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The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life [Paperback]

Uri Gneezy , John List

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Book Description

9 Jan 2014

Based on groundbreaking original research, The Why Axis is a colourful examination of why people do what they do - and how effective incentives can spur people to change their behaviour and achieve more.

Uri Gneezy and John List are a little like the anthropologists who spend months in the field studying people in their native environments. But rather than acting as impartial observers, these two intrepid economists have set out to study the ways people act in order to try to solve major problems in society, such as the gap between rich and poor students and the violence plaguing inner city schools; the real reasons people discriminate; and the continuing pay disparity between men and women.

Their field experiments in the factories, communities, and shops where real people live, work, and play show how incentives can change outcomes. Their results will change the way you think about and take action on both small and large problems, and force us as a society to stop making assumptions and to rely instead upon the evidence of what really works.


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Book Description

Two leading behavioural economists use original research to explore how incentives can be used to change the ways people act.

From the Back Cover

'It is hard to imagine any story of innovation in our thinking about economics that does not involve Uri and John, especially their exploration of the sensitive, hidden aspects of economics.' DAN ARIELY, author of PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL

WHY DID FUNDRAISERS WHO WERE OFFERED CASH INCENTIVES COLLECT LESS THAN THOSE WHO WEREN'T PAID AT ALL?

WHY DID A SCHOOL'S DECISIONS TO FINE PARENTS WHO PICKED UP THEIR CHILDREN LATE MAKE THEM EVEN LATER?

WHY DID A CALIFORNIAN VINEYARD FIND THAT WHEN IT PUT ITS PRICES UP ITS SALES ACTUALLY INCREASED?

Leading behavioural economists John List and Uri Gneezy provide answers to all these questions, revealing the truth about what motivates us and how we respond to different types of incentive. Along the way, they visit inner-city classrooms to study the impact of different types of reward on children's test scores. They scrutinise Chicago car dealerships to see how sales people decide what price to quote a prospective customer. And they study people as far apart as Tanzania and India to establish whether men really are more competitive than women. Their findings shed fascinating light on the complex science of human motivation. At the same time they show just how radically people's behaviour can be transformed by even the subtlest of carefully judged incentives.

'A real home run of a book that shows how real people make real decisions in the real world. A breakthrough in both economic theory and practice.' DARON ACEMOGLU, co-author of WHY NATIONS FAIL


Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exciting research and powerful insights 10 Oct 2013
By Alex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've been looking forward to this book for a while. Both Uri Gneezy and John List are well known in economics as asking bold, interesting questions and coming up with extremely creative ways of answering them. They were the originators of field experiments in economics, popularizing the practice of testing ideas with real people (from sports card traders to African tribesmen) in the real world.

I'm happy to say that the book exceeded my expectations in almost every way. Uri and John discuss their most interesting and applicable projects, filling each chapter with rich anecdotes and implications of the original research to everyday life. The book is a pleasure to read without sacrificing the rigor of the scientific studies. In fact, the interested reader will find the details surrounding each project's design particularly fascinating: in one chapter the authors go to India and Tanzania to study gender differences in competition among matrilineal and patriarchal societies, in another chapter, they conduct a large scale field experiment in Chicago public schools.

It's all interesting and comes with plenty of insight. If you would like advice on how to design an effective incentive scheme, are interested in a new take on discrimination, or are simply fascinated by human behavior, I highly recommend you buy this book!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Brief Summary and Review 29 Oct 2013
By A. D. Thibeault - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Uri Gneezy and John A. List's 'The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life'

The main argument: Until quite recently, the field of economics was dominated mainly by theory-making. Specifically, economists applied their intellects to the human world, and developed abstract models to explain (and predict) the unfolding of economic events. At the heart of all this theory-making stood homo economicus--a narrowly self-interested individual who responded to incentives and disincentives in a perfectly rational way.

In the past half century, though, various economists have added new wrinkles to the field's repertoire. To begin with, pioneering economists such as Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced controlled lab experiments (among other things) into the fold. And these experiments succeeded in adding nuance to our understanding of economic-man (he's not quite as one dimensional and rational as he was once taken to be), as well as texture and complexity to our understanding of economic phenomenon.

