Kevin Corcoran on Economics in Fiction

Regular EconLog reader Kevin Corcoran sent me an interesting writeup on finding economic ideas in fiction. I edited it slightly. Here it is:

Occasionally, when watching a show or movie, I’ll notice scenes that nicely illustrate ideas in economics. My ability to spot and describe such moments is, no doubt, one of the reasons I’m so popular at parties. [DRH note: ha ha.]

Recently, one came to mind that made me think of Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. The show is called House, M.D., and its titular character is Dr. Gregory House, a doctor who is brilliant at diagnosing difficult cases but is also arrogant, anti-social, and addicted to pain pills due to a half-crippled leg. There was an ongoing story for several episodes in the second season where House had been temporarily removed as department head while being investigated for his various antics. One of his subordinates, Dr. Foreman, was put in charge during the investigation period. Dr. Foreman was presented as generally the smartest doctor (other than House) on the team, and the one who was most willing to butt heads with and push back against House.

In the episode A Failure to Communicate, the other doctors noticed that Foreman, even though he was now technically in charge, was suddenly pushing back less against House, and seemed less sure of himself making decisions. That led to this bit of dialogue between him and Dr. Chase:

Foreman: You got a point to make? Or did you just feel like giving a long unnecessary explanation for something medically irrelevant?

Chase: What happened to the Foreman who always has an answer? The guy who practically wears a sign saying, “I’m as good as House, but I’m nicer”.

Foreman: I never said that.

Chase: I guess it’s safe to be confident when House is there to overrule you. Now that it’s all on you…

Foreman: (Pauses, smiles) It’s different. Yeah.

This scene captures the essence of how rational irrationality begins. Foreman, of course, cares about the outcomes – he wants to get the diagnosis right. But he also knows that his voice is less than decisive when it comes to choosing a course of action. And that background knowledge led him, without even realizing before this point, to express his ideas with greater confidence than he could fully justify. Now that his choices are authoritative, he suddenly becomes less sure about how right he is, and more concerned if he’s missed something or might be wrong. As with all good fiction, this is a totally believable bit of writing. Nobody who watches this episode will think “The way Foreman is acting is so unrealistic.” We all can see how that kind of behavior makes sense, and how we’d almost certainly do the same thing if we were in a similar position.

Rational irrationality extends this idea. As voters, people have far less reason to second guess themselves than Foreman ever did. Even before he was temporarily in charge of the team, Foreman’s voice still had some effect and some influence, and that provided him with additional incentives to get things right. But in all but the smallest elections, voters don’t come anywhere close to having that kind of influence on the outcome, and the incentive to exert intellectual discipline to be sure you have things right doesn’t have enough force to overpower ideological commitments, tribal loyalties, partisan expression, and so on. There’s not much point in second-guessing your decisions when nothing will be different because of your making a different decision. As a result, voters’ behavior is almost entirely driven by knee jerk reactions they have no reason to reevaluate.

That’s one of several examples of my finding nuggets of economic thought in fiction.

Kevin and I think it would be fun for EconLog readers to mention instances where they also have seen the ideas of economics in fiction. Have at it.