We have all seen it: Someone asks what you study and you see their eyes glaze over in boredom, as you try to convince them that economics is cool. For most non-economists, the subject is just a bunch of numbers, equations, and spreadsheets with some fuzzy link to business, profits, bankers, and other evil things. They never seem to understand that, at its heart, economics is about how society works — and ultimately how we human beings work.
Admittedly, even us students can sometimes find this hard to remember and many of us find our own eyes glazing over as we try to perform the mental acrobatics of solving a differential equation, without ever really knowing what a differential equation actually is.
By its nature, economics is a technical and rigorous branch of human knowledge. But the questions it asks are often not so complicated — why are some countries poor and others rich? Will consumers gain or lose from this merger? Questions like these form the backdrop of what is taught in classrooms, but this is rarely acknowledged.
To me, this seems like a great pity. Too often it leads to talent being wasted: The race to the top of the ranking stifles creativity, while the absurd workload stops students from taking the time to really think about the question they are trying to answer. Repetition is all too often the surest way to a good grade. The result is demoralising and, for me at least, boring.
Realising this, a small group of M1 students came together in the early weeks of the first semester last year. Shell shocked from the barrage of material that was thrown at us, we decided to enter the annual nudgefrance competition — a national behavioural economics competition that invites students to create an idea for a nudge (a subtle intervention which makes people more likely to choose one option over another) and shoot a video to demonstrate it. Over a couple of rushed lunchtime meetings and half a weekend we cobbled together an idea and shot a video.
It’s probably a good thing that that video never went very far, but the experience motivated us to create the TSE Behavioural Team.
“Modelled on the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, our goal is to use behavioural economics to create evidenced-based policy improvements — or nudges.”
Our work always has a real world application, but it is built on theory. For example, our logo is inspired by a core behavioural economics finding: One of the pillars of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory is that we misjudge probabilities: At the bottom of the graph the curve is above the 45-degree line; showing how we overweight the probabilities of events that are actually pretty unlikely (fear of flying), while the upper corner shows that we underweight events that are likely (smokers getting lung cancer).
But our day-to-day work is much more hands on. In the short time we have existed we have already launched one major experiment. Last Spring, working with the Dean of TSE, we tested to see whether behaviourally informed emails could nudge students to fill out more course evaluation forms. We sent 1,115 students the treatment and 1,100 a control email.
“The results were astounding. Overall, nudged students were 77% more likely to give feedback.”
These are impressive results, but our analysis suggests there is room for further improvements. For example, we know our nudge was effective at getting students to “click-through” the email to the Moodle page, but was less effective at keeping them on that page.
Building on this result next year will be just one of a long list of projects that we are currently preparing. We are hoping some of these will be in association with UT-Capitole and perhaps even the Mairie de Toulouse (Mayor’s office).
In order to achieve all this our team needs to grow. In the first semester we are planning on bringing 2-3 Masters or PhD level students on board into our core team. We will also support Licence students in the nudgefrance competition and are hoping to build as large as possible a network of ‘associate’ team members from all levels of the student body who will be able to drop in and out of projects, as their schedule allows.
Core team members have to work hard. Over the summer many of us have had to boot up Stata for a night of coding and analysis — even after a long day at our internships. But the reward is big: Bringing a project from brainstorming stage to reporting is an incredible feeling and is probably the best way to put some of the skills learnt at TSE into practice. We are also unapologetic about the fact that this is excellent CV material. Whether it is economic consulting, PhD places, or something entirely different, having experience of applying theory in the real world automatically places us in the top decile of any applicant pile.
In only a short time, we have come a long way. But we are looking forward changing the way TSE works — helping students get out of the classroom and discover the power of the skills they are learning. So if this sounds like something that excites you be sure to get in touch in September and get on board!
by Seán McKiernan
Leader, The TSE Behavioural Team