Behavioral economics faces its limits

Behavioral economics seems to have reached that point where, according to Thomas Kuhn’s theory, paradigms face puzzles they can’t explain and anomalies start to pile up. Attacks come from evolutionary psychologists and thinkers from other fields. I think the main point for social marketers is a criticism that has been croppinp up in such attacks: that real social problems demand much more than simple nudges. It is easier to push for more efficient vehicles, but what about the more efficient tax on carbon? (This is a point made by the great BE George Loewenstein who claims that BE is not a substitute for mainstrem economics). This is why I became a fan of systems modelling. To create social change we must identify the real leverage points of change. BE solutions often obfuscates them.

Frames, metaphors and social good

Consider the following situations:

1. A mayor who tried (unsuccessfully) to apply a steep increase to property tax by comparing it to the utilities bill paid by people who live in condos.

2. Advertising of alcoholic beverages in a given country has to display (obeying a self-regulated council of advertisers’ charter) one among six messages emphasizing mostly personal responsibility or an implicit forbidden fruit appeal, such as “this product is targeted at adults”, “don’t drink and drive” or “drink with responsibility”.

Those acquainted with the work of the linguist George Lakoff and others (an offspring of Lakoff’s work is the Gerald Zaltman’s recent book “Marketing Metaphoria”) or acquainted with the powerful effects of frames, metaphors and priming on social agenda setting will quickly grasp the underlying issues in situations like the ones exemplified above.

Not only do ideas have consequences. Frames and metaphor are vital to tackle social problems. By definition, they always leave out aspects of the issue at discussion. One of my favorite examples is the metaphor of labor (work) as a resource, a staple in economic discourse. It leaves out the aspect of meaningful and meaningless work.

It is important for social marketers to fight the right battle at upstream level, the battle that takes place in values territory. This requires a proper understanding of the underlying frames and their associated emotional charge.

The following paper exemplifies these questions, focusing on the difference between market justice and social justice, on how the media amplify frames potentially detrimental to social good (amplifying the fundamental attribution error, playing the “blaming the victim” card) and on how to frame messages with social interest. It is a great reading: