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DisCovering Manipulation

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At lunch today with Todd Zywicki, one of my insight-filled colleagues from over in the GMU School of Law, the subject of behavioral economics arose.  I told Todd of the many problems that infect George Akerlof’s and Robert Shiller’s book, grounded in behavioral economics, Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception [2].  Akerlof and Shiller complain throughout their book of the many devious devices allegedly used by sellers to dupe buyers – all of whom suffer from humans’ natural psychological deformities – into buying things that these buyers (according to Akerlof and Shiller) really and truly, deep down, rationally don’t want to buy.

I shared with Todd the vital economic lesson that Akerlof and Shiller draw from the lyrics [3] of the 1953 Patti Page [4] song “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window? [5]”  That lesson is about the manipulativeness of pet-store owners who openly display, for the all the vulnerable public to see, doggies with waggly tails.  Such underhanded marketing schemes are, according to Akerlof and Shiller, a natural and regrettable part of competitive free markets.*

Todd paused upon realizing just how infected markets are with such dangerously irresistible ploys.  He then asked about the book’s cover: “Is it generic?”  Then I paused, horror-struck.

No!  It’s not generic!

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Akerlof and Shiller (or their publisher, Princeton University Press) use a cover meant to catch the eye – to phish for phools.  The cover is bright yellow with interesting art.  Clearly, this cover design preys upon consumers’ psychological weaknesses; it dupes many people into buying the book when, in fact, these buyers really don’t want the book.  Even worse, if a prospective buyer opens the book and reads the inside flap, he discovers that each of the authors is a Nobel-laureate economist.  Who can resist buying a book written by such acclaimed experts?!  What human mortal is so rational and so in control of his or her faculties that he or she can make a truly rational, non-distorted decision about buying a book when that book is adorned with eye-catching cover art, a clever alliterative title, and is written by two Nobel-prize winners?  Akerlof and Shiller would (judging from the contents of their book) answer “very few.”

So we can conclude that too many copies of this book have been sold and read.  We can further conclude that the ideas contained in the book are likely accepted too uncritically because the reading audience is undoubtedly unduly and irrationally impressed by the authors’ credentials.

A genuinely good, non-manipulative, and ethically upright cover would be this one:

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* This mention of Akerlof’s and Shiller’s use of the Patti Page song is no joke.  They really do use it as a pointer to how merchants in real-world markets manipulate consumers into buying things – in this case, doggies with waggly tails – that consumers ‘really’ don’t want to buy.

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