Book chapter

Behavioral Analysis in the Study of Politics: The Conflict Laboratory (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Behavioral economics is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that incorporates insights from psychology to enrich standard economic models which assume perfectly rational individuals. Empirical research in behavioral economics typically employs incentivized experiments that use economic games with real money on the line. In these experiments, subjects are awarded financial payoffs based on the decisions they make (either individually or as part of a group) in an institutional context designed by the researcher. Behavioral economics is well suited for political science because behavioral economics is interdisciplinary by nature and political science is not bound by any particular research paradigm. At the same time, the method is still novel to many political scientists despite many years of its use to study political topics in a variety of research areas. What unites the application of the method to these areas is the explicit consideration of conflict. For instance, scholars have uncovered social conflict between groups (e.g., voter polarization in the United States) using behavioral games as measures, or they have designed experiments around elections to test theories of candidate and voter behavior. Because of the clear financial incentives, economic experiments are especially useful for studying people's actual preferences in areas such as redistribution as opposed to their stated preferences. Finally, the method can be used to design institutions that will help overcome conflict over scarce resources. In sum, the strengths of behavioral economics include: (a) the ability to vary institutional contexts; (b) clear incentives that ensure valid measures of preferences; (c) direct measures of behaviors instead of stated intentions which could be confounded by outside pressures such as social desirability.