Dilbert Does Behavioral Economics
The Dilbert comic strip offers a case study on common behavioral biases.
Posted January 30, 2014
The Dilbert comic strip series, written and drawn by Scott Adams, is not only a hilarious caricature of office life, it also offers many concise yet spot-on lessons about behavioral economics (plus one about financial literacy).
High investment fees:
The above strip highlights the obstacle posed by the low financial literacy of many would-be investors. While the comic makes the exaggerated point that an investor facing a 10 percent per year fee would nevertheless blindly proceed with investing, this parody is not far from the truth. Many mutual fund and hedge fund investors pay 2 percent per year or more on the amount invested— whether the value of their investment goes up or down!
Framing refers to the way our decisions are affected by the way information is presented. For instance, framing can influence whether we see a glass as half empty or half full. The same glass framed different ways can be perceived differently depending on the context. In the above strip, Dogbert and his client describe as "dumb" those shoppers who think something labeled as "50 percent off" must be a bargain. Yet the client considers himself a "genius" when he falls victim to the same bias.
Framing shows up again in the above strip when Dilbert's boss frames Dilbert's lack of a salary raise relative to the alternative of being attacked by bears, which Dilbert finds compelling.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek evidence consistent with a prior belief. In the above strip, Dilbert's boss demonstrates this bias to a tee when he assumes his astute managerial skills are what caused a minuscule (and clearly unrelated) improvement in the company's stock price.
Overconfidence is the tendency to be overly optimistic, to overestimate one's own abilities, or to believe their information is more precise than it really is. In the above strip, Dilbert's boss falls victim to this bias when he assumes that all managers (presumably including himself) are better than average, all the while not recognizing Dilbert's impolite jab at his poor math skills.
Sometimes having the inflated sense of abilities that accompanies overconfidence can lead to very bad outcomes. For instance, in corporate finance, the tendency of companies to overbid for projects and take on commitments they perhaps cannot manage is known as the winner's curse. In the above strip, Dilbert's boss has clearly fallen victim to this inclination.
Losses Loom Larger than Gains:
Finally, in prospect theory (which is a key concept in behavioral economics), the pain associated with a possible loss is much greater than the pleasure associated with a gain of the same magnitude. In the above strip, Dilbert's garbage man clearly understands this concept much better than Dilbert.