Misbehavioral Law and Economics: Heterogeneous Preferences and Consumer Regulation

41 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2015 Last revised: 27 Jun 2018

Date Written: May 18, 2017


Many legal rules—ranging from common-law contract doctrines to modern consumer protection regulation—are designed to protect individuals from their own mistakes. Scholars have neglected a core difficulty facing such policies: we humans are a motley bunch, and we are defined in part by our idiosyncrasies. As a result, one person’s mistake is another’s ideal choice. Making matters worse, it is hard to observe when a policy response misfires. If cognitive errors and psychological biases are as prevalent as current research suggests, we have no reliable way of knowing consumers’ true preferences. Are we always faced with a dilemma, where any approach that helps one group of consumers must hurt another?

This Article suggests an approach to this impasse. The key is to distinguish two potential sources of individual preferences: subjective tastes and objective circumstances. For example, two day-traders betting in the stock market may differ along either dimension. Each may place a different subjective value on the thrill of gambling (taste), and a stock market loss may have different impacts on each one’s objective financial health (circumstance). This distinction can guide policy. Consumers likely have better information on their subjective tastes, while third-party interventions can often make better use of objective circumstances in improving choices.

This approach underscores some of the limitations of the rising reliance on behavioral economics and psychology in legal scholarship and policy. The Article discusses how discerning tastes from circumstances could guide regulation of pressing issues including payday lending and investor protection.

Keywords: regulation, personalized law, behavioral law and economics, consumer protection, consumer finance, contracts, payday loans, libertarian paternalism

JEL Classification: D11, D18, K20, D62, L15, D03

Suggested Citation

Russell, Jacob, Misbehavioral Law and Economics: Heterogeneous Preferences and Consumer Regulation (May 18, 2017). 51 University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 549 (2018), Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University Working Paper No. 208, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2627389 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2627389

Jacob Russell (Contact Author)

Rutgers Law School ( email )

Camden, NJ
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics