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George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller: Animal Spirits
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Introduction
TO UNDERSTAND HOW economies work and how we can man­
age them and prosper, we must pay attention to the thought patterns
that animate people’s ideas and feelings, their animal spirits. We will
never really understand important economic events unless we confront
the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature.
It is unfortunate that most economists and business writers appar­
ently do not seem to appreciate this and thus often fall back on the
most tortured and artificial interpretations of economic events. They
assume that variations in individual feelings, impressions, and passions
do not matter in the aggregate and that economic events are driven by
inscrutable technical factors or erratic government action. In fact, as we
shall discover in this book, the origins of these events are quite familiar
and are found in our own everyday thinking. We started work on this
book in the spring of 2003. In the intervening years the world econ­
omy has moved in directions that can be understood only in terms of
animal spirits. It has taken a rollercoaster ride. First there was the as­
cent. And then, about a year ago, the fall began. But oddly, unlike a trip
at a normal amusement park, it was not until the economy began to fall
that the passengers realized that they had embarked on a wild ride.
And, abetted by this obliviousness, the management of this amusement
park paid no heed to setting limits on how high the passengers should
go. Nor did it provide for safety equipment to limit the speed, or the
extent, of the subsequent fall.
What had people been thinking? Why did they not notice until real
events—the collapse of banks, the loss of jobs, mortgage foreclosures—
were already upon us? There is a simple answer. The public, the gov­
ernment, and most economists had been reassured by an economic
theory that said that we were safe. It was all OK. Nothing dangerous
could happen. But that theory was deficient. It had ignored the im­
portance of ideas in the conduct of the economy. It had ignored the
role of animal spirits. And it had also ignored the fact that people could
be unaware of having boarded a rollercoaster.
I
iN¡eoDuc¡ioN
What Have People Been Thinking?
Traditional economics teaches the benefits of free markets. This belief
has taken hold not just in the bastions of capitalism, such as the United
States and Great Britain, but throughout the world, even in countries
with more established socialist traditions, such as China, India, and
Russia. According to traditional economics, free market capitalism will
be essentially perfect and stable. There is little, if any, need for govern­
ment interference. On the contrary, the only risk of major depression
today, or in the future, comes from government intervention.
This line of reasoning goes back to Adam Smith. The basis for the
idea that the economy is essentially stable lies in a thought experiment
which asks: What do free, perfect markets imply? The answer: If people
rationally pursue their own economic interests in such markets, they
will exhaust all mutually beneficial opportunities to produce goods and
exchange with one another. Such exhaustion of opportunities for mu­
tually beneficial trade results in full employment. Workers who are rea­
sonable in their wage demands—those who will accept a wage that is
less than what they add to production—will be employed. Why? If
such a worker were unemployed, a mutually beneficial trade could be
arranged. An employer could hire this worker at the wage she requires
and still have some spare extra output for a larger profit. Of course
some workers will be unemployed. But they will be unable to find work
only because they are engaged in a temporary search for a job or be­
cause they insist on pay that is unreasonably high—greater than what
they add to production. Such unemployment is voluntary.
There is a sense in which this theory about the economy’s stability
is remarkably successful. For example, it explains why most people who
seek work are employed most of the time—even in the troughs of
severe depressions. It may not explain, for example, why 25% of the U.S.
labor force was unemployed in 1933 at the height of the Great Depres­
sion, but it does explain why, even then, 75% of the workers who sought
jobs were employed. They were engaging in the mutually beneficial
production and trade predicted by Adam Smith.
So, even at its worst, this theory deserves high marks—at least by the
criterion of a schoolboy we once overheard at a restaurant. He was
complaining about the C he had received on a spelling test—despite
the fact that 70% of his answers were correct. Furthermore the theory
does so well even in its worst prediction in two hundred years. Most
z
introduction
of the time—as now, when the U.S. unemployment rate is still 6.7%
(although rising)—it predicts remarkably accurately.
Consider yet again the Great Depression. Few people ask why em­
ployment was as high as 75% in 1933. Instead the common question is
why 25% of the labor force was unemployed. To our mind macro­
economics concerns departures from full employment. Failure to be at
such full employment must then result from a departure from the clas­
sical model of Adam Smith.
We do believe, like most of our colleagues, that Adam Smith was ba­
sically right regarding why so many people are employed. We are also
willing to believe, with some qualifications, that he was essentially cor­
rect about the economic advantages of capitalism. But we think that his
theory fails to describe why there is so much variation in the economy.
