NUDGED INTO LOCKDOWN? BEHAVIOURAL ECONOMICS, UNCERTAINTY AND COVID-19

Forthcoming from Edward Elgar. Scroll down for details of chapters and abstracts.

Cover image: Vincent van Gogh, Prisoners Exercising/The Prison Courtyard, also known as Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré), February 1890, oil on canvas, 80 × 64 cm. Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russian Federation.

Elgar recently published another one of my books A Research Agenda in Experimental Economics.

Blurb

Relying on extensive research in economics, psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary theory, this book provides a critical perspective on the role of cognitive biases in decision-making during the recent Covid-19 pandemic; particularly the extensive use of and support for stringent social distancing measures.

Read Chapter 1 here.

Synopsis

Pandemics such as Covid-19 generate significant uncertainty; something humans are not comfortable with since we crave certainty. Uncertainty leads to feelings of fear, stress, anxiety; a sense of having  lost control of our own destiny. This, in turn, leads to a degree of irrationality both in the public’s perception of the problem as well as policy responses. In responding to the crisis, countries around the world resorted to the extensive use of stringent social distancing measures in the form of lockdowns. Available evidence suggests that the aggregate costs of such lockdowns greatly exceed the aggregate benefits. This is likely true for the rich, industrialized societies of the West with their relatively older population and is certainly true for developing nations, whose populations skew younger. There was inadequate recognition of the fact that stringent social distancing measures involved significant trade-offs: between lives lost to Covid-19 and lives lost from other diseases as we diverted resources away from them, lower national output, bankrupt businesses and higher unemployment, not to mention the emotional trauma, for instance, among children denied the ability to go to school. Yet, these measures that imposed unprecedented restrictions on our economic and social lives and liberties were accepted with few counter-arguments. Relying on extensive research in economics, psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary theory, this book provides a critical perspective on the near unanimous support for lockdowns and the role of cognitive biases in policy-responses across the world. The book should be essential reading for anyone who is interested in learning more about the science of decision-making during times of crises and lessons for future pandemics and/or crises.  

Endorsements:

In responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic, most governments abandoned the existing scientific and policy consensus and mimicked one another to embrace lockdowns of varying stringency. Remarkably, hardly any seemed to produce cost-benefit analysis. Unremarkably, the cost-benefit balance varied between rich and poor countries. In this rigorous, multi-disciplinary examination written in clearly accessible language, Professor Chaudhuri explores the reasons for the herd-like behaviour by governments and for the public compliance with their edicts. A must-read for understanding what really happened with COVID-19 and why, and for being better prepared for the inevitable next pandemic.

Ramesh Thakur; Director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (CNND), Crawford School, The Australian National University; Vice Rector and Senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations 1998–2007.

This book is at once scholarly and readily accessible to all.  The case Chaudhuri makes is not for any specific policy response, but rather for rational and fully informed decisions – for epidemiology over ideology.  If the careful logic and vivid illustrations here pry open enough minds, we will be far better prepared for the next great public health crisis than we were for COVID19.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH; President, True Health Initiative; Founding Director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center; Yale University, 1998-2019

In response to the Covid pandemic, many countries adopted containment policies that did not condition on peoples’ health status or demographic characteristics. This timely and insightful book addresses the questions of what considerations led to those policies and whether those policies were well-informed. The book begins from premise that the design of effective policy cannot be based solely on the insights of classic epidemiology models. The reason is both simple and sensible: those models don’t take into account behavioral responses of people to policies like containment. The author’s analysis is multidisciplinary in nature, blending economics, psychology, political science and epidemiology. The result is a rich and informative analysis. I highly recommend this well written and timely book.

Martin Eichenbaum; Charles Moskos Professor of Economics; Co-Director, Center for International Macroeconomics, Northwestern University

Professor Chaudhuri lays out the many irrationalities involved in the support for lockdowns in New Zealand and elsewhere: an inability to judge small probabilities, the problems with gut feelings, and many ex-post justification biases. Ananish lays out the argument carefully and yet manages to retain great humanism and compassion. A delight to read.

