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Thinking like an Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making

Thinking like an Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making

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Thinking like an Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making

Course No. 5511
Professor Randall Bartlett, Ph.D.
Smith College
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Course No. 5511
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not well illustrated, featuring a variety of visuals designed to aid in your understanding of the course material. These include photos, illustrations, and on-screen text designed to illustrated and emphasize the ways economists think about marginal analysis, incentives, future values, risk, and much more.
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Course Overview

Economic forces are everywhere around you. You're made aware of that whenever you reach for your wallet, apply for a loan, shop for health care, or try to figure out the best credit card to carry. But that doesn't mean you need to passively accept whatever outcome those forces might press upon you. Instead, you can learn how to use a small handful of basic nuts-and-bolts principles to turn those same forces to your own advantage.$

Making a few simple adjustments to the way you see things and act on them—learning to "think like an economist"—can give you newfound power and confidence in a surprising range of financial and personal situations that make up your daily life. You can find yourself making better decisions that not only save time and money, but also produce optimum results in other ways important to you. And you can also sharpen your understanding of world and national events.

In the 12 fast-moving and crystal-clear lectures of Thinking like an Economist: A Guide to Rational Decision Making, award-winning Professor Randall Bartlett of Smith College presents some of the fundamental principles and concepts that shape the lenses through which economists view the world. He then shows you how to use these simple analytical tools to understand what you see through those lenses.

By learning to identify the many varied situations in which economics affects your life and how to wield the tools that can help you make the wisest choices in those situations, you'll enhance not only your understanding of daily life but your own success in living it.

A Tool Kit for Changing How You Look at Daily Life

Many of the concepts in Professor Bartlett's tool kit may be familiar.

  • People respond to incentives.
  • There's no such thing as a "free lunch."
  • There are at least two sides to every interaction.
  • Everything affects everything else.
  • Any action can bring with it significant unintended consequences.
  • In this world of complex interrelationships, no one is really in control.

However, when used in the context of three core concepts of economic rationality, marginal analysis, and optimization that Professor Bartlett clearly lays out, his tool kit can make this perhaps the most practical, life-enhancing economics course you'll ever take.

It's an approach that makes Thinking like an Economist a real-life how-to guide that sets aside those often-dry economics textbooks and reveals just how often the seemingly remote forces discussed in their pages are in fact at play in your own life—often in situations in which you may never have dreamed they'd be present.

While most of us can readily appreciate the role those forces play in expected areas—the ones in which monetary values are obviously at work—many of us often give little notice to the full reach of those economic principles into almost every other aspect of our lives, from the safety of our environment to the amount of candidate information we really need in order to cast a wise vote.

After a dozen lectures with Professor Bartlett, things will look very different. You'll see how basic economic ideas like incentives, risks, rewards, and rationality are not just the province of professional economists, government policymakers, or your local bank's loan officer, but instead lie at the root of nearly every decision you must make in your daily life.

Those decisions can include

  • choosing wine from a restaurant menu,
  • buying an extended warranty on that new television set,
  • deciding how to get to work each morning, or
  • nearly anything else you might imagine.

Real-Life Examples Clarify Each Key Idea

Using examples drawn from his own life and likely echoing yours, Professor Bartlett shows you how to

  • see the world as an economist sees it,
  • examine the rationality of individual decisions, and
  • evaluate the outcome of those decisions in terms of both personal benefit and social efficiency, which can sometimes differ.

Professor Bartlett has designed Thinking like an Economist to require no previous economics education. And he has scaled his examples to include not only those situations common to us all, but also to those felt across entire countries and even the world, such as the 2008 financial crisis or the debate about global warming and the most practical ways to respond to it.

An engaging and remarkably clear teacher, Professor Bartlett has for years attracted a widespread audience—from both on and off campus—for his annual lecture series on financial literacy. This course will help you grasp why those lectures are so popular, and why the lessons taught in them are so valuable to you.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2010
  • 1
    The Economist's Tool Kit—6 Principles
    Assemble the intellectual tool kit that will be used throughout the course to help you see the world from an economist's perspective. The first tools in your kit are six principles of human behavior accepted by nearly all economists as fundamental. x
  • 2
    The Economist's Tool Kit—3 Core Concepts
    Complete your tool kit for economic thinking with three key concepts. Learn what an economist means by rational decision making; how marginal analysis is used to solve complex problems; and how you combine these first two concepts to understand optimization. x
  • 3
    The Myth of "True Value"
    Put your new tools to work by examining a central conclusion in economic thinking: that rational individual choices can—even though they might not always—produce socially efficient results, where no person can be made better off without harming another. x
  • 4
    Incentives and Optimal Choice
    How do economists think about the rights and rules that govern human interactions? Using real-life examples and classic problems like the Prisoner's Dilemma, plunge into questions of ownership, trade, and compensation and how ideas like incentives and responsibilities are intimately connected to them. x
  • 5
    False Incentives, Real Harm
    Two case studies involving tragic fires help you grasp two classic economic situations—the Tragedy of the Commons and the difficulties of providing a public good. Then, apply what you have learned to see how an economist would think about the even larger problem of global climate change. x
  • 6
    The Economics of Ignorance
    In the first of three lectures examining how economists approach situations where information is incomplete, imperfect, or inaccurate, learn that there can indeed be an optimal level of ignorance. Also, explore some cost-efficient ways to reduce uncertainty. x
  • 7
    Playing the Odds—Reason in a Risky World
    People can strategically use information—selectively controlling, hiding, or subsidizing it—to influence the decisions of others. Examine concepts like the informational blind date and information asymmetry and see how they can lead to consequences like adverse selection and even the 2008 financial crisis. x
  • 8
    The Economics of Information
    Safety, like everything, has a cost; at some point, being a little safer costs more than it is worth. By studying how economists evaluate risk, learn how the concept of expected value permits rational decision making in situations with risk, but also brings its own set of dangers. x
  • 9
    A Matter of Time—Predicting Future Values
    Time can be one of the most important factors in economic thought; when events occur matters. This lecture looks at how economists deal with this critical factor, introducing you to concepts such as nominal versus real value and present versus future value. x
  • 10
    Think Again—Evaluating Risk in Purchasing
    Apply several of the new tools you've been working with to learn how an economist might confront one complex choice you have likely faced yourself: whether to purchase that extended warranty on an expensive consumer item like a big-screen television. x
  • 11
    Behavioral Economics—What Are We Thinking?
    Despite the predictive power of conventional economic presumptions about fundamental rationality, behavioral economists are showing that we sometimes do things that indeed seem irrational. Delve into several examples of this and possible means of overcoming these behaviors. x
  • 12
    Acting like an Economist
    Apply what you've learned by thinking like an economist about three different issues: doing a cost-benefit analysis of crime from a criminal's perspective; altering our own structure of incentives to motivate healthier behaviors; and finding policy solutions to traffic congestion and its resulting pollution. x

