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Podcast: Michele Chihara on ‘Behavioral Economic Masculinity’

by Melinda Cooper on December 19, 2019

In August of this year, Los Angeles-based scholar Michelle Chihara delivered a keynote lecture on “The Rise of Behavioral Economic Masculinity” at the University of Sydney as part of the ongoing FutureFix Asset Economy project.

With a hybrid background in journalism, creative fiction and literary theory, Chihara has played a unique role in communicating the importance of economic discourse across the boundaries of genre and audience. Based at Whittier College, Los Angeles, Chihara is section editor of the celebrated Economics and Finance pages at The Los Angeles Review of Books, which has now become required reading for anyone with a critical interest in the subject, and coeditor of the field-defining Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (October 2018).

Chihara is currently working on a book manuscript on behavioural economics— a genre of economics that straddles the boundaries between academic subfield, public policy discourse and popular journalism.

As recounted by Chihara, “behavioral economics emerged as a specific response to debates within the academic discipline of economics about the theories that grounded the study of choice and human behavior in society. The (arguably) heterodox discipline reoriented the epistemological foundations of neoclassical economics, specifically in relation to its theory of the subject. To oversimplify the public-facing versions of these arguments, the neoclassical model relied on assumptions about rational economic agents coordinated by efficient markets over time, while behavioral economics asserted that the “invisible hand” of the market was irrational but could be nudged towards reason.”

Rather than focusing on behavioral economics itself, Chihara’s research traces a cultural history of the behavioral economic narrative mode as it entered popular American discourse. “In this mode, friendly masculine explainers tell stories about the economy, or, the behavior of characters in stories is explained as fundamentally motivated by the same kind of decision-making that governs the economy. This mode colonized American popular narratives in the years around the 2008 financial crisis. The hegemonic financial explainer Michael Lewis, in his multiple bestselling books about the world of high finance, wrote the dominant popular narratives about the arrival of big data (Moneyball), the financial crisis (The Big Short), and the rise of behavioral economics (The Undoing Project). In his work, in the movie of The Big Short based on his book, in podcasts and in the context of this cultural production, I analyze the epistemological consequences of the friendly explainers’ representation of the world and the narrow horizons of the behavioral economic mode.”

A podcast of Michele’s keynote can be found here:

Set image: Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the psychologists behind behavioural economics, who are the focus of Lewis’ The Undoing Project. Credit: Penguin Random House

Melinda Cooper
Melinda Cooper is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. She is author of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Zone 2017) and coeditor, with Martijn Konings, of the Stanford University Press book series Currencies: New Thinking for Financial Times. She is currently working on two projects, one on public debt, taxation and spending and the other on the economic politics of the far right.

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