Impostos e Finanças comportamentais

A teoria de finanças comportamentais pode ser usada para discutir a melhor forma de taxação. Um artigo de 31 de janeiro de 2008, do New York Times, que discute este ponto.

Rebate Psychology

THE House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday that would try to stimulate the economy, in part, by sending “tax rebates” to more than 100 million families. The logic of a tax rebate is that people will spend more money if they have more to spend. Unfortunately, psychology may interfere with that logic.

Research on decision-making demonstrates that describing a financial windfall as a “rebate” — instead of something equally accurate — increases the likelihood that people will save it. If Congress and President Bush want to increase consumer spending, they should have pitched these $600 and $1,200 checks as “tax bonuses” instead.

Changing the way that identical income is described can significantly affect how people spend it. In an experiment I conducted at Harvard with my colleagues Dennis Mak and Lorraine Chen Idson, participants were given a $50 check. They were told that this money came from a faculty member’s research budget, financed indirectly through tuition dollars. Roughly half of the participants had this money described as a “rebate,” whereas the others had it described as a “bonus.” When unexpectedly contacted one week later, participants who got a “rebate” reported spending less than half of what those who got a “bonus” reported spending ($9.55 versus $22.04, respectively).

We observed this same pattern in other experiments when participants were asked to keep a written record of their spending, as well as in experiments in which the participants were allowed to purchase items in the lab. “Rebates” are understood to be returns from money already spent. A rebate, psychologically speaking, is the return of a loss of one’s own money rather than a pure gain provided by someone else, so it is unlikely to be seen as extra spending money.

Getting a rebate is more like being reimbursed for travel expenses than like getting a year-end bonus. Reimbursements send people on trips to the bank. Bonuses send people on trips to the Bahamas.

This is more than merely a matter of political spin. Decisions depend very heavily on how people’s options are described.

People are more willing to treat 600 people infected with a deadly virus when they are told the treatment will save 200 of those lives, than when they are told that it will kill 400 of them. People are more likely to donate to a charity when the cost is described in terms of pennies per day instead of dollars per year. And more people say they could live on 80 percent of their income than say that they could save 20 percent of their income.

Descriptions are the psychological equivalent of a camera lens. Psychologists use the term “framing effects” to describe their influence. An investment banker who is delighted by saving $5 on a pair of shoes but disgusted by receiving $1,000 for a year-end bonus has experienced the power of framing effects.

If the current proposal for tax rebates sounds familiar, it’s because we have indeed been here before. In 2001, Congress and President Bush returned $38 billion to taxpayers in the form of $300 to $600 tax rebates, with the hope that Americans would stimulate the economy by spending them. But research conducted by two University of Michigan economists, Matthew Shapiro and Joel Slemrod, found that only 28 percent of the people in a national survey reported that they spent most of their rebate checks soon after receiving them. In a country where the personal savings rate has become negative by some accounts, people seem remarkably able to save at the very time their government needs them to spend.

In another experiment my colleagues and I conducted, taxpayers asked to recall the 2001 tax rebate reported that it seemed more like “extra income” when researchers described it as a tax bonus but more like “returned income” when it was described as a tax rebate.

This is exactly the kind of difference in perceptions that would increase spending of bonuses relative to rebates. Describing the checks as rebates highlights that this is simply one’s own money being returned. A bonus, however, is extra cash to be spent.

Under the House plan, the checks that would arrive in people’s mailboxes would go to those who pay the least income taxes, or even pay no income tax at all. Saying the checks are bonuses — or anything else that would call to mind thoughts of receiving a gift rather than getting a reimbursement — may not only be a more effective description for this stimulus package, but it may also be more accurate.

A hamburger can be described as 10 percent fat, but you had better call it 90 percent lean if you want your dinner guests to eat it. Politicians are thought to be expert spin doctors, able to choose the right words to fit any occasion, but they do not seem to be paying attention to how to sell the stimulus package so that consumers spend with patriotic abandon.

Nicholas Epley is a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

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