What is the behavioural economics of spontaneity? There is something that neoclassical economics doesn’t teach us about. What is it? Here is an in-depth look.
In neoclassical economics, which was the dominant school in economics for quite some time till behavioural economics started challenging it, individuals allocate their time among competing uses and budget among different expenditures in order to maximize satisfaction or utility. There is something ex-ante about this – we foresee the value of rival uses of our time and money and then plan to allocate our entire time and money among these uses on the basis of our foresight.
In real life, we do see individuals following the neoclassical method: packed diaries specifying exactly what these individuals are going to do and when, and budgets made at the beginning of every month meticulously dividing up the family income among various uses.
Yet there is an alternative way to lead life. This follows from the realization that the environment surrounding us is constantly changing and offering us new opportunities and new sources of joy. When we construct our schedules too tightly, we do not give ourselves the room to pluck the low-hanging fruits being offered by the environment. Similarly, if we plan our budget meticulously and do not provide for miscellaneous spur-of-the-moment expenditures, we might deny ourselves the chance to consume newly discovered delights.
Consider my example, that of an Economics Professor. On any given day, my time would be allocated among classes, meetings with doctoral students, preparation for future classes and work on research papers. I might divide up my day so that the entire time available is rationed out among these competing uses and a lunch break and submit myself voluntarily to the tyranny of the timetable drawn up by me. Alternatively, I can plan my schedule with more flexibility: be punctual about my classes and meetings with PhD students but more flexible about the period in the day in which I prepare for class or work on my research papers.
Let us assume that my classes and meetings were in the morning, and it is still only noon when they get over. The weather outside is reasonably pleasant, with a cloud cover. My leg muscles have tightened because of being seated during the meeting. I decide to venture downstairs from our office premises for an unscheduled walk.
On reaching the ground floor, I meet an old friend and spend a few minutes chatting with him, an experience full of mirth and marked by the rekindling of fond memories. I then walk all around the campus, loosening my leg muscles and energizing my brain: walking and similar exercise releases chemicals such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin that have a positive impact on our brains. At the end of the walk, I espied the ice cream cart parked outside the university gate and ran over to it. I reward myself with an orange bar and make my way to my office.
I have been pleasantly surprised by at least two things – the chance to meet with an old friend and the chance to consume ice cream, which I fully exploited. Research shows that pleasant surprises can switch our brains into positive connector emotions of trust, love and joy. This can be beneficial for creativity, emotional intelligence and intuition.
I enter my office, a transformed man. The good hormones generated by my walk and the mentioned surprises linger on in my brain. With creativity and productivity considerably enhanced, the rest of the day at the office, consisting of lunch, preparation for classes and working on research papers, zips by. I finished what I considered to be 3 hours’ work in 2, thus making up for time lost due to my spontaneous escapades.
Thus, I managed to achieve what I would have done with a tight schedule but also fit in a couple of pleasant surprises and physical activity, a tonic for the soul.
The basic idea is that when nature or the environment decides to surprise us with some opportunities, we must not always refuse but be willing to explore. How do we engineer spontaneity? Adults can leave their appointment or commitment diaries only partially full, providing enough room for spontaneous activities. Their budgets can also yield enough room for unforeseen expenditures.
In most schools, the timetable is packed with back-to-back classes punctuated by a tiny recess. In order to foster spontaneity, students could be given more frequent recesses, in which they can do can fun things like getting to know each other, going for nature walks or even climbing trees. The idea is to hardwire spontaneity in children instead of killing it so that they remain spontaneous as adults and, therefore, happier and more productive.
Also Read: The business of war!