NIBS Conference 2016 - Introduction NIBS Conference 2016 - Introduction






Economists have always been concerned not only with description and prediction, but also with the evaluation of alternative economic policies and institutions, both in general (for example, in the fundamental theorems of welfare economics) and in specific applications (such as cost-benefit analysis, the analysis of competition policy, and the design of quasi-market institutions to correct market failures). Traditionally there has been a broad consensus among economists in favour of using economic efficiency, ultimately defined in terms of preference-satisfaction, as a principal criterion in such work. The idea that preference-satisfaction is an indicator of well-being has not been peculiar to economics: related ideas of ‘welfarism’ and ‘informed desire’ are often discussed by moral and political philosophers.

However, this approach has been undermined by recent work in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics which shows that individuals’ preferences, as revealed in their decisions and in their responses to survey questions, are often influenced by contextual and ‘framing’ factors that seem unrelated to well-being. A lot of work has been done to uncover the causal mechanisms behind these effects. Recently, there has also been a growth of literature deriving ‘behavioural insights’ from these findings – that is, insights into how policy-makers can use these effects to promote specific behaviour changes that are deemed desirable. But behavioural welfare economics, in the sense of general and operational criteria for evaluating alternative policy options when individuals lack coherent preferences, is still a relatively undeveloped research terrain.

The problem of developing such criteria is one of the major research themes of NIBS. We believe that a solution to this problem will require the integration of ideas from economics, psychology, public policy analysis, and moral, legal and political philosophy. The 2016 conference will be inter-disciplinary, designed to promote the exchange of ideas about this problem, to showcase progress that has been made, and to encourage further research. 

Our aim is to have contributions discussing a wide range of ways of tackling this, including (but not restricted to) approaches which:  

  • characterise revealed preferences as the result of interaction between underlying 'true' preferences and psychologically-induced 'biases', and which attempt to reconstruct true preferences;

  • are based on objective definitions of well-being, or on ‘objective lists’ of dimensions of well-being;

  • are based on individuals’ self-reports of their subjective well-being;

  • give normative value to individuals’ being free to make choices about their own lives, independently of what is chosen;

  • characterise preferences as inherently imprecise, and try to construct measures of preference-satisfaction that can accommodate this imprecision.