Can behavioural economics help markets to work better?

In his book, ‘The Upside of Irrationality’, Dan Ariely claims to have identified a market failure in the online introductions market. He refers to a survey indicating that people participating in that market spent on average 5.2 hours per week searching profiles and 6.7 hours per week emailing potential partners for a payoff of 1.8 hours actually meeting them.
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home
He comments:
‘Talk about market failures. A ratio of 6:1 speaks for itself. Imagine driving six hours in order to spend one hour at the beach with a friend (or even worse, with someone you don’t know and are not sure you will like)’.

When I read that my first thought was that it would not be particularly uncommon in Australia for young people to drive three hours to spend an hour with a friend and then drive for another three hours back to where they came from.

I think the term market failure is thrown around too loosely. The situation described clearly involves high transactions costs, but that doesn’t mean the market has failed. The existence of high transactions costs in a market should not be viewed as a symptom of market failure unless we can point to some reason why the market cannot function efficiently.

In this instance the market seems to be working well because evidence relating to the existence of high transactions costs has induced some enterprising people to consider what innovations might be introduced to reduce those transactions costs. The fact that the innovators were a university professor and his associates suggests to me that university staff may be becoming more entrepreneurial.

I think Dan Ariely has done a good job of demonstrating the potential for behavioural economics to help entrepreneurs to design innovations that may reduce transactions costs. He considers survey and experimental evidence which suggests that the high transactions costs associated with online introductions stem from the attempt to reduce humans to a set of searchable attributes. The problem is that the searchable attributes convey little information about what it might be like to spend some time with particular individuals.

Ariely and his associates developed a virtual online dating site that enabled participants to engage anonymously in instant message conversation about various images e.g. movie clips and abstract art. They found that participants were about twice as likely to be interested in a real date after meeting in person following the virtual date than following a conventional online introduction. It seems that when we experience something with another person we gain much more information about compatibility than when we just look at searchable attributes. He has discussed his research here.

It is too soon to know whether Dan Ariely and his associates have prompted a market innovation that will help large numbers of people to live happier lives. However, I think Ariely has demonstrated that behavioural economics may be able to help markets work better. As he points out, there is potential for firms to do a better job of satisfying consumer demand by conveying to consumers what it might actually be like to have the experience of using their products. I think that means, among other things, that if retail stores didn’t exist already they would probably need to be invented to give consumers the opportunity to experience goods before they buy them.

Coming back to market failure, does the fact that some consumers buy goods cheaply online after visiting a retail outlet constitute a market failure? I don’t think so, even though such behaviour is evidence of positive spillovers associated with retailing. Manufacturers will work out before long that retailers provide them with a useful service by enabling consumers to experience their products in real life and think up some way to encourage ongoing provision of that service.

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