It does not explain why the economy takes rollercoaster rides. And the
takeaway message from Adam Smith—that there is little, or no, need
for government intervention—is also unwarranted.
1
Animal Spirits
The thought experiment of Adam Smith correctly takes into account
the fact that people rationally pursue their economic interests. Of
course they do. But this thought experiment fails to take into account
the extent to which people are also guided by noneconomic motiva­
tions. And it fails to take into account the extent to which they are ir­
rational or misguided. It ignores the animal spirits.
In contrast, John Maynard Keynes sought to explain departures from
full employment, and he emphasized the importance of animal spirits.
He stressed their fundamental role in businessmen’s calculations. “Our
basis of knowledge for estimating the yield ten years hence of a railway,
a copper mine, a textile factory, the goodwill of a patent medicine, an At­
lantic liner, a building in the City of London amounts to little and some­
times to nothing,” he wrote. If people are so uncertain, how are deci­
sions made? They “can only be taken as a result of animal spirits.” They
are the result of “a spontaneous urge to action.” They are not, as rational
economic theory would dictate, “the outcome of a weighted average of
quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.”
2
In the original use of the term, in its ancient and medieval Latin form
spiritus animalis, the word animal means “of the mind” or “animat­
ing.” It refers to a basic mental energy and life force.
3
But in modern
¸
iN¡eoDuc¡ioN
economics animal spirits has acquired a somewhat different meaning; it
is now an economic term, referring to a restless and inconsistent element
in the economy. It refers to our peculiar relationship with ambiguity or
uncertainty. Sometimes we are paralyzed by it. Yet at other times it re­
freshes and energizes us, overcoming our fears and indecisions.
Just as families sometimes cohere and at other times argue, are
sometimes happy and at other times depressed, are sometimes success­
ful and at other times in disarray, so too do whole economies go
through good and bad times. The social fabric changes. Our level of
trust in one another varies. And our willingness to undertake effort and
engage in self-sacrifice is by no means constant.
The idea that economic crises, like the current financial and housing
crisis, are mainly caused by changing thought patterns goes against
standard economic thinking. But the current crisis bears witness to the
role of such changes in thinking. It was caused precisely by our chang­
ing confidence, temptations, envy, resentment, and illusions—and es­
pecially by changing stories about the nature of the economy. These in­
tangibles were the reason why people paid small fortunes for houses in
cornfields; why others financed those purchases; why the Dow Jones
average peaked above 14,000 and a little more than a year later fell be­
low 7,500; why the U.S. unemployment rate has risen by 2.5 percentage
points in the past twenty-four months, with the end of this rise not yet
in sight; why Bear Stearns, one of the world’s leading investment banks,
was only (and barely) saved by a Federal Reserve bailout, and why later
in the year Lehman Brothers collapsed outright; why a large fraction of
the world’s banks are underfunded; and why, as we write, some of them
are still tottering on the brink, even after a bailout, and may yet be the
next to go. And we know not what is yet to come.
Macroeconomics with and without Animal Spirits
Of course there is a rich body of macroeconomics that explains why
there are fluctuations in the economy. Indeed that is what the macro­
economics textbooks are all about. We will give just two examples. In
the post–World War II period, economists felt that they could explain
deviations from full employment by a single type of animal spirit: that
workers dislike money wage cuts, and that employers are therefore re­
luctant to make them.
4
This tradition then morphed into a slightly
more sophisticated explanation for why wages are slow to change. It
q
introduction
explains fluctuations in employment arising from shifts in demand as
due to the fact that wages and prices are not all set simultaneously. This
concept in macroeconomics is known as “staggered contracts.”
5
The
macro textbooks are full of many other departures from the simple
thought experiment of Adam Smith, in which there is always a meet­
ing of minds and contracts are negotiated between rational people mo­
tivated purely by economic interests.
6
And that leads us to the philosophical difference between this book
and standard economics texts. This book is derived from a different
view of how economics should be described. The economics of the
textbooks seeks to minimize as much as possible departures from pure
economic motivation and from rationality. There is a good reason for
doing so—and each of us has spent a good portion of his life writing
in this tradition. The economics of Adam Smith is well understood.
Explanations in terms of small deviations from Smith’s ideal system
are thus clear, because they are posed within a framework that is al­
ready very well understood. But that does not mean that these small
deviations from Smith’s system describe how the economy really
works.
Our book marks a break with this tradition. In our view economic
theory should be derived not from the minimal deviations from the sys­
tem of Adam Smith but rather from the deviations that actually do oc­
cur and that can be observed. Insofar as animal spirits exist in the every­
day economy, a description of how the economy really works must
consider those animal spirits. That is the aim of this book.
