Advice from the Masters: Richard Thaler

May 17, 2017 | Better Writing

For a long time, I thought that economists were philosophers who thought about money. Then they got a case of physics envy. Before they had been boring and unrealistic in words, but now they began use mathematics as well. In 1969, they even came up with their own “Nobel” prize, even though neither Alfred Nobel or his money had anything to do with it.

For a long time, when you studied economics you needed a willing suspension of disbelief to accept their ludicrous descriptions of how the world worked. Their world was populated by people who only thought about money, no sex or other appetites for them. And they could always have perfect information and handy equations to make their decisions.

Then I discovered the behavioral economists. Richard Thaler is my favorite of the breed because I like the little bits of wisdom he drops along the trail while he studies how real people make decisions in the real world. Here are two of my favorites.

“We can’t do evidence-based policy without evidence.”

“If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy.”

You’ll find those two pieces of advice on the same page in Thaler’s book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. You’ll also find this advice later in the book about editing down a manuscript.

“Many mentioned the advice, often attributed to William Faulkner, but apparently said by many, that writers have to learn to ‘kill their darlings.’ The advice has been given so often, I suspect, because it is hard for any writer to do. When it came time to revise the manuscript, I decided to create an ‘outtakes’ file of material that was in the first draft but was cruelly murdered. My plan is to post some of these precious masterpieces of glorious verbiage on the book’s website. I don’t know how many of these passages will actually get posted, but the beauty of this plan is that it doesn’t matter. Merely having a place where these pieces are stored in a folder on my computer labeled ‘outtakes’ has been enough to reduce the pain of cutting some of my favorite passages, a pain that can hurt as much as wearing those expensive, ill-fitting shoes. The bigger lesson is that once you understand a behavioral problem, you can sometimes invent a behavioral solution to it. Mental accounting is not always a fool’s game.”

Want more? Check out the complete list of Advice from the Masters posts

If you want even more writing advice from writers, check out Jon Winokur’s blog, “AdvicetoWriters.”

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