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Unexpected Economics

Unexpected Economics

Course No.  5657
Course No.  5657
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Why are we choosing to have fewer children, even as we put more time into raising each one? Why are we so often willing to follow the herd and the opinions of strangers when making important decisions, even when those decisions are deeply personal? Why do people bother to vote in elections even when they believe their vote can't possibly influence the outcome?

Most surprising: Why are questions like these increasingly attracting the attention of economists?

Economics is a field most people think of as having to do with international trade balances, gross national products, unemployment projections, and other issues involving our own finances, our country's, or the world's. In recent decades, though, economists have been turning their lenses on issues well outside these traditional boundaries, focusing on one "unexpected" subject after another. They're asking how we choose our spouses, for example, or why we select particular places to worship, or what goes into our decision to designate ourselves as organ donors on our driver's licenses. Indeed, the latest thinking to come from the field of economics can offer us a fresh perspective on every area of life in which the interactions of personal choice, motivation, and perceived outcome—the very heart of economics—play essential roles.

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Why are we choosing to have fewer children, even as we put more time into raising each one? Why are we so often willing to follow the herd and the opinions of strangers when making important decisions, even when those decisions are deeply personal? Why do people bother to vote in elections even when they believe their vote can't possibly influence the outcome?

Most surprising: Why are questions like these increasingly attracting the attention of economists?

Economics is a field most people think of as having to do with international trade balances, gross national products, unemployment projections, and other issues involving our own finances, our country's, or the world's. In recent decades, though, economists have been turning their lenses on issues well outside these traditional boundaries, focusing on one "unexpected" subject after another. They're asking how we choose our spouses, for example, or why we select particular places to worship, or what goes into our decision to designate ourselves as organ donors on our driver's licenses. Indeed, the latest thinking to come from the field of economics can offer us a fresh perspective on every area of life in which the interactions of personal choice, motivation, and perceived outcome—the very heart of economics—play essential roles.

The 24 fascinating lectures of Unexpected Economics will help you grasp as never before the ways in which these mechanisms for making choices operate even in areas in which you may never have considered the forces of economics to be at work. Delivered by acclaimed economist and popular Great Courses Professor Timothy Taylor—managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the most widely distributed journal of academic economics in the world—Unexpected Economics puts to rest the oft-quoted misconception of economics as "the dismal science." Instead, you'll take part in a wide-ranging and enjoyable investigation of how economic thinking—whether applied personally, nationally, or globally—relates to, and sheds fresh light on, just about everything.

Using findings from recent Nobel Prize winners and rapidly evolving leading-edge fields like behavioral economics, Professor Taylor looks at subjects ranging from discrimination and natural disasters to charity and risk-taking, and even whether terrorism can be considered a "career choice." As you roam with him across this fascinating landscape, you'll discover unique vantage points from which to survey and understand these exciting and vital territories being explored every day by economists. And you'll gain a deeper understanding of the role of choice in your own life, whether choices you've made for yourself, or those made for you by leaders you've entrusted with that authority.

Broaden Your Net of Choices

It's no accident that economists' recent and growing attention to an increasingly broader range of topics has produced not only a variety of international honors and recognition within the discipline but also popular best-selling books. And there's no arguing with how the resulting insights and findings have radically changed our thinking about how and why decisions—whether personal, national, or global—are made. Or how they can give anyone in a position to make or evaluate those decisions a powerful tool for "broadening the net" of choices and determining the best course of action.

It's the holiday season and you're gift shopping. How useful might it be to really understand why a particular person is on your list, and what motivations for giving might truly be in play as you make your selection?

A government official is charged with addressing the tremendous shortage of available kidneys for those desperately needing a transplant. What factors go into designing a policy that will not only satisfy the needs of new donors, but also those of the political players whose approval is needed?

Every four years, the Olympic Games present a global stage for athletic competition. But they are also just as much a cooperative endeavor. What factors go into striking the right balance needed to ensure success? And what lessons do the Games hold in enhancing our understanding of that same competitive-cooperative balance in business and work life?

