What I Learnt About How I Learnt About Behavioral Economists

Zara Thokozani Kamwendo


This paper is a discussion of the role of the experimental methods and the dissemination practices of behavioral economists in capturing public imagination. The paper is framed by auto biographical accounts of two episodes in my own exploration of behavioral economics as a topic of study: participating in a MOOC on the basics of behavioral economics and sharing my work in progress to a group of staff and students in Singapore. Drawing on Shapin and Shaffer’s notion of “virtual witnesses” (Shapin and Shaffer 1985) I develop the argument that a consequence of the dissemination practices of the Heuristics and Biases Program is the creation of both “virtual subjects” and “virtual experimenters.” I then give an account of Thaler’s use of rationality and Kuhnian paradigm shifts as a rhetorical device to persuade mainstream economists and policy makers of the value of behavioral economics and to establish the narrative of behavioral economics as critics of neo-classical economics. I argue that the reflexive approach adds to accounts of the success of behavioral economics as a story of persuasive techniques of behavioral economists embedded in their practices of experimentation and dissemination. 


behavioral economics; heuristics and biases; dissemination; reflexivity; virtual subject

Full Text:



Ariely, D. 2008. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. London: Harper Collins.

Barton, A. and T. Grüne-Yanoff. 2015. “From Libertarian Paternalism to Nudging—and Beyond.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 6(3):341-359.

Bloor, D. 1991. Knowledge and social imagery (2nd ed.). Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Bovens, L. 2009. “The Ethics of Nudge” in Preference Change: Approaches from Philosophy, economics and psychology edited by T. Grune-Yanoff and S-O. Hansson. 207-219. New York: Springer.

Brafman, O. and R. Brafman. 2008. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour. New York: Doubleday.

Gilovich, T. 1993. How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.

Gladwell, M. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. London: Allen Lane.

Goodwin, T. 2012. “Why We Should Reject Nudge.” Politics 32(2):85-92.

Graf, R. 2019. “Nudging before the nudge? Behavioural safety regulation and the rise of behavioural economics” in Handbook of Behavioural Change and Public Policy edited by H. Straßheim and S. Beck. 23-37. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Heukelom, F. 2012. “Three Explanations For The Kahneman-Tversky Programme of The 1970s.” The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought 19(5):797-828.

Heukelom, F. 2014. Behavioral economics: a history. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, R. J. Pykett and M. Whithead, eds. 2013. Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State. Cheltenham, U.K: Edward Elgar.

Kahneman D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.

Kahneman, D. 2002. “Daniel Kahneman - Biographical.” 2014. Accessed June 12, 2019. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economic-sciences/laureates/2002/kahneman-bio.html.

Kahneman, D. and A. Tversky. 1972. “Subjective Probability - Judgment of Representativeness.” Cognitive Psychology 3(3):430-454.

Kuhn, T. S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kusch, M. 2007. “Towards A Political Philosophy of Risk: Experts And Publics In Deliberative Democracy.” In Risk: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by T. Lewens. 131-155. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Oliver, A. 2017. The Origins of Behavioural Public Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pooley, J., and M. Solovey. 2010. “Marginal to the Revolution: The Curious Relationship between Economics and the Behavioral Sciences Movement in Mid-Twentieth-Century America.” History of Political Economy, 42(1): 199-233.

Rappert, B. and C. Coopmans. 2015. “On Conveying And Not Conveying Expertise.” Social Studies of Science 45(4):611-619.

Sent, E.-M. 2004. “Behavioral economics: How psychology made its (limited) way back into economics.” History of Political Economy 36(4):735-760.

Shafir, E. ed. 2004. Preference, Belief, and Similarity: Selected Writings. Cambridge Massachusetts, Bradford Books, MIT Press.

Shapin, S. and S. Shaffer. 1985. Leviathan And The Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, And The Experimental Life: Including A Translation Of Thomas Hobbes, Dialogus Physicus De Natura Aeris By Simon Schaffer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Shiller, R. J. 2000. Irrational Exuberance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Straßheim, H. and Beck, S. eds. 2019. Handbook of Behavioural Change and Public Policy. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

Straßheim, H. 2020. “The Rise and Spread of Behavioral Public Policy: An Opportunity for Critical Research and Self-Reflection.” International Review of Public Policy, 2(1), 115-128.

Thaler, R. 1987. “Anomalies: The January Effect.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 1(1):197-201.

Thaler, R. 2015. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. New York, W. W. Norton and Company.

Thaler, R. and C. Sunstein. 2008. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman. 1974. “Judgment Under Uncertainty - Heuristics And Biases.” Science 185(4157):1124-1131.

Tversky, A. and D. Kahneman. 1983. “Extensional Versus Intuitive Reasoning: The Conjunction Fallacy in Probability Judgment.” Psychological Review 90(4):293-315.

White, M. D. 2017. “Nudging Debt: On the Ethics of Behavioral Paternalism in Personal Finance.” Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning 28(2):225–234

White, M. D. 2019. “Nudging Merit Goods: Conceptual, Normative, and Practical Connections.” Forum for Social Economics: Meritorics and Paternalism 48(3):248-63.

Whitehead, M., Jones, R., Lilley, R., Pykett, J., & Howell, R. (2018). Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the 21st Century. London and New York: Routledge.

Unpublished Material

All archival material was collected from the Russell Sage Foundation records collection, Subgroup 2, Series 7, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York, USA.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.17351/ests2020.343

Copyright (c) 2020 Zara Thokozani Kamwendo

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.