Paul Frijters, Professor in Wellbeing Economics, London School of Economics and Co-author of “An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks”

This timely book asks some fundamental questions about policies adopted during the Covid pandemic. It uses the tools of economic analysis – most notably insights from behavioural economics – to question the wisdom of measures adopted in many developed countries. It offers insights into how decision making could be improved when, as is inevitable, the next pandemic arrives.

David Miles, CBE, Professor of Financial Economics, Imperial College

This book is a very timely one for those, like me, who believe the democratic world’s lockdown response to the Covid virus will go down as the worst public policy response of the last few centuries.  It is sceptical.  It is interesting.  It is Great Barrington over Chief Medical Officer.  There is more to living and the good life than fear of dying of Covid.  All the politicians who focused on that matrix, and ignored other causes of death as well as all the benefits of living in a free society, and more, should have to read this book.

James Allan; Garrick Professor in Law, TC Beirne School of Law; University of Queensland

Careful comparison of costs and benefits is usually considered a hallmark of wise decision-making. Yet in 2020 many governments abandoned this standard as they tried to minimize deaths from Covid-19 regardless of cost. Traditional cost-benefit arguments were rebuked, by politicians who by nature rarely admit error, but also by ordinary folk affronted that someone would want to ‘kill granny’. This book draws insights from experimental economics, political science and psychology to show how various biases in decision-making processes contributed to this situation. Fifty years ago, Essence of Decision lead a generation of scholars to examine models of government decision-making. Hopefully Ananish Chaudhuri’s lively book has a similar impact, for scholars, students and members of the public concerned about the retreat from rationality that is revealed by policy choices and public attitudes in the Covid-19 era.

John Gibson, Professor of Economics, University of Waikato; Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand; Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists

This is an excellent book that nicely discusses cutting-edge applications in behavioural economics pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is thought-provoking and contains pioneering approaches that broaden the scope of behavioural research. Excellent writing style, making the content of the book accessible to a broad audience. Highly recommended!

            Michalis Drouvelis; Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham; Co-ordinating Editor, Theory and Decision

In this book Ananish Chaudhuri achieves the impossible – he offers an easy to read book that delivers profound insights about our behavior which applies not just to pandemics, but to many other recurrent situations in our daily lives! A must read for anyone that wants to make better decisions.

Sudipta Sarangi; Professor and Chair, Department of Economics, Virginia Tech; Co-Editor, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization; Author of “The Economics of Small Things”

In New Zealand now it is hard to remember the shock of lockdown as a pandemic response. So much has happened. The virus has been kept at bay, so far. The predicted economic disaster has not happened – yet. Massive financial relief for businesses forcibly suspended and jobs at risk was followed by a rapid recovery when shops reopened. But Ananish Chaudhuri is by no means alone in thinking the country could pay a high and lingering price for its unprecedented lockdown, and that these costs, especially the human costs, should have been weighed against the risks the virus posed. His book uses fascinating behavioural studies of economic decision making and the psychology of popular risk assessment to question the merits of measures that New Zealand’s Government took and New Zealanders overwhelmingly accepted. They should read this book and wonder if these were questions they should have asked.

John Roughan, Political Columnist, New Zealand Herald

Chapters and abstracts

    

Chapter 1          Prologue (Read the Chapter)

In this chapter, I provide an overview of global policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic; particularly the large-scale implementation of stringent social distancing measures popularly known as lockdowns. Why was there such universal support around the world for lockdowns given that much evidence suggests that the unidentified losses from lockdowns are larger than the potential benefits? There are and were available other intermediate steps between lockdowns and zero interventions that would have resulted in total harm minimization. Here, I set the scene for a critical re-evaluation of lockdown policies. In doing so, I introduce the concepts of trade-offs and opportunity costs. I point out that while lockdowns may have saved lives from Covid-19, they led to loss of lives (and livelihoods) elsewhere.  

Keywords: Opportunity cost; trade-offs; lockdowns; SIR model; valuing human lives; cost-benefit analysis.

Chapter 2          Gut feelings: Heuristics, biases and Covid-19

I argue in this chapter that the strong global support for lockdowns arise from a particular set of cognitive errors that can be analyzed using lessons drawn from the heuristics and biases literature.  I introduce readers to the distinction between “identified lives” and “statistical lives” as well as between System 1 (or intuitive thinking) and System 2 (or deliberative thinking). System 2 or deliberative thinking is especially important in situations that are unfamiliar and complex generating significant uncertainty. I explain the concept of the “availability heuristic” including notions of priming, framing and anchoring biases. I show how such cognitive errors and biases played a pronounced role both in why policy-makers resorted to lockdowns and how the general public accepted these willingly.

