Last Friday, as I normally do every Friday, I walked over to the newspaper store to pick my copy of The Economist. On my way to the store, I started wondering why I act in a seemingly irrational way every Friday i.e. in picking up my copy of The Economist. Let me explain. First of all, I know that it is a lot cheaper to buy a subscription to the newspaper than to buy a copy each week. And since I buy the paper every week, it would only make a lot of sense to buy a subscription. The problem, however, is that I do not spend every weekend in the same location, and since I need my Economist on Fridays so that I would be done with it by Sunday, it would not make much sense for me to get a subscription when the delivery might not meet me wherever I am. It is simple, if I got a subscription I would have to give an address to which the paper would be delivered every week, and since I cannot be sure to be at my office or my house every Friday, it does not make much sense to have it delivered to either of the places. So, this means that every Friday, as long as there is a newspaper shop nearby, I take a walk to the vendor’s to pick up my paper. Of course, sometimes I leave from my office, and sometimes I buy it on my way to some other place.
But that is not the main point of this post. The point is that last Friday, I started wondering why I normally get a print copy of the newspaper when it is fully available online for free. Yes, the whole of the paper is online. The Economist website has since unlocked several sections it once tagged “premium”, reserved for only subscribers. Well, since it is me, I could ask myself the reasons that I behave in this seemingly irrational, un-Homo Economicus way. For, Homo Economicus is a rational individual who seeks to maximize his resources and so reduce any needless expenses. Why “throw away” money at the newspaper publishers, the vendors, the distributors etc in the “profit chain” every week when the damn thing is available free online?
One reason that came to my mind was that it was a thing of habit. I am simply used to that walk to the vendor’s, and to picking up the newspaper every week. Another reason that someone pointed to me is that it is possible that I felt that I belonged to an exclusive community of upwardly-mobile, young men who consume the very intelligent analyses of The Economist. That would be closely linked to a desire to be seen as such. In other words, I might simply buy The Economist so that people would see me as belonging in that community or special class of people. Or, the perhaps more down-to-earth – albeit less rational – reason of loving the feel of an original, printed, newspaper, and of loving the smell that leaves the pages as they are turned. To complicate things even more – things are actually most often as complicated – it might be a combination of these reasons and many more than I can think about at the moment.
The moral of this, then, is that we often behave in seemingly irrational ways, ways that your everyday economics textbook definition of the rational, profit-maximising human does not even begin to capture. Human motives and incentives are too complex to reduce simply to money or profit seeking ends.
Olumide is carrying out research in economic anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany.