Heuristics and Biases in Thinking About Tax
28 Pages Posted: 12 Nov 2003
Date Written: December 12, 2003
The principal findings of behavioral economics and cognitive psychology over the past several decades have been to show that human beings deviate from ideal precepts of rationality in many settings, showing inconsistent judgment in the face of framing and other formal manipulations of the presentation of problems. This paper summarizes the findings of original experiments about subjects' perceptions of various aspects of tax-law design. We show that in evaluating tax systems, subjects are vulnerable to a wide range of heuristics and biases, leading to inconsistent judgment and evaluation. The prevalence of these biases suggests that there is room for skillful politicians or facile political systems to manipulate public opinion, and that tax system design will reflect a certain volatility on account of the possibility of eliciting preference reversals through purely formal rhetorical means. More troubling, the findings suggest the possibility of a persistent wedge between observed and optimal public finance systems.
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