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How Not To Use Behavioural Economics

Behavioural economics can provide you with powerful insight into how people make decisions and, by implication, how you can influence their decisions. You don’t need to be an economist to know this, it’s been done for centuries and it’s generally called politics or salesmanship.

Knowing how humans make decisions can be incredibly powerful. Then again, it is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

Consider the case of Wollongong University Professor Brian Cambourne. He recently flooded the office of NSW Education Minister Verity Firth with a chain email. Professor Cambourne was unhappy that the NSW Minister is actually testing the results of his teaching theories. Perish the thought!

In his chain email, Professor Cambourne suggests using framing theory to link one of the methods of teaching literacy to “failed theory, practice, programs and metaphors/analogies which can be linked to ‘failure’ in the minister’s mind, at an almost subconscious level”.

We’ve discussed how the framing heuristic contributed to the global financial crisis.

Professor Cambourne seems to overestimate the ability of framing to influence decisions. “We rely on the cognitive science framing theory, to frame things the way you want the reader to understand them to be true – framing things that you’re passionate about in ways that reveal your passion.”

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Unfortunately this statement does not do human decision making justice. When we are aware of the importance of a decision we tend to make pretty good ones.

In terms of influencing political decisions, using the framing heuristic is not particularly innovative. Sir Humphry Appleby would constantly use it whenever his minister was considering a ‘courageous’ decision. However, Sir Appleby understood human nature, and so could convince his Minister.

The key difference between the two attempts at influencing of Professor Cambourne’s and Sir Appleby was that the latter’s used framing subtly so not to alert the target’s conscious mind of what was going on. Professor Cambourne’s emails were anything but subtle. Consequentially, the NSW Minister for Education is primed to consciously focus on the chain emails and judge their content accurately.

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