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  • Photos & illustrations

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Your professor

Randall Bartlett

About Your Professor

Randall Bartlett, Ph.D.
Smith College
Dr. Randall Bartlett is Professor of Economics and Director of the Urban Studies Program at Smith College, where he has taught for 30 years. A graduate of Occidental College, he earned both his master's degree and doctorate from Stanford University and taught at Williams College and the University of Washington before joining the Smith faculty. A highly skilled teacher, Professor Bartlett has twice won all-college teaching...
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Also By This Professor


Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 92 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Interesting Perspective I thoroughly enjoyed this course. Even though I took economics in college this course brought a fresh perspective which applies to everyday life. I agree with other reviewers that this is not a highly challenging or intricate course but its not meant to be. Enjoyable and interesting. Highly recommended. March 25, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Crucial Mindset for Optimizing Business Competency The course was an excellent reminder of the core approaches to complex problem solving given constraints. The most valued aspect of the course is how to center your thinking based on strategy, patterns of change, and behavioral economics, ie., anchor pricing, endowments, contracts...even black swan events (butterfly effect). This course does not include equations...but, one must always begin with a rational framework for defining the problem (what are we trying to solve) and keep you quick on your feet before diving into the details or jumping to conclusions to quickly. It's well worth the investment given that it will provide (or remind you) of the fundamental competencies when evaluating the strategic approach to solving problems and rational trade-offs and sensitivities before getting down into the details of framing out the solution design and modeling (data analysis / stochastic-deterministic models). February 28, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Well done, for an economist Economics courses are not high on my list. Nonetheless I recommend this course to anyone new to economics or who just wants a refreshing view of the basics by a good professor. In fact I would say it is the best coverage of basic economic concepts in the shortest time that I have experienced. I guess that means the efficiency is very good. That said, I struggle with economists' dogma. I think they often give themselves too much credit. Early on Professor Barlett compares economics to rocket science claiming that maybe economics is actually the more difficult discipline. That may be right. It's difficult to compare the social sciences with the deterministic sciences but I agree that economic science is tackling a very difficult problem. To address this economists tack on caveats: People, given perfect information, will act rationally, most of the time, maybe; Rational decisions won't necessarily result in socially optimum results; Sometimes the incentives are not right. Professor Bartlett addresses these problems and that is a large part of the reason I think this course is valuable. However, that does not change the fact that these rules for thinking like a economists are far more complex in application than implied. In the lives of average persons the rules can be difficult to apply and may not seem to work very well. Giving examples does not establish effectiveness. Predicting experimental and real world results establishes effectiveness. Then there are, what seemed to me, a few misstatements. The bagel for the concert ticket example seems to ignore the opportunity cost of selling the ticket for for more than the cost of the bagel. When talking about retirement contributions the professor stated that the employer match is free money that many people leave on the table. That sounds like a free lunch to me but the rules say there are no free lunches. Perhaps economics is a harder nut to crack than rocket science but I think the gist of the problem is that economists shouldn't compare themselves to rocket scientists at all. Economists succeed when they convince their peers they have a profound idea whether it's testable or not. Maybe metaphysics is a better comparison. Metaphysics is an ancient and rich academic field that has seeded real advances in more specialized areas. The real value of economic science may be in setting a structure and discipline to thinking about economics so that the irrational among us stray less afar. There, with my rant over let me restate the bottom line. I found this course surprisingly interesting and well presented. The toolkit Professor Bartlett offers is worth thinking about. The professor presents several practical situations that can quickly be of value. As a bonus I feel much relieve to know my ignorance is rational. February 25, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by Solid course This was an interesting course. It will not be overly challenging to someone with much knowledge of economics, it does make you think about some things in a different way and shows how economic principals apply to so many decisions which you may not realize. While not overly challenging to me, there were a few "aha" and "I hadn't thought of it that way" moments that made it worthwhile. This will be a great course for my college bound son; not so much to help with economics classes but how to think, assess, analyze situations, opportunities, etc. Now, if I can just get him interested enough to listen to it! December 3, 2015
  • 2016-05-02 T06:06:30.439-05:00
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