Prospect theory: will the Greeks keep a hold of Nurse?

Will 2015 be the year in which fantasy economics in Europe is finally put to the test? Somewhat to the surprise of many commentators, in December the Greek political class failed to elect a new president even after three attempts. Parliament has now been dissolved and an election will take place on 25 January. The left-wing Syriza party currently leads in the polls.

In Scotland, the nationalists have rebounded following their heavy defeat in the referendum and seem poised to annihilate Labour in the May 2015 General Election. Paradoxically, this could very well ease their path into a Labour-SNP coalition and accelerate effective independence in Scotland.

Syriza’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, invites the Greeks to believe that most of their debts can be written off, austerity policies abandoned, and the country can still keep the Euro as its currency. Both Alex Salmond and the new SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, keep straight faces when they tell the Scots they can be independent, rich, stay in the EU, have high public spending and their banks supported by the Bank of England.

The clear warning provided by Russia, moