Friday, December 24, 2010

Behavio(u)ral Economics: What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

The above quotation from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is considered by some to indicate Juliet's concern that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention; it is what the name respresents that really matters. Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the distinction between the spelling of behavioural economics in Europe, and behavioral economics in the United States. Previously I wondered whether this distinction really mattered; and now, to some extent, I know.

The source of my knowledge is, a website which sifts through the hundreds of billions of words digitised as part of Google Books' effort to create a universal online library. Culturomics was reviewed this week in The Economist:
Anyone can now go to, type in a word or expression in one of seven languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Russian, Chinese) and see for himself. Jean-Baptiste Michel, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University and the lead author of a related study just published in Science (Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books)... (says) that twiddling with this new virtual widget is "addictive".
Putting the phrases "behavioural economics", "economic psychology" and "behavioral economics" into Culturomics produces the chart shown below (click on the image to see a bigger version). It can be seen that behavioral (the green line) has always been more popular than behavioural (the blue line). This provides some reason to believe that the American spelling of the discipline's name is quite important. Furthermore, this exercise underscores the importance of choosing key-phrases (or key-words) carefully, as discussed on this blog before here. Finally, it can also be seen that the phrase behavioral economics has overtaken economic psychology in popularity since the year 1998.

Addendum: Of course, it is also worth pointing out that some scholars view the phrase economic psychology to mean the psychological study of issues in the economic domain; and the phrase behavio(u)ral economics to mean the incorporation of psychological insight into economic theory. This is worth considering when interpreting the chart above.

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