Keywords: Identified lives and statistical lives; availability heuristic; cognitive biases; priming; framing; anchoring.

Chapter 3          Probabilities and Pathogens

In this chapter, I explore the role of probabilities in understanding pandemic responses. I show that humans are not intuitive statisticians and therefore not very good in interpreting probabilities; this often leads us to overweight small probabilities and underweight large ones. I introduce readers to the concepts of base rates, expected values, expected utility and risk aversion. I also provide an overview of Prospect Theory and the idea of loss aversion. Loss aversion implies that humans are typically willing to accept larger expected losses in the future in order to avoid smaller but certain losses in the present. I discuss the implications of these findings for Covid-19 risk perceptions and policy responses. I then utilize evolutionary theories to show why female-led countries were more pro-active in dealing with Covid-19.

Keywords: Base rates; expected value; Expected Utility Theory; Prospect Theory, loss aversion; risk aversion; gender differences in risk preferences.

Chapter 4          Should we trust people to do the right thing?

In this chapter, I discuss the role of trust and trustworthiness in our everyday lives and explore their implications for Covid-19 policy. Can we trust people to wear masks and/or self-isolate on their own accord or must they be compelled to do the right thing on the basis of penalties for non-compliance? I also discuss the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives and show that a model of humanity that starts from a large degree of mistrust is not borne out by the evidence. I show that allowing for intrinsic motivations can lead to very different policy responses not only when it comes to pandemics but across a range of activities such as organizational design, providing micro-finance and how we design penalties for rule violators.

Keywords: Trust; trustworthiness; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation; gift-exchange; efficiency wages; microfinance; agency problems.

Chapter 5          Politics, Pathogens and Party Lines

During the Covid-19 pandemic, a popular narrative took hold that conservatives were anti-lockdown while liberals were in favor. In this chapter, I show that this unidimensional view of politics is incomplete, if not inaccurate. Both conservatives and liberals come in two flavors: social conservatives and social liberals as well as economic conservatives and economic liberals; these groups differ in their policy stances. When it came to support for lockdowns there was a concordance in the views of social conservatives and economic liberals but for very different reasons. I also explore evolutionary reasons behind why these political ideologies came to exist and explore their potential policy implications during the pandemic.

Keywords: Conservative; Liberal; Social Dominance Orientation; Authoritarianism; Moral Foundations Theory; Dual evolutionary foundations of political ideology.

Chapter 6          Irrational exuberance in the midst of Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic caused the global economy to sink into recession. Yet the prices of houses and other financial assets boomed. In this chapter, I discuss the concept of an asset bubble where the price of a financial asset deviates from its true underlying value. I show how cognitive biases played a role in such price bubbles. I explain the types of expansionary fiscal and monetary policies that governments adopted in order to fight the recession caused by Covid-19. I then show how those same monetary and fiscal policies exacerbated such price bubbles. I conclude by showing that these price bubbles will cause greater inequality within countries between white-collar and blue-collar workers.   

Keywords: Efficient markets theory; fundamental value; price bubbles; monetary policy; fiscal policy; deficit financing.

Chapter 7          Epilogue

In this chapter, I discuss the uncomfortable racial divide inherent in Covid-19 policy making within and across countries. I also answer a series of frequently asked questions from those who support lockdowns. These include issues such as long Covid; why the United States was such an outlier among rich nations in having a proportionally higher death toll; why Covid-19 was not the threat it was made out to be for developing nations, which routinely deal with far deadlier diseases; and why, when it came to Covid-19, we could not just trust the science to the extent that this meant listening only to epidemiologists. I point out how Covid-19 was a social, economic and ethical dilemma that required expertise from many different sciences. I end by exploring lessons learned from the current pandemic and implications for decision-making in future pandemics.

Keywords: Median age and Covid-19 incidence; asymptomatic infectiousness of Covid-19; Covid-19 fatality rate vis-à-vis other pandemics; potential aerosolization of lethal pathogens; HIV/AIDS; Stringency Index; economic growth rates.