More recently, economists such as Uri Gneezy and John A. List have stepped in and showed that controlled field experiments also have a place in economics. For Gneezy and List, the world is their laboratory: the two go about slyly manipulating the natural environment in a controlled way (often fiddling with incentives and disincentives of all types) to see how we humans respond to the tweaks. Gneezy and List have been practicing this approach for upwards of 20 years now, and in this time they have helped shed light on everything from how to decrease crime rates; to how to improve school success; to how to encourage more charitable giving; to how to promote healthy living and decrease obesity; to how to set prices on products (so as to maximize profits); to how to understand (and limit) discrimination (to name but a few lines of research of theirs). And in their new book The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life the two catch us up on their experiments and their results (while also touching on the experiments of other like-minded practitioners).

Take education, to begin with. Gneezy and List have gained a fair bit of attention recently for showing how monetary incentives can be used to help improve grades and graduation rates (particularly with at-risk students)--and even curb school violence; and here we are apprized of the ins and outs of the experiments that were used in this research. What is less well-known is that the authors have also recently become involved in a massive longitudinal study that is designed to test the effectiveness of different approaches to pre-kindergarten education. Though still in its infancy, the study has already yielded some very interesting results; and given that the researchers intend to follow their experimental subjects throughout their lives, the study should help shed a great deal of light on just what approach to early childhood education is most effective.

When it comes to charitable giving, Gneezy and List's experiments have worked wonders in showing just how to encourage as much charity as possible--and have challenged many of the industry's long-held beliefs in the process. The authors cover everything from how much seed-money is needed for a project to maximize donations; to how to approach follow-up requests made to established donors; to how to leverage raffles, lotteries and tontines for best success.

On the topic of business, Gneezy and List remind us how a failure to use an experimental approach can lead to business disaster (as illustrated by Netflix' 2011 decision to modify its business model without experimental research--a decision that drove hordes of customers away, sent the company's stock plummeting, and nearly sank the business outright). The lesson: business tweaks (including changes in pricing) should be tested in a controlled way in a small market (say a given city) before being adopted across the board (an approach that has been utilized to great effect by such companies as Intuit and Humana).

When it comes to discrimination, Gneezy and List have been able to use their experiments to reveal that much of the discrimination that happens nowadays is motivated less by hatred (or animus) as it is by plain old self-interest. Though perhaps not as threatening as outright hatred, discrimination practiced out of self-interest (known as economic discrimination) is problematic in its own right, and Gneezy and List also explore what strategies are best to curb it (this work is more important now than ever, as the internet [combined with data-driven analysis] has made economic discrimination very easy to practice--and hide).

The book is a very fun and interesting read, and Gneezy and List clearly have a knack for telling about their research in a highly entertaining way. The only issue I had with the book is that the authors occasionally exaggerate and over-state just what we can conclude from their experiments. Still, there is much of interest to be learned here, and the book is well-worth the read (just make sure you take it with a grain of salt). A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Uri Gneezy and John A. List's 'The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life'
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Why" I like this book 8 Oct 2013
By Marina - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I just got "The Why Axis" and really enjoyed reading it. Gneezy and List have a catchy way of describing the motives for many real life phenomena. The authors provide original anecdotes and innovative research evidence on what drives our behavior. While the book is based on serious research, the ideas are presented in a straightforward and entertaining way.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding "why" we do what we do.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The book that was needed to explain what economics can be about 12 Oct 2013
By The Mexican Gardener - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For years I have been trying to explain to my family, friends and students that rigorous economic thinking can be applied to most interesting topics, if done well. This is exactly the case of the research contained in this book. It presents most of the authors' ground breaking papers with a light and fun prose and it suggests many interesting questions which hopefully will lead to new research by the authors... or the readers. Nicely, it can be read by everyone wanting to learn and be able to tell good anecdotes while, at the same time, I believe it should be required reading for everyone with an interest in social sciences.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking forward to reading more! 8 Oct 2013
By Researcher of Many Things - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I just picked up my copy of The Why Axis and am really enjoying reading it now. I work in the field of behavioral economics, so I am aware of many of the studies that are discussed here. However, it is still really entertaining to learn about how Uri and John came up with the studies that are featured in this book. For example, in Chapter 1 Uri talks about his ideas about the possible negative consequences of fines (they don't always work!) by discussing his own experience at his daughter's preschool.

The subject matter and writing is reminiscent of Freakonomics, which I also loved when it came out many years ago! The book weaves together research article findings with personal stories of the authors and other people who were influential in the making of the research that I liked.
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