Author Q&A: John List, The Why Axis

John List, co-author of The Why Axis, on hidden motives and the undiscovered economics of everyday life.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2014

The Why Axis

John List and Uri Gneezy

Random House Books, £12.99

What inspired you and Uri Gneezy to write The Why Axis?

There is so much jargon in economic writing; it’s like a second language. We spent years looking at what motivates people and how they respond to incentives. Our main goal was to take that research to audiences that wouldn’t have access to our academic writings.

To "get at the real underbelly of human motivation", you ran experiments in the "wild". How did you develop your approach?

Field experiments force researchers to understand everyday phenomena. To obtain data for our book, we ran experiments with the Chicago Board of Trade, with Costa Rican CEOs, in shopping malls, in high schools, in auto repair factories. We were like the anthropologists who spend months in the field studying people in their native environments.

Your research looked at why women still earn less than men for equal work. What did you uncover?

We visited what felt like the ends of the earth to tackle this question. We began in patriarchal villages in Africa where men have multiple wives and treat women like property, and ended in matrilineal villages in India where women have much of the decision-making power. What we found was fascinating. In the patriarchal villages in Africa, men behaved similarly to those in the western world: they were much more competitive than women; they took more chances; and they were more selfish. In the matrilineal villages in India, many of these behaviours were reversed. The women were more competitive than the men, they bargained harder, and engaged in riskier activities.

What, then, can policy makers do to reduce the gender gap?

We have to make sure that the environments in which our young women are raised allow them to express their true personalities. We can’t shoe-horn anyone into acting in certain ways just because ‘that’s the right thing to do’.

You call today’s business manager an "endangered species". Why?

The best business managers experiment and therefore have much more knowledge at their fingertips to make informed decisions. The days of relying on intuition, gut instinct and ‘what worked last time’ are dead.

What would you like readers to take away from your book?

That the world around them is a unique laboratory filled with wonderful unknowns.  Go out and learn about everyday life through the lens of behavioural economics. Uri and I have done this, and we are constantly surprised at how people behave and what motives them.  

What three tips would you offer a business leader to help them motivate their employees?

1. Understand that incentives are multi-dimensional. Employees aren’t just driven by money.  
2. Use a combination of carrot and stick incentives.  
3. Continue to experiment on what works and why.

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