The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning

By Frances K. McSweeney; Eric S. Murphy | Go to book overview

12
Behavioral Economics and
the Analysis of
Consumption and Choice

Steven R. Hursh

The relatively new field of behavioral economics represents a concrete attempt to apply the science of behavior to understand the data of economics, as proposed by Skinner (1953). The concepts from micro-economic theory are explored with methods to study consumption by a range of species in the laboratory and the concepts of operant conditioning are extended to an understanding of demand for economic commodities. The blending of behavioral principles with micro-economic theory has been a fruitful area of research (Hursh, 1980; Kagel et al., 1975; Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Lea, 1978; Rachlin, Green, Kagel, & Battalio, 1976; Rachlin & Laibson, 1997; Thaler & Mullainathan, 2008) and provides a translational framework for extending principles derived from laboratory studies to an understanding of consumer choice observed in whole communities. Practical application of these methods pave the way for empirical research to test the implications of public policy that seek to influence the choices of people in society (Magoon & Hursh, 2011).

There are several points of converge between economics and behavioral psychology. One is a common interest in the value of goods, defined as reinforcers by the behaviorist, and defined as objects of scarce consumption by economists. A second point of convergence is an interest in the process of choice: for the economist, the allocation of limited resources for the consumption of alternative goods (consumer choice), and for the behaviorist the division of operant behavior among different competing reinforcers. In this review, we will focus more on the utility of economic methods of analysis and consistent functional relationships than on hypothetical economic concepts, such as utility functions, indifference curves, and optimal choices. What emerges is an important extension of behavioral principles and a functional analysis of economic processes (Hursh, 1980, 1984).

Concepts of behavioral economics have proven useful for understanding the environmental control of overall levels of behavior for a variety of commodities in closed

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