In producing such a description, we think that we can explain how
the economy works. This is a subject of permanent interest. But, writ­
ing as we are in the winter of 2008–9, this book also describes how we
got into the current mess—and what we need to do to get out of it.
How the Economy Really Works
and the Role of Animal Spirits
Part One of this book will describe five different aspects of animal spir­
its and how they affect economic decisions—confidence, fairness, cor­
ruption and antisocial behavior, money illusion, and stories:
• The cornerstone of our theory is confidence and the feedback mech­
anisms between it and the economy that amplify disturbances.
¸
iN¡eoDuc¡ioN
• The setting of wages and prices depends largely on concerns about
fairness.
• We acknowledge the temptation toward corrupt and antisocial be­
havior and their role in the economy.
• Money illusion is another cornerstone of our theory. The public is
confused by inflation or deflation and does not reason through its
effects.
• Finally, our sense of reality, of who we are and what we are doing,
is intertwined with the story of our lives and of the lives of others.
The aggregate of such stories is a national or international story,
which itself plays an important role in the economy.
Part Two of this book describes how these five animal spirits affect
economic decisions, demonstrating how they play a crucial role in an­
swering eight questions:
1. Why do economies fall into depression?
2. Why do central bankers have power over the economy, insofar as
they do?
3. Why are there people who can’t find a job?
4. Why is there a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment in
the long run?
5. Why is saving for the future so arbitrary?
6. Why are financial prices and corporate investments so volatile?
7. Why do real estate markets go through cycles?
8. Why does poverty persist for generations among disadvantaged
minorities?
We see that animal spirits provide an easy answer to each of these
questions. We also see that, correspondingly, none of these questions
can be answered if people are viewed as having only economic motiva­
tions which they pursue rationally—that is, if the economy is seen as
operating according to the invisible hand of Adam Smith.
Each of these eight questions is fundamental. They would occur to
anyone with a natural curiosity regarding the economy. In providing
natural, satisfactory answers to all of them, our theory of animal spirits
describes how the economy works.
In answering these questions, in telling how the economy really
works, we accomplish what existing economic theory has not. We pro­
vide a theory that explains fully and naturally how the U.S. economy,
6
introduction
and indeed the world economy, has fallen into the current crisis. And—
of perhaps even greater interest—such a theory then allows us to un­
derstand what needs to be done to extricate ourselves from the crisis.
(We present our analysis and recommendations in the postscript to
Chapter 7, the chapter dealing with the powers of the Federal Reserve.)
)

the fall began. the gov­ ernment. It has taken a rollercoaster ride. In the intervening years the world econ­ omy has moved in directions that can be understood only in terms of animal spirits. It is unfortunate that most economists and business writers appar­ ently do not seem to appreciate this and thus often fall back on the most tortured and artificial interpretations of economic events. It had ignored the im­ portance of ideas in the conduct of the economy. We started work on this book in the spring of 2003. we must pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people’s ideas and feelings. In fact. But oddly. What had people been thinking? Why did they not notice until real events—the collapse of banks. But that theory was deficient. And it had also ignored the fact that people could be unaware of having boarded a rollercoaster. or the extent.  . It had ignored the role of animal spirits. They assume that variations in individual feelings. as we shall discover in this book. The public. mortgage foreclosures— were already upon us? There is a simple answer. and passions do not matter in the aggregate and that economic events are driven by inscrutable technical factors or erratic government action. We will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature. unlike a trip at a normal amusement park. abetted by this obliviousness. it was not until the economy began to fall that the passengers realized that they had embarked on a wild ride. the management of this amusement park paid no heed to setting limits on how high the passengers should go. impressions. And. It was all OK. their animal spirits. and most economists had been reassured by an economic theory that said that we were safe.Introduction TO UNDERSTAND HOW economies work and how we can man­ age them and prosper. First there was the as­ cent. the origins of these events are quite familiar and are found in our own everyday thinking. And then. about a year ago. of the subsequent fall. the loss of jobs. Nor did it provide for safety equipment to limit the speed. Nothing dangerous could happen.