A Fascinating Look at the Hidden Role of Economics

Teaching in a friendly style, Professor Taylor offers numerous examples of the hidden role of economics—with its constant dance of incentives and tradeoffs—in every aspect of life, including these:

  • A provocative look at obesity in America, including the counterintuitive role of income, the impact of five key food preparation and preservation technologies, and some surprising revelations about who really bears the costs obesity imposes on society
  • The role of "information cascades" in forming public opinion and influencing people to fall in with the herd—even when the information is absolutely wrong—and how such a cascade meant decades of medically incorrect treatment for stomach ulcers
  • How changing mores have made once-deplored markets and economic transactions acceptable, from surrogate pregnancy to the purchase of life insurance, a practice once believed by some to be elevating oneself above God
  • The changing economic and social forces that have altered the balance of incentives for men and women when it comes to marrying versus remaining single, how many children to have, and whether to seek a divorce

Economic Elements Worth Noticing

A masterful economist with a powerful ability to explain the particulars of economics in commonsense language, Professor Taylor is the consummate guide for this fresh perspective on the relationship between economics and your world. With the same engaging style that has earned him teaching awards, he illustrates one of the main takeaways from Unexpected Economics: That in a world in which each of us is constantly seeking to balance our wants and needs, the key elements of the economist's worldview are always with us—and always worth noticing.

