Paying Tribute to Gary Becker's Scholarship

Persuasion is a type of pressure and people generally don’t like to be pressured, Booth professor Milton Friedman’s praise for Becker as “the greatest social scientist who has lived and worked in the last half-century.”

Murphy explained that his collaboration with Becker spanned a period of years.

“We laid it down, and picked up, and laid it down,” he said. “I am trying to figure out how I am going to put the paper together, which is so much harder to do alone,” Murphy said. “Gary could always push the ball forward.”

Murphy proceeded to lay out the research that the duo had completed on the potentially titled paper “The Economics of Persuasion and Indoctrination.” He began his explanation by clarifying that unlike some other economists, Becker believed and demonstrated that rational people care about all kinds of things and are subject to a variety of pressures because they care about issues beyond just financial wealth and material wants. So those who wish to change our behaviors, our habits or our buying patterns should use these interests, likes, and dislikes to persuade us.

Persuasion is part of the way any social group works, from governments and their citizens and teachers and students to businesses and their clients. “What you have to keep in mind is that persuasion can work beyond the individual and the company,” Murphy explained.

Although people generally don’t like to be pressured to change their choices they may only modestly resist some forms of persuasion. When people are close to the margin, when they can’t decide which way to go on an issue or a decision, then persuasion often is easily accepted and may even be desired. After all, much advertising and marketing can help to define a good or service and offer additional information.

The key point of the research is that the ability to persuade, commonly taken to be evidence against the rational economic model, is actually an implication of the rational model, Murphy said. It should be relatively easy to “nudge” consumers to buy a little more though they will require some compensation for that. As a result, those that want the right to influence behavior will often have to pay in some way for that right, he added. Those payments show up as covering the costs of stories to put in the newspaper or shows to put on TV in order to induce people to subject them to persuasion. But the cost could come in other forms, such as a backlash if companies push their agenda too hard and try to persuade people who are not leaning in that direction.—Robin Mordfin