Nobel Economics Laureate Thaler Has Strong Israel Connection

Richard Thaler worked during his career with Israelis Daniel Kahneman, Shlomo Benartzi and Amos Tversky – and has a long-standing rivalry with Dan Ariely

U.S. economist Richard Thaler (R) of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is congratulated by a colleague  upon arrival at his office after winning the 2017 Nobel Economics Prize in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kamil Krzaczynski
U.S. economist Richard Thaler (R) of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is congratulated by a colleague upon arrival at his office after winning the 2017 Nobel Economics Prize in Chi KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/REUTERS

Richard Thaler, who was awarded the Nobel memorial prize in Economics on Monday, was born, brought up, educated and spent nearly his entire career in the United States, but he and his field of behavioral economics have a strong Israeli connection.

Among his closest associates are the Israelis Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and fellow Nobel laureate in economics, as well as Shlomo Benartzi, a behavioral economist who teaches at UCLA. Israeli economist Amos Tversky, who died in 1996, also worked with Thaler in developing the emerging field starting in the 1970s

Thaler also has a connection with a fourth Israeli, Dan Ariely who teaches at Duke University and the person most popularly associated with behavioral economics, but in this case as a rival, say people in the field.

Dan Ariely
Martin Lengemann

“He is a unique person,” said Kahneman, speaking from his home in the U.S. “He is special because he is brilliant in every respect. He has a wonderful sense of humor, which has played an important role in his career. In the late ‘70s, he, Amos [Twersky] and I defined our direction. Despite the age difference, he became friends with us.”

Behavioral economics, along with the related field of behavioral finance, deals with the effects of psychological, social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions made by people and institutions and how they affect prices, returns on investment and the allocation of resources.

Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University psychology professor and Nobel laureate, speaks during the Bloomberg Markets 50 Summit in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. The one-day conference aims to bring together leaders in the markets, business, finance, and government to discuss the global economy. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Kahneman recalled that a critical link in the development of the field came in 1983-84 when they were together at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and wrote what he said was several important articles together. “We complemented each other,” Kahneman said.

He characterizes a series of articles that Thaler was invited to write, called “Anomalies,” for the Journal of Economic Perspectives as a breakthrough for the field. “[They] described with immense humor the anomalies if the field of economics. These articles were perfectly clear so that anyone could understand them,” Kahneman said.

Benartzi conducted research with Thaler in the area of pensions and has known Thaler since 1989. “He sees things that become very clear to everyone only after he has seen them. ... What is special about him is the ability to see the world differently, in such a sophisticated and ingenious way, and make things simple to understand,” Benartzi said.

Kahneman and Benartzi both said unreservedly that they were glad Thaler had won the economics prize. Maya Bar-Hillel, professor emeritus of psychology at Hebrew University, who knew him when she was a student of Kahneman, said she had worried that Thaler, 72, might be skipped over for a Nobel.

Ariely, on the other hand, declined to talk about Thaler and made do with a brief statement: “I think the awarding of a prize like this is very good for the field and so I am very happy.”

Ariely has become the public face of behavioral economics thanks to popular books like “Predictably Irrational,” a role that people in the small community of behavioral economists say Thaler sees as his. Thaler says that because Ariely is a psychologist by training, he shouldn’t be presenting himself as a behavioral economist. (Kahneman is also a psychologist but that apparently didn’t bother Thaler.)

Behaviorial economics is more than an academic science and its insights have been employed in the real world, including in Israel where the finance minister formed a team headed by Ariely to apply behavioral economics in policy. Among other things it was used by the Environmental Protection Ministry in designing the rules for discouraging Israelis from using disposable bags by requiring they pay a small fee for them.