Drawing on everything from psychology, history, and political science to philosophy, statistics, and game theory, these lectures are an enjoyable and rewarding way for you to learn how economics is rooted in seeking to understand not just trade and finances but the essence of how and why human beings make actual decisions.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The World of Choices
    In this introductory lecture, encounter a definition of economics far broader than the one understood by most people. Also, learn that economics is about the choices you make in every aspect of life, their consequences, and the degree to which the realm of choice itself is larger than you would think. x
  • 2
    A Market for Pregnancy
    History demonstrates that most people are creatures of their own time in terms of what they will accept as appropriate economic transactions. Focus on three once-banned examples now seen as partly or completely ordinary: interest payments, life insurance, and the so-called "baby market." x
  • 3
    Selling a Kidney
    The discussion of forbidden transactions continues with a provocative look at the controversy over the buying and selling of human organs like kidneys or livers. No matter where you stand on the issue, this consideration of benefits and costs offers a fresh perspective from which to consider your views of medicine and longevity. x
  • 4
    Traffic Congestion—Costs, Pricing, and You
    Can economic analysis do anything about traffic? This free-wheeling examination of the choices that produce both the problem and solution reveals an example of the "tragedy of the commons" and looks at how the city of London addressed the issue with a strategy of "congestion pricing." x
  • 5
    Two-Way Ties between Religion and Economics
    Although links between religion and economics may seem counterintuitive to many, the possibility has interested economists ever since the work of Adam Smith. This lecture explores how several different aspects of religion may in fact contribute to the underpinnings of the real-world economy. x
  • 6
    Prediction Markets—Windows on the Future
    Can the likelihood of a future event be predicted? If so, how? Plunge into the world of prediction markets, where people place bets on what will happen, and get some surprising answers—in areas that include elections, Oscar winners, and the performance of new products. x
  • 7
    Pathways for Crime and Crime Fighting
    Step beyond the traditional nature-versus-nurture argument about the causes of crime to examine the problem from an economic perspective. Grasp how incentives and tradeoffs affect the decisions of both criminals and law enforcement and how policymakers might better take them into account. x
  • 8
    Terrorism as an Occupational Choice
    Is there a causal relationship between poverty and terrorism, or a pathway to terrorism originating in a lack of education? Discover some surprising answers as you turn your attention to the choices and incentives economists find when examining how terrorism and its practitioners find each other. x
  • 9
    Marriage as a Search Market
    By looking at the many factors that go into marriage—from the "market" where people find their spouses to the forces that influence their choices about remaining together or splitting apart—you'll gain fresh insight into why marriage patterns have shifted so dramatically. x
  • 10
    Procreation and Parenthood
    Beginning with the work of Thomas Malthus, explore the many ways in which our child-bearing patterns have changed, including a current theory that actually sees children as a kind of luxury good, where an increase in income translates into an even higher investment in one's children. x
  • 11
    Small Choices and Racial Discrimination
    Take a close look at how discrimination against African Americans manifests itself in various markets. Learn about the different analytical perspectives set forth by economists like Becker, Schelling, and Arrow; the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and three different approaches to achieving equality. x
  • 12
    Cooperation and the Prisoner's Dilemma
    A discussion of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma and its application to the market economy leads to a surprising conclusion: Competition and cooperation are not opposites. Instead, they are interlocking, with market competition the ultimate example of socially cooperative behavior. x
  • 13
    Fairness and the Ultimatum Game
    Turn your focus to the world of "laboratory economics," where game exercises like the "ultimatum game," "dictator," "punishment," "trust," "gift exchange," and others help cast fresh light on key aspects of economic behavior. Learn how perceived fairness and other motivating factors can affect real-life markets. x
  • 14
    Myopic Preferences and Behavioral Economics
    Myopia can refer to more than eyesight. Grasp the impact of setting aside the long-term view in favor of the shorter one, a pattern whose consequences can be seen not only in personal finance, but in health care, time management, and many other aspects of behavior. x
  • 15
    Altruism, Charity, and Gifts
    Is charity always altruistic, or is giving really motivated by disguised self-interest? Examine the many possible motivations for charity, societal steps to support it, and the imbalances that occur when a recipient's valuation of a gift is markedly different from that of the giver. x
  • 16
    Loss Aversion and Reference Point Bias
    How a choice is framed significantly affects which alternative is chosen, even when either will produce identical results. Grasp why this is so through concepts like loss aversion and reference dependence, and see how public "nudge" policies might be used to influence those choices. x
  • 17
    Risk and Uncertainty
    An eye-opening exploration of how economists see risk introduces behavioral descriptions like risk-neutral, risk-seeking, and risk-averse, along with the most useful way to realistically evaluate probabilities and make decisions. Learn how this knowledge factors into public policy subjects like energy and finance. x
  • 18
    Human Herds and Information Cascades
    Most of us understandably "run with the herd" when making decisions outside our personal expertise. Although this often leads to correct choices, it can also draw us astray. Learn the dangers of "information cascades" and how to avoid joining herds headed in disastrous directions. x
  • 19
    Addiction and Choice
    In a provocative examination of a controversial subject, learn how some economists have analyzed drug addiction as a chosen behavior—and therefore subject to analysis of costs, benefits, and incentives, much like any other personal choice. x
  • 20
    Obesity—Who Bears the Costs?
    American men and women have both gained an average of more than 20 pounds since the early 1960s. Address the reasons for this increase, the role played by economic factors, and the implications for public policy, including who really pays the costs obesity imposes. x
  • 21
    The Economics of Natural Disasters
    The damage natural disasters do to people and property is not just a matter of fate. Explore how the answers to economic questions about socially appropriate investments in advance planning and preparation for rapid response can influence the impact of a natural disaster. x
  • 22
    Sports Lessons—Pay, Performance, Tournaments
    Although sports account for a far less significant piece of the economy than most people assume, it does provide economists with especially clear examples with much broader applicability. Grasp what sports can teach us about issues like pay and promotion, valuing talent, and providing incentives for top performance. x
  • 23
    Voting, Money, and Politics
    What happens when voting—its costs, incentives, even its very rationality—is subjected to the scrutiny of economists? Understand the real impacts on this defining principle of democracy from factors like voter ignorance, money, special interests, and turnout. x
  • 24
    The Pursuit of Happiness
    If happiness is indeed the ultimate incentive for the choices we make, is there any way to measure it? This concluding lecture examines several ways in which economists have sought to define and measure this elusive goal and the ways in which the results might influence our choices. x

Lecture Titles

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Timothy Taylor
M.Econ. Timothy Taylor
Macalester College

Professor Timothy Taylor is Managing Editor of the prominent Journal of Economic Perspectives, published by the American Economic Association. He earned his Master's degree in Economics from Stanford University.

