Kevin Corcoran on Economics in Fiction

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Kevin Corcoran, a regular reader of EconLog, sent me an interesting article on finding economic ideas in fiction. I modified it slightly. It’s here:

Sometimes, while watching a program or a movie, I notice scenes that illustrate many ideas in economics. My ability to spot and describe such moments is, without a doubt, one of the reasons I’m so popular at parties. [DRH note: ha ha.]

Recently, one came to mind that reminded me of Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. The show is called House, MD, and its titular character is Dr. Gregory House, a doctor who is brilliant at diagnosing difficult cases but is also arrogant, antisocial, and addicted to painkillers due to a half-paralyzed leg. There was an ongoing story for several episodes in the second season where House was temporarily removed from his position as department head while he was investigated for his various antics. One of his subordinates, Dr. Foreman, was made responsible during the investigation period. Dr. Foreman was introduced as generally the smartest doctor (other than House) on the team, and the one most willing to confront and fend off House.

In the episode A communication failure, the other doctors noticed that Foreman, even though he was now technically responsible, was suddenly pushing House less, and seemed less confident in making decisions. This led to this little dialogue between him and Dr. Chase:

Foreman: Do you have a point to make? Or did you just feel like giving a long unnecessary explanation for something medically irrelevant?

Chase: What happened to the foreman who still has an answer? The guy who practically carries a sign that says, “I’m as good as House, but I’m nicer.”

Foreman: I never said that.

Chase: I guess it’s safe to be confident when House is there to override you. Now that it’s all up to you…

Foreman: (Pause, smile) That’s different. Yeah.

This scene captures the essence of how rational irrationality begins. Foreman, of course, cares about the results – he wants to get the diagnosis right. But he also knows that his voice is far from decisive when it comes to choosing a course of action. And this background knowledge led him, without even realizing it before this point, to express his ideas with more confidence than he could fully justify. Now that his choices are authoritative, he suddenly becomes less sure he’s right and more worried if he missed something or could be wrong. As with all good fiction, this is totally believable writing. No one watching this episode will think “The way Foreman is acting is so unrealistic.” We can all see how this kind of behavior makes sense and how we would almost certainly do the same if we were in a similar position.

Rational irrationality extends this idea. As voters, people have far less reason to second guess themselves than Foreman ever did. Even before he was temporarily in charge of the team, Foreman’s voice still had some effect and influence, which provided him with additional incentive to get it right. But in all but the smallest elections, voters have nowhere near that kind of influence on the outcome, and the incentive to exercise intellectual discipline to be sure you’re right isn’t strong enough. to overcome ideological commitments, tribal loyalties, partisan expression, etc. There is no point in questioning your decisions when nothing will be different because you made a different decision. As a result, voter behavior is driven almost entirely by instinctive reactions that they have no reason to reassess.

This is one of many examples where I find nuggets of economic thinking in fiction.

Kevin and I think it would be fun for EconLog readers to mention examples where they’ve also seen the ideas of economics in fiction. Have it.

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