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How Can a Psychologist Inform Economics? The Strange Case of Sidney Siegel

How Can a Psychologist Inform Economics? The Strange Case of Sidney Siegel

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How Can a Psychologist Inform Economics?The Strange Case of Sidney Siegel
Alessandro Innocenti*
Università di Siena
Before Kahneman and Tversky showed how behavioural economics could bring psychology andeconomics into a unified framework, in the 1950s a social psychologist, Sidney Siegel, entered the realm of economics and laid the foundation of experimental economics. This paper gives an assessment of 
overall contribution and claims that Siegel was not only a pioneer of experimental economics but also of behavioural economics. Had his view on the integration of psychology and economics been more promptlyreceived, it might have triggered a different and more successfully path to the injection of greater realism ineconomics. When Siegel died, his approach to integrate psychology and economics lost its main advocate.Although his legacy was paramount in the work of the Nobel Prize Vernon Smith, Siegel endorsed a quitedifferent approach to how make interdisciplinary research effective.J
: experimental economics, psychology, behavioural economics, bargaining theory, utility theory.*Dipartimento di Politica Economica, Finanza e Sviluppo (DEPFID), Università di Siena, Piazza S.Francesco 7, 53100 Siena (Italy). Tel.: +39 0577 232785 Fax: +39 0577 232793 Email:innocenti@unisi.it
Toasting his 2002 Nobel Prize during the Royal Banquet in Stockholm, Vernon Smithacknowledged the status of pioneers
of the “intellectual movement”
leading to the foundation of experimental economics to four scholars. The first of the list, and probably the less known,
was apsychologist passed away in 1961, Sydney Siegel, known by Vernon Smith just six weeks beforehis untimely
death. In Smith‟s words, in this narrow span of time Siegel
“strongly influencedme in becoming committed to experimental economics”
(Smith 2002). This tribute might seemsurprising since Siegel had conducted his first experiment in 1954 and then published just twobooks and a handful of papers in psychological journals. Nonetheless, his brief acquaintance witheconomic experimentation had been significant enough to make him as one of scholars to whomSmith was more indebted.It is not straightforward to explain the reasons of such a tribute. Ten years before, Smith hadattr
ibuted Siegel‟s influence on his work 
to the insight that experimental subjects could deviate byutility maximization because they can get bored by repeating the same decision over and over. Thisintuition led Siegel to introduce some sources of variability in the experimental procedure. Theconsequence of this adjustment was to restore maximizing behaviour among most subjects. Smithclaimed that this, seemingly minor,
issue was “of fundamental methodological importance, and I
think it is unfortunate that it was not more widely known among experimentalists in both economics
and psychology.”
(Smith 1991, p. 5) By making reference to the integration between economics andpsychology, Smith raised the very
issue on which Siegel‟s
role could have been more influentialthan it had been during his short life. Thus, Smith added
“Perhaps it was not possible for this work 
to be widely known in either of these two cultures, if economists were willing to accept the premiseof the paper without evidence and if psychologists were unwilling to accept the premise with
(Smith 1991, p. 6)
Smith‟s point was that,
before Kahneman and Tversky showed how behavioural economicscould bring psychology and economics into a unified theoretical framework, Siegel had alreadyproved that laboratory experiments could improve economics by incorporating evidence frompsychology. Moreover, he had offered an instructive example of how psychologists and economicscould successfully collaborate by sharing not only methods but also theories and principles. AsSmith claimed, this contribution was not appreciated for a long time. In this perspective
, Siegel‟s
brief and atypical scientific career can be considered, on one hand, a lost opportunity and, on
The others were, in order, Amos Tversky, Martin Shubik and Charles Plott (Smith 2002).
another, the first step of an underneath path only coming to surface in the recent emergence of behavioural economics.The objective of this paper is to shed light on
effort to meld psychology andeconomics. It also tries to clarify why his approach remained largely unexplored since the 1980s. Inthe next section,
a portrait of Siegel‟s life and research is drawn.
Section 3 gives an in depthassessment of his contribution to experimental economics, which was not confined to laboratorymethodology only. Finally, Section 4 discusses what all this implies for the recent trend towardsintegrating psychology into economics.2.
The strange case of Sydney Siegel
The facts leading Siegel to become an initiator of experimental economics were quitepeculiar. It is quite evident that his unusual formation process played a crucial role in instilling inhim the openness of mind so important for being a pioneer in the field.
parents emigrated to the United States from Romania at the turn of the century andsettled at New York to run first a bakery and then a restaurant.
Sidney was born on 1916 as the lastof five children. His childhood was spent by helping his parents in their activities and by attendingprimary schools. With the Great Depression,
his family‟s financial conditions deteriorate
d and, inthe early thirties, Sydney lived on the road by roaming back and forth across the United States,finding occasional jobs in the summer and coming back to New York during the winter. In thisperiod he became a sort of juvenile delinquent, who occasionally transgressed law by playing poolfor cash, stealing objects and extorting money.
In Siegel‟s second wife words, t
his behaviour wastempered by an
innate aversion to any kind of violence: “Throughout his life, Sid was stronglysympathetic with „underprivileged‟ and „delinquent‟ kids, but he felt no kinship with the hoodlums.
His own delinquencies had been strictly a way of getting by in the life of a city which offered no jobs and few channels to success to its slum children.
” (Engvall Siegel 196
4, p. 4)This period came to an end when he moved to Los Angeles in 1939, after his first marriage
and his father‟s dead
. There he attended a school for repairing radio and then was hired as atechnician in a radio shop. Two years later, in 1941, his first son Jay was born. To earn a living forthe family, Siegel asked to be enrolled in the Army, but his attempt was frustrated by the report of having been affected by tuberculosis some years before. So he started working as a civilian
These biographical notes mainly rely on the memoir written by Sydney‟s second wife, Alberta Engvall
Siegel (1964), who was a professor at psychology at Stanford University and played an active role in
Siegel‟s professional life.

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