Social Sciences

Econ Prof Unlocks Puzzles of Human Behavior

By Chris Lydgate '90 | April 4, 2016

Can drought affect domestic violence?

Is sex like driving?

Does foreign aid actually benefit its intended recipients?

These are the kinds of questions that Prof. Nick Wilson ’99 and his students wrestle with every day. And if this doesn’t exactly square up with your ideas about what economists are supposed to do, it’s time you took a fresh look at the discipline.

“If you were an alien observing Earth over thousands of years, what you’d notice is that until about 1820, the entire planet—every nation, every region—was basically poor,” Prof. Wilson says. “And then you see a striking divergence, where some countries get really rich, but others stay poor. I think understanding that phenomenon is the most important thing I can do.”

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Wilson was interested in both physics and history. Then he came to Reed as an undergrad and took an economics course from Prof. Denise Hare. “It changed the way I saw the world,” he says. For the first time, he discovered an intellectual framework to examine the issues that he cared about—poverty, inequality, social justice, and human health—with analytical tools that really work.

After earning his BA in economics from Reed, he obtained an MPA in international development from Harvard and an MA and PhD in economics from Brown. He taught at Williams College and UC-Berkeley before joining the economics department at Reed in 2013.

Along the way, he has examined a dizzying array of problems—from child mortality to HIV transmission to domestic violence—through the lens of economics. “These are absolutely economic issues,” he says. “Economics provides a conceptual framework that we can apply to all sorts of puzzles about human behavior.”

Take the enduring paradox of preventive health. People tend to put off minor medical procedures like vaccinations because of inconvenience or discomfort—even when the procedures are proven to save lives and reduce illness. In economic terms, the demand is low. But Prof. Wilson’s research shows that under some circumstances, miniscule incentives can radically alter the demand. For example, voluntary medical male circumcision reduces the risk of female-to-male sexual transmission of HIV by as much as 60% and is endorsed by the World Health Organization and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS as a highly effective strategy at combating the virus in parts of the world with high HIV prevalence. But many men keep putting off the procedure. Wilson found that paying men just $10 to attend a counseling session actually tripled their likelihood of getting the procedure—even though they could take the money and walk away if they chose.

“Why did they not take the money and leave?” He asks. “Why was it so effective at bringing people in?”

Some critics have argued that circumcision is counterproductive because it may lead men to  think they are now immune to HIV and engage in unsafe sex—a phenomenon known as “risk compensation.” It turns out that economists have studied this, as well. “The idea is that if you put seatbelts in cars, people just drive faster,” he says. But is sex like driving? In fact, it turns out that circumcision actually tends to promote less risky behavior because it reduces fatalism.

Wilson says he learns a lot from his students. “Reed students bring a healthy dose of skepticism. They don’t just believe what you tell them. You have to convince them. They push back.” He often asks his upper-level students to do the kind of research typically found in grad schools or PhD programs. “They don’t blink,” he says. “They’re genuinely excited to get to the heart of things.”

Wilson was granted tenure last year and teaches introductory economics, health economics, and health in poor countries, in addition to supervising senior theses.

Tags: Professors, Research