Why Your Lazy Colleague Gets Under Your Skin


Imagine you have an office job in New York City. You’ve been working at this firm for five years and know how the office works. The cubicle to your right is occupied by Joshua. Joshua’s been around a while, but you don’t understand how he still has a job. The guy’s a total slacker. Meanwhile, the cubicle to your left has been vacant for a while -- that is until Ellen, fresh out of business school and eager to prove herself, shows up. She’s a star -- she gets more done in a day than you do in two. Your boss comes in and assigns you to work on two different projects, one with Ellen and the other with Joshua. You notice that when you work with Ellen, you feel more productive than when you work with Joshua. Actually, working with Joshua starts to really frustrate you, and you think about reporting him to your boss.  

We all have worked with our fair share of Ellens and Joshuas over the years. What’s interesting is that we generally get motivated to work harder by the Ellens, while the Joshuas tend to make us lazier… and angrier. So why do we behave differently when we’re exposed to different peers?

Economists John Horton and Richard Zeckhauser explore this question in their current NBER working paper, “The Causes of Peer Effects in Production: Evidence from a Series of Field Experiments.” Specifically, Horton and Zeckhauser look at how workers in an online labor market behave differently when working with high-output peers and low-output peers -- Ellens and Joshuas. They find that when workers are exposed to high-output peers, they are more productive, and when they’re exposed to low-output peers, they are less productive. That’s perhaps not all that surprising. What is surprising, though, is that workers who were exposed to low-output peers were more likely to punish their low-output peers, even when their peers’ outcomes didn’t influence their own.

To illustrate the significance of this point, let’s go back to our example. You and Joshua are working on a project together and you don’t like it. Joshua isn’t doing his part. In this case, if Joshua slacks off, you will have to work more. Worse, because it’s a group project, you worry that Joshua will end up taking credit for your hard work -- what economists call “free-riding.” This bugs you. You’d probably consider talking to your boss about this. But would you feel the same way if you knew that both of you would be evaluated separately? Your intuition might be that you wouldn’t be as eager to complain to your boss, but Horton and Zeckhauser suggest otherwise.

Why? According to Horton and Zeckhauser, your reaction is about equity. In this case, equity can be thought of as how much one values fairness. In some way, it seems “unfair” if you’re working and someone else is slacking off. This perceived unfairness drives you to want to punish the slacker. On the flip side, it might seem “unfair” if you’re slacking off while someone else works hard. In both cases, your fairness barometer pushes you to resolve unfairness by either getting someone else to work harder (via punishment) or working harder yourself.

The idea that our peers influence us is hardly new or surprising -- behavioral economists have been studying the causes and consequences of peer effects for years. But it’s not just the experts who should take note of peer effects. Indeed, they influence all of us, whether we like it or not -- the Ellens and the Joshuas of the world aren’t going away anytime soon. But at least the next time a Joshua annoys you by not pulling his weight, you’ll know why. And maybe you’ll see the virtue in taking a seat next to Ellen, too.

Nudgespotting: Getting Active in D.C.


Almost everyone appreciates the benefits of exercise, especially when it's time to make New Year’s resolutions. But incorporating exercise into your busy schedule isn’t always as easy as it looks on the Lulu Lemon commercials. In fact, in 2015 only 20.9% of adults over 18 met the federal physical activity guidelines. Even when we do intend to exercise, we often find ourselves feeling like it’s not worth the trouble or being tempted into a happy hour instead.

The good news is behavioral science can help. Here are some Washington, D.C. behavioral science insights in action that have helped others -- and myself -- get active.

Mad at Nate Silver About Election 2016? Why Behavioral Economics Suggests You Shouldn't Be


For many, the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election has raised questions about the future of the United States. It has also led some to cast aspersions on analysts like Nate Silver, who used statistical models and polling data to make probabilistic predictions about the election’s outcome. Because these models consistently favored Hillary Clinton, and often heavily so (Nate Silver predicted that Clinton had a 71.4% chance of winning, and other estimates were as high as 99%), some have accused these poll analysts of ignorance or bias. Research suggests, however, that it may be the critics, and not the statheads, who are suffering from a bias -- more specifically, “outcome bias,” whereby we have a tendency to overweight the outcome of a decision (or model) when assessing its ex-ante quality.

Nudgespotting: #NudgeTheVote


As you may have heard, there is an election coming up. Cable news, social media, and water cooler chatter have all been dominated by political discussion and debate. However, all of this apparent excitement and intention to vote may not necessarily translate into high levels of voter registration and turnout on Election Day. People may forget to register by their state deadline, or the hassle of filling out and sending registration paperwork may cause them to put it off indefinitely. Even those who have gone through the effort of registering to vote may not show up on Election Day if they have not planned enough time into their day to wait in the long lines at polling places. Campaigns, civic engagement groups, civic-minded organizations, and even private companies are using strategies informed by behavioral science to help overcome this intention-action gap and get people registered and to the polls. Here are three behaviorally informed examples of these strategies I’ve recently spotted.

The Power of Certainty: How Behavioral Economics Helps Us Understand the "Trump Tape"


By now, pretty much everyone in America knows about the tape of Donald Trump saying lewd things about women while on an Access Hollywood bus in 2005. The recording has had a seismic effect on the presidential campaign, and has triggered an important conversation about sexual assault. The backlash is, on the one hand, completely understandable. But some are wondering – why are we so surprised? Based on his public statements, isn’t it clear that Donald Trump is capable of saying things like this in private? Perhaps behavioral economics can help explain why we were so collectively shocked.

Interview with Richard Thaler: Part 3 of 3


In the third and final part of their interview, Richard Thaler and Syon Bhanot delve into the replicability problem in psychology, whether behavioral economics needs to focus on "bigger problems," and close with a lightning round on topics such as the underrepresentation of women in economics, boring conferences, and which economist is the best golfer.

Check out part 1 and part 2 as well!

Does the Gambler's Fallacy Appear in Real-World, High-Stakes Decision Making?


Sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, you feel some spare change clang around in your pocket. With nothing better to do, you decide to give a coin a few flips to see what happens. After tossing it into the air and clapping it onto the back of your hand five times, you record the following results: THTHT. Unamused by such reasonableness, you give it another go, flipping the coin another five times. This time, your eyes grow wide in response to the wildly different results: TTTTT. What are the odds?

Nudgespotting: Everyday Life in NYC


It’s impossible to live in New York City without experiencing the push and pull of influence. After all, one of NYC’s most famous destinations plants you in the center of an arena of advertisements. While some of these influences are merely annoyances or eyesores, others are more impactful. In this edition of Nudgespotting, I share four behavioral science insights in action from a typical day in the Big Apple.