The Prodigal Son – The Missing Verses

shutterstock_180038786In a recent ‘behavioural’ review of the biblical tale, the Prodigal Son, I was finally able assuage my usual annoyance with the counter-intuitive reaction of the title character’s father to the boy’s return. I understood the wisdom of the father’s action for his own personal well-being, but the parable still irritated a little. This is because, as a father, I struggled to imagine myself being able suppress the urge to scold the child for having squandered half of the family wealth. The expression “I told you so” would probably have rolled more easily off the tongue than “kill the fattened calf for a feast.” It was only after reviewing the episode for a second time that I realised my hasty conclusion was mostly due to the way the story was told.
Continue reading


The New Prodigal Son

bentley-1273361_1920Over Christmas I became reacquainted with the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is a frequently told story from the New Testament, yet it so often provokes grumbles amongst its audience. And this muffled disapproval always concerns the father’s behaviour. Although everyone can understand the actions of the selfish but ultimately repentant title character, and one can also sympathise with his steadfast but ultimately resentful brother, the father’s response to the return of his lost-but-now-found son strikes many as disproportionate. ..Read more on TCAM’s website

Stimulus interruptus

A patient, when offered the opportunity to take a break midway through a painful medical procedure will often accept the offer. However, a spa client offered the chance to take a short break during a relaxing massage session will typically refuse. In each case, the people on the receiving end of these experiences intuitively believe that they are improving their happiness with their choices. But do they? Continue reading

Sugar-Coated Sleight of Hand

Phony outrage broke out in the office this morning when we learned that some snack manufacturers had achieved the feat of producing lower-calorie candy bars by simply reducing their size. The smaller bars contain the same proportion of sugar and fat as their high-calorie counterparts – and cost the same price – but there is simply less of it in the package.  At first glance, it seems like another example of marketing sleight of hand. From a behavioural economics perspective, however, the candy-makers may actually be doing consumers a favour. Continue reading

The Punishment Swap

My nine-year old has been particularly disobedient lately. Her behavior was so unacceptable last week I threatened not to take her to her best friend’s birthday party, planned for last weekend, if she did not mend her ways. Well, the threat went unheeded; she proceeded almost immediately to do the thing that she had been told not to do. So I declared that she would forfeit the birthday party. She became instantly gloomy and remorseful, but seemed to accept the punishment until, that is, the day before the birthday party. Only then did she realize the full weight of the loss. Continue reading

The Top Five Crocodile Tears of the Dying


In 2011 Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse, published a book in which she detailed the five most frequent regrets of those she cared for in the final stages of their lives[1]. So what would people on their death-beds do differently if they had their lives to live all over again? Hazard a guess. My suspicion is that you will readily sympathise with the five most popular sentiments because these are among the things today’s robustly-healthy already regret.
Continue reading

The Importance of Attention III: Charitable giving

When we buy things in order to make us happy, the question we should ask first is not how much we like it or how much it costs, but whether it will keep our attention once it is in regular daily use. If it cannot hold our attention, the liking or the price will not matter.  The same applies if we spend money to avoid things we do not like. The degree to which something brings us displeasure does not depend on how nasty it is, or even how long it remains nasty, but on how often the nastiness has our attention. We can see an example of this in the spending patterns of the poor. Continue reading

The Importance of Attention II: The Car Buyer

Consider a driving enthusiast who ploughs all his savings into the shiny new sports car of his dreams. Walking towards the vehicle in the car park, he admires the elegance of its flowing lines, the masculinity of its meaty grill and flared wheel arches, and the promise of speed in its oversized alloy wheels and its low-sitting chassis. His pulse starts to pick up and his throat dries. He opens the broad door and swings into the leather sports seats. The precision instruments on the dashboard light up and the engine burst into action life at the touch of a button. He caresses the accelerator with the toe of his shoe; the vibration charges through his frame and a powerful roar seems to come from three directions simultaneously. “Yes,” he gushes, “worth every penny.” Continue reading