Such unemployment is voluntary. Such exhaustion of opportunities for mu­ tually beneficial trade results in full employment. It may not explain.S. the only risk of major depression today. Workers who are rea­ sonable in their wage demands—those who will accept a wage that is less than what they add to production—will be employed. but it does explain why. if any. An employer could hire this worker at the wage she requires and still have some spare extra output for a larger profit. Why? If such a worker were unemployed. They were engaging in the mutually beneficial production and trade predicted by Adam Smith. this theory deserves high marks—at least by the criterion of a schoolboy we once overheard at a restaurant. and Russia. Furthermore the theory does so well even in its worst prediction in two hundred years. such as the United States and Great Britain. or in the future. For example. labor force was unemployed in 1933 at the height of the Great Depres­ sion. There is a sense in which this theory about the economy’s stability is remarkably successful. Of course some workers will be unemployed. Most  . even in countries with more established socialist traditions. He was complaining about the C he had received on a spelling test—despite the fact that 70% of his answers were correct. This belief has taken hold not just in the bastions of capitalism. they will exhaust all mutually beneficial opportunities to produce goods and exchange with one another. This line of reasoning goes back to Adam Smith. The basis for the idea that the economy is essentially stable lies in a thought experiment which asks: What do free. such as China. but throughout the world. According to traditional economics. What Have People Been Thinking? Traditional economics teaches the benefits of free markets. On the contrary. comes from government intervention. need for govern­ ment interference. So. even at its worst. 75% of the workers who sought jobs were employed. even then. why 25% of the U. perfect markets imply? The answer: If people rationally pursue their own economic interests in such markets. There is little. it explains why most people who seek work are employed most of the time—even in the troughs of severe depressions. But they will be unable to find work only because they are engaged in a temporary search for a job or be­ cause they insist on pay that is unreasonably high—greater than what they add to production. for example. India. a mutually beneficial trade could be arranged. free market capitalism will be essentially perfect and stable.

that Adam Smith was ba­ sically right regarding why so many people are employed. as rational economic theory would dictate.introduction of the time—as now.” They are not. unemployment rate is still 6. Instead the common question is why 25% of the labor force was unemployed.”2 In the original use of the term. And it fails to take into account the extent to which they are ir­ rational or misguided. Failure to be at such full employment must then result from a departure from the clas­ sical model of Adam Smith. a building in the City of London amounts to little and some­ times to nothing. It does not explain why the economy takes rollercoaster rides. Few people ask why em­ ployment was as high as 75% in 1933. or no. It ignores the animal spirits. If people are so uncertain. the word animal means “of the mind” or “animat­ ing. To our mind macro­ economics concerns departures from full employment. need for government intervention—is also unwarranted.1 Animal Spirits The thought experiment of Adam Smith correctly takes into account the fact that people rationally pursue their economic interests. a textile factory. John Maynard Keynes sought to explain departures from full employment.S. the goodwill of a patent medicine. “the outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities. a copper mine. Consider yet again the Great Depression. how are deci­ sions made? They “can only be taken as a result of animal spirits. And the takeaway message from Adam Smith—that there is little. He stressed their fundamental role in businessmen’s calculations. when the U.” They are the result of “a spontaneous urge to action.” It refers to a basic mental energy and life force. and he emphasized the importance of animal spirits. “Our basis of knowledge for estimating the yield ten years hence of a railway. in its ancient and medieval Latin form spiritus animalis. with some qualifications.7% (although rising)—it predicts remarkably accurately. an At­ lantic liner. But we think that his theory fails to describe why there is so much variation in the economy. But this thought experiment fails to take into account the extent to which people are also guided by noneconomic motiva­ tions. that he was essentially cor­ rect about the economic advantages of capitalism.3 But in modern  . We are also willing to believe. Of course they do. In contrast.” he wrote. like most of our colleagues. We do believe.

and why later in the year Lehman Brothers collapsed outright. so too do whole economies go through good and bad times. unemployment rate has risen by 2. why Bear Stearns. Sometimes we are paralyzed by it.5 percentage points in the past twenty-four months. It  . And our willingness to undertake effort and engage in self-sacrifice is by no means constant.4 This tradition then morphed into a slightly more sophisticated explanation for why wages are slow to change. Macroeconomics with and without Animal Spirits Of course there is a rich body of macroeconomics that explains why there are fluctuations in the economy. and may yet be the next to go. We will give just two examples. why others financed those purchases. are sometimes success­ ful and at other times in disarray. why a large fraction of the world’s banks are underfunded. It was caused precisely by our chang­ ing confidence. But the current crisis bears witness to the role of such changes in thinking.000 and a little more than a year later fell be­ low 7. temptations. It refers to our peculiar relationship with ambiguity or uncertainty. These in­ tangibles were the reason why people paid small fortunes for houses in cornfields. one of the world’s leading investment banks. envy. as we write.S. and illusions—and es­ pecially by changing stories about the nature of the economy. And we know not what is yet to come. resentment. referring to a restless and inconsistent element in the economy. Indeed that is what the macro­ economics textbooks are all about. economists felt that they could explain deviations from full employment by a single type of animal spirit: that workers dislike money wage cuts. Our level of trust in one another varies. and why. In the post–World War II period. it is now an economic term. why the Dow Jones average peaked above 14. why the U. are mainly caused by changing thought patterns goes against standard economic thinking. Yet at other times it re­ freshes and energizes us. Just as families sometimes cohere and at other times argue. The idea that economic crises. overcoming our fears and indecisions. like the current financial and housing crisis. economics animal spirits has acquired a somewhat different meaning. The social fabric changes. was only (and barely) saved by a Federal Reserve bailout. even after a bailout. and that employers are therefore re­ luctant to make them. are sometimes happy and at other times depressed. some of them are still tottering on the brink.500. with the end of this rise not yet in sight.