Professor Taylor has won student-voted teaching awards for his Introductory Economics classes at Stanford University. At the University of Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the Master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

In 2007, Professor Taylor published the first Principles of Economics textbook, available as a free download from Freeload Press. He has also edited a wide range of books and reports and published articles on globalization, the new economy, and outsourcing. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News.

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Reviews

Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 27 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Recommended Without Hesitation! [Audio Version] This was my third course from Professor Taylor (I reviewed ‘Economics 3rd Ed.’ and ‘America and the New Global Economy’). I can’t quite say that this course is better than the previous ones, but I can say ‘Unexpected Economics’ is certainly just as good as the other two. Taylor is fun, interesting, enthusiastic, and once again hits the ground running in his almost breathless and unique fashion. He’s a gifted speaker––you can often hear the smile in his voice. While the course slowed down for me at Lecture 5 (Religion and Economics), it picked up speed again for the remaining lectures. I found myself eager for each new topic. Lecture 14 on ‘Myopic Preferences and Behavioral Economics' was a slam dunk––and for me was worth the price of the entire course. (But I wish he had dug deeper into current US problems and issues like national healthcare and Social Security.) My only beefs, minor ones, are Taylor’s reminding us too often that he is Editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. I also grew a tad weary of his citing so many Nobel laureates (more than a dozen are listed in the Guide Book). The Nobel Prize has become less prestigious and increasing controversial over the past several decades. Taylor’s making us so aware of the almost-celebrity status of economic superstars sometimes caused me to wonder who he was leaving out. I am grateful for professors like Taylor. In my college days, economics was indeed dreary. Taylor makes economics interesting and exciting. That takes real talent. I can recommend this course without hesitation. September 25, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by In the spirit of Freakonomics... In the spirit of books like Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational, and Nudge, this course applies "economic thinking" to issues that you would not normally think of as economics: kidney transplants, marriage, charity, obesity, etc. I would say that the course is best for people who already have some background in how to think like an economist - or have an analytical personality. Prof Taylor's presentation is very good. He keeps the course interesting with lots of anecdotal stories. Some people may be uncomfortable with an analytical approach to thinking about emotional issues such as terrorism, natural disasters, and organ transplants, but that is to point of the course -- to teach people to think rationally about issues that are often driven by emotion. Given this, Prof Taylor does an excellent job of being sensitive to this potential analytical/emotional clash. May 11, 2012
Rated 1 out of 5 by Information free course. Like a bad freshman philosophy course, a definition that is very restrictive and not a correlate of reality is driven into many different areas to give insight. Brooking no other way of seeing the topic, this straight jacket of thought plows through complex forms just repeating the definition. BUT the original definition is incomplete and narrow and today intellectually weak after years of finding the rationality of economics is overblown. Go to other courses. September 9, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Not the best I generally like courses taught by Prof Taylor however this course seems to present a bit less value than other courses by the same professor. A diverse number of topics are discussed in the course while in my opinion sufficient substance is lacking in some courses. In many courses, after the topic is introduced, its not hard to guess the following material for someone a bit knowledgeable about economics. This produces the feeling that you are taking a course about a topic you already know, which is very off putting. On the other end, course is not without value. While trying to support presented material with evidence Prof Taylor discusses about a psychological experiment or a real life event which may be interesting. Depending on your knowledge about economics, this course offers you less or more in terms of value. I recommend this course for a novice in economics, think twice before purchase if you are somewhat knowledgeable. September 2, 2014
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