Valuation gaps and exchange asymmetries are among the most widely studied phenomena in the field of behavioral economics. This chapter presents the current state of the social science literature related to observed reluctance to trade. Numerous theories have been proposed and only a few might be safe to rule out based on the evidence to date. A number of theories have been developed and tested by both economists and psychologists including endowment theory, substitution theory, expectation theory, preference uncertainty, mere-ownership theory, enhancement theory, subject misconceptions, and regret avoidance. The chapter walks through each proposed theory, cataloging the evidence for and against. While some theories have garnered more support from the data than others, no single theory yet deserves the title of leading theory. As this chapter makes clear, much more work is required to develop a theory or set of theories worthy of designation as the leading theory.
Joshua C. Teitelbaum and Kathryn Zeiler
The subfield of behavioral economics, while still quite young, has made important contributions to our understanding of human behavior. Through a cycle of theory development and empirical investigation, work in behavioral economics taps into lessons from psychology with the goal of improving economics’ predictive power. While the focus diverges from that of neoclassical economics, the best work in both subfields has much in common. The most useful insights are produced by faithfully applying the scientific method—the development of explanations of behavior through repeated cycles of data collection and hypothesis testing. Gains in knowledge are incremental, and skepticism is encouraged until assumptions built into theory are able to hold up against data collected in multiple environments. In addition, both subfields strive to integrate relevant concepts—e.g., psychological concepts in the case of behavioral economics—into models that produce well-defined, testable, and falsifiable predictions. While some have characterized the mission of behavioral economics as an attempt to abandon rational choice theory and replace it with more realistic assumptions that reflect human fallibility, many behavioral economics models that find strong support in existing data assume a set of rational but non-standard preferences (Zeiler, forthcoming). In fact, a great many works in behavioral economics contain multiple theories able to explain large swaths of existing data, some of which assume individuals make systematic, predictable mistakes, while others assume the error-free expression of non-standard, rational preferences. The empiricist’s role is to discover ways to separate the theories by developing or observing environments in which the theories lead to divergent predictions. In some literatures models that assume mistake-making are in the lead, and in others models assuming non-standard preferences seem to best explain existing data.