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Winners of 2013′s behavioral economics oscars

by Cass R. Sunstein

Bloomberg

The Oscars won’t be awarded until March, but those who hand out the annual Behavioral Economics Oscars (known as the Becons) are famously impatient, and it is time to announce this year’s winners.

Best Actress: In recent years, behavioral economists have become interested in emotions and affect. It is now widely known that human beings use an “affect heuristic” in thinking about activities and risks. Instead of carefully assessing the statistics about (say) nuclear power or genetic modification of food, we tend to ask: How do we feel about it? The answer to that question operates as a mental shortcut, or a heuristic, that informs and sometimes settles our judgments.

Adele Exarchopoulos is the star of “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” which is a case study in the affect heuristic. Her character Adele has an immediate and intense affective reaction to Emma (played by Lea Seydoux), and that reaction is (soon) reciprocated. It is enough to sustain a love affair, even though the two characters aren’t exactly made for each other. The words “affect heuristic” are far too clunky for Exarchopoulos’ clunk-free performance, but perhaps she’ll forgive, because she gets to bring home the Becon.

Best Actor: Behavioral economists have been keenly interested in the importance of identity — race, religion, ethnicity, gender — in explaining human behavior. Our actions are often affected by the particular aspect of our identity that is “primed” by social situations. If, for example, your employer is drawing attention to the fact that you are female or African-American, you might well find yourself acting in stereotypical ways (or perhaps in ways that deliberately violate the stereotypes).

“The Attack” is a searing study of the complex effects of social identity. Ali Suliman plays Amin Jaafari, an Arab-Israeli doctor who works in Tel Aviv and is widely liked and admired by his Jewish colleagues. Jaafari is devastated to learn that his beloved wife, having lived a secret life, died as a suicide bomber, intentionally killing numerous Israelis.

The central question the movie ends up asking is: With whom does Jaafari really identify? Thanks to Suliman’s astonishing and subtle performance, the answer isn’t clear, but he himself can proudly claim a new identity: Becon winner.

Best Song: Behavioral economists have written a great deal about “precommitment strategies,” by which people protect themselves against their own propensity to error. If you have a problem with alcohol, tobacco or overeating, or if you are unable to save money, you might adopt some rule or strategy that will supply a corrective.

A precommitment strategy can take the form of a public declaration. On that count, Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is iconic — and Beconic. (True, the song isn’t in a movie, at least not yet, but Taylor isn’t bound by the normal rules. Like, ever.)

Best Director: People often think they make decisions on the merits, when they are actually following the views and actions of other people in their social networks. In some cases, our willingness to do what others do produces “informational cascades,” which arise when each of us disregards his/her own private knowledge and follows the judgment of the herd, which can ultimately grow very large. Fads, fashions, runaway best-sellers, political movements and even revolutions can be built in this way.

It’s almost impossible to make a movie about informational cascades. Human behavior is pretty complicated, and a director can’t easily film scenes in which human beings are mindlessly following one another. Any such scenes would have to involve, well, zombies. Marc Forster is the director of “World War Z,” and he devours the Becon.

Best Picture: Some of the most interesting work in behavioral science explores the relationship between two families of cognitive operations, described as System 1 and System 2. System 1 is intuitive, rapid and emotional. (If you’re a “Star Trek” fan, think Captain Kirk.) System 2 is deliberative, calculative and logical (Mr. Spock). System 1 is what makes life worth living, but if we rely exclusively on it and don’t pay attention to System 2, life might turn out to be poor, miserable, sick and short.

A lot of terrific movies explore the tension between the two systems, featuring characters who fall in love with just the right person, or find a wonderful path in life, only to be undone by their own short-term impulses. It’s hard to think of any movie, ever, in which System 1 finds what it wants, and System 2 is able to make sure that people end up exactly where they should, and are able to savor it all the while.

Such a movie would probably have to involve time travel. It would have to be “About Time” — which happens to be name of this year’s funniest and wisest picture, and the winner of the biggest Becon.

Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the coauthor of “Nudge” and author of “Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas,” forthcoming in March 2014.