In producing such a description. This is a subject of permanent interest. Explanations in terms of small deviations from Smith’s ideal system are thus clear.introduction explains fluctuations in employment arising from shifts in demand as due to the fact that wages and prices are not all set simultaneously. The economics of Adam Smith is well understood. But that does not mean that these small deviations from Smith’s system describe how the economy really works. cor­ ruption and antisocial behavior. That is the aim of this book. because they are posed within a framework that is al­ ready very well understood. How the Economy Really Works and the Role of Animal Spirits Part One of this book will describe five different aspects of animal spir­ its and how they affect economic decisions—confidence. money illusion.  . Insofar as animal spirits exist in the every­ day economy. fairness. Our book marks a break with this tradition. There is a good reason for doing so—and each of us has spent a good portion of his life writing in this tradition. in which there is always a meet­ ing of minds and contracts are negotiated between rational people mo­ tivated purely by economic interests. But. this book also describes how we got into the current mess—and what we need to do to get out of it.”5 The macro textbooks are full of many other departures from the simple thought experiment of Adam Smith. In our view economic theory should be derived not from the minimal deviations from the sys­ tem of Adam Smith but rather from the deviations that actually do oc­ cur and that can be observed. a description of how the economy really works must consider those animal spirits. The economics of the textbooks seeks to minimize as much as possible departures from pure economic motivation and from rationality. we think that we can explain how the economy works. writ­ ing as we are in the winter of 2008–9. This book is derived from a different view of how economics should be described.6 And that leads us to the philosophical difference between this book and standard economics texts. and stories: • The cornerstone of our theory is confidence and the feedback mech­ anisms between it and the economy that amplify disturbances. This concept in macroeconomics is known as “staggered contracts.

The public is confused by inflation or deflation and does not reason through its effects. Why are financial prices and corporate investments so volatile? 7. if the economy is seen as operating according to the invisible hand of Adam Smith. The aggregate of such stories is a national or international story. none of these questions can be answered if people are viewed as having only economic motiva­ tions which they pursue rationally—that is. • Finally.S. economy. We also see that. is intertwined with the story of our lives and of the lives of others. insofar as they do? 3. our theory of animal spirits describes how the economy works. In answering these questions. demonstrating how they play a crucial role in an­ swering eight questions: 1. In providing natural. Why is there a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment in the long run? 5. • We acknowledge the temptation toward corrupt and antisocial be­ havior and their role in the economy. Why is saving for the future so arbitrary? 6. of who we are and what we are doing. satisfactory answers to all of them. in telling how the economy really works. Why do economies fall into depression? 2. They would occur to anyone with a natural curiosity regarding the economy. Each of these eight questions is fundamental. Why do real estate markets go through cycles? 8. which itself plays an important role in the economy. we accomplish what existing economic theory has not. Part Two of this book describes how these five animal spirits affect economic decisions. our sense of reality. • Money illusion is another cornerstone of our theory. We pro­ vide a theory that explains fully and naturally how the U.  . correspondingly. Why do central bankers have power over the economy. • The setting of wages and prices depends largely on concerns about fairness. Why does poverty persist for generations among disadvantaged minorities? We see that animal spirits provide an easy answer to each of these questions. Why are there people who can’t find a job? 4.

)  . And— of perhaps even greater interest—such a theory then allows us to un­ derstand what needs to be done to extricate ourselves from the crisis. the chapter dealing with the powers of the Federal Reserve. (We present our analysis and recommendations in the postscript to Chapter 7.introduction and indeed the world economy. has fallen into the current crisis.