What I Learnt About How I Learnt About Behavioral Economists

  • Zara Thokozani Kamwendo St John’s College, Durham University
Keywords: behavioral economics, heuristics and biases, dissemination, reflexivity, virtual subject


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. 

Author Biography

Zara Thokozani Kamwendo, St John’s College, Durham University

I am very grateful to Daniel Kahneman and Eric Wanner who graciously agreed to talk to me about their work, and to the staff at the Rockefeller Archive Center for guiding me through the process of accessing the material in their custody. Thanks also to my PhD supervisors, Professors Jane Calvert and Steve Sturdy for supporting me so competently through producing the thesis. Much gratitude is due to my colleagues Catelijne Coopmans, Deborah Scott, and Morgan Currie for patiently helping me draft the manuscript. And, finally, many thanks to Katie Vann and the editing team of ESTS, and to the anonymous reviewer for their helpful and insightful comments.  


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Unpublished Material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.

10 Oct 2020
Research Articles