefrin and Statman’s joint work launched the literature in behavioral finance.
Shefrin’s book Beyond Greed and Fear was the first comprehensive treatment of behavioral finance. He has also written several other books that focus on how the behavioral approach impacts organizations: Behavioral Corporate Finance, Ending the Management Illusion, and Behavioral Risk Management.
Thaler, meanwhile, continued his research into practical ways to mitigate the impact of low self-control on saving rates, the main issue at the heart of his work with Shefrin. Thaler’s subsequent groundbreaking work with his former graduate student, Shlomo Benartzi, on a program called Save More Tomorrow, would eventually be adopted by major investment firms such as the giant investment group Vanguard.
Shefrin has written a tribute to Thaler for the online publication Vox, noting that “Thaler’s academic work teaches us to beware of the limits of assuming that the world is populated by rational actors.”
Santa Clara University is helping to carry on Thaler’s legacy in another way as well: His granddaughter Hallie Friedfeld ‘19 is a junior at SCU, double majoring in child studies and sociology, and currently studying in Copenhagen. “I am very proud and excited to see the work that he has been developing for so long be acknowledged to the highest degree,” she wrote in an e-mail about her grandfather. “It truly is a lifelong goal and he really deserves it.”
Shefrin is also bursting with pride for his former research partner. Speaking as a theorist, he says he is proud of how his work with Thaler generated new insights into the interaction between human emotion and human cognition, and also set the stage for the emergence of neuroeconomics, which focuses on how brain structure impacts economic decisions.
“The fact that the work which Dick and I did together led to a system for helping people save more, is a source of pride for me,” he said.
Oct 17, 2017
Decades before he won the Nobel Prize in 2017, American economist Richard Thaler (right) and SCU Professor of Finance Hersh Shefrin were research partners.