Kahneman Grants that “the Basic Concepts of Economics Are Essential Intellectual Tools”

(p. 286) Most graduate students in economics have heard about prospect theory and loss aversion, but you are unlikely to find these terms in the index of an introductory text in economics. I am sometimes pained by this omission, but in fact it is quite reasonable, because of the central role of rationality in basic economic theory. The standard concepts and results that undergraduates are taught are most easily explained by assuming that Econs do not make foolish mistakes. This assumption is truly necessary, and it would be undermined by introducing the Humans of prospect theory, whose evaluations of outcomes are unreasonably short-sighted.
There are good reasons for keeping prospect theory out of introductory texts. The basic concepts of economics are essential intellectual tools, which are not easy to grasp even with simplified and unrealistic assumptions about the nature of the economic agents who interact in markets. Raising questions about these assumptions even as they are introduced would be confusing, and perhaps demoralizing. It is reasonable to put priority on helping students acquire the basic tools of the discipline. Furthermore, the failure of rationality that is built into prospect theory is often irrelevant to the predictions of economic theory, which work out with great precision in some situations and provide good approximations in many others. In some contexts, however, the difference becomes significant: the Humans described by prospect theory are (p. 287) guided by the immediate emotional impact of gains and losses, not by long-term prospects of wealth and global utility.
I emphasized theory-induced blindness in my discussion of flaws in Bernoulli’s model that remained unquestioned for more than two centuries. But of course theory-induced blindness is not restricted to expected utility theory. Prospect theory has flaws of its own, and theory-induced blindness to these flaws has contributed to its acceptance as the main alternative to utility theory.

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *