BERKELEY, Calif./DURHAM, N.C. — A great strength of economics is its ability to examine how decisions are made from the point of view of decision makers. For example, economics can explain in this way why consumers buy what they do. It also offers a perspective on why employees work for some employers and not others, why they work as hard as they do, and, indeed, why they go to work at all.
But in most economic analysis, the decision-makers’ point of view is quite narrow. It starts with what people like and don’t like. People may have a taste for oranges or bananas, or a preference for enjoying life today instead of saving for the future. They then decide what to buy or how much to save, given prevailing prices, interest rates and their own income. Economists have included in such analysis that people interact with others, but they have largely treated such social interactions in a mechanical fashion, as if they were commodities.
For example, in the standard economic analysis of workplace gender discrimination, men do not like to associate with women on the job — in the same way that they might prefer apples to oranges. Likewise, the standard economic analysis of racial discrimination is that whites do not want to associate with nonwhites, and so demand a premium to buy from or work with nonwhites.
But neither gender nor racial discrimination arises from purely personal preferences. Instead, they reflect social codes that tell people how they are supposed to think of themselves and how they are supposed to interact with each other. People take such codes seriously. For example, in the case of gender, those who identify as men also want to behave as men are supposed to behave; those who identify as women want to behave as women are supposed to behave.
When we examine people’s decisions from the perspective of their identities and social norms, we get new answers to many different economic questions. Who people are and how they think of themselves is key to the decisions that they make. Their identities and norms are basic motivations. We call this approach identity economics.
To grasp the relevance of identity economics, and how it differs from standard economics, consider an otherwise puzzling fact. Men and women in the United States smoked cigarettes at vastly different rates at the beginning of the 20th century, but these rates largely converged by the 1980s. Women now smoke just as much as men.
We cannot explain this convergence in terms of standard economic arguments, such as changes in relative prices and incomes, because no such changes were sufficiently large. But we can explain it if we ask how people think about themselves — that is, if we examine changes in gender norms. Women early in the 20th century were not supposed to smoke; it was inappropriate behavior. By the 1970s, however, advertising campaigns targeted “liberated” women, telling them that smoking was not only acceptable, but desirable.
This example is just the tip of the iceberg. Taking social norms seriously has consequences that pervade the economic system, and also our lives more generally.
Consider another example: military pay versus pay in civilian firms. Overall military pay is relatively flat — that is, it does not go up and down depending on performance, and it is also lower than for comparable positions in civilian firms. Nothing in standard economic analysis can make sense of such a pay structure, or of the rituals that are central to military tradition.
But with identity economics it all makes sense, and we gain an entirely new perspective on work incentives, not just in the military, but in all pursuits. In organizations that function well, employees identify with their work and their organizations. If employees feel more like insiders — a key purpose of military rituals — there is little need for incentive pay or pay-for-performance schemes. The military changes the identity of its recruits, inculcating in them values such as duty and service.
In the civilian world, too, the most important determinant of whether an organization functions well is not the monetary incentive system, as standard economic models would imply, but whether its workers identify with the organization and with their job within it. If they do not, they will seek to game the incentive system, rather than to meet the organization’s goals.
Likewise, good schooling occurs not as a result of monetary rewards and costs — the stock-in-trade of conventional economics — but because students, parents and teachers identify with their schools, and because that identification is associated with learning. Moreover, whether students identify with being in school becomes the major determinant of whether they stay or drop out.
Given this, education policy should look at what some successful programs have done to establish a school identity that motivates students and teachers to work according to a common purpose. If we focus on training teachers in how to inspire their students to identify with their school — rather than teaching students to take standardized tests — we just might be able to reproduce these schools’ great results.
As economists and policymakers, we could be content to continue looking only at prices and income and related statistics to explain people’s decisions. In some circumstances, that might be enough to understand what is happening. But in many other situations, we would miss major sources of motivation — and thus would adopt useless, if not counterproductive, measures aimed at producing the outcomes we seek. Identity economics provides the broader, better vision that we need.
George A. Akerlof, a Nobel laureate in Economics (2001), is a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Rachel E. Kranton is a professor of economics at Duke University. They cowrote “Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages and Well-Being.” © 2010 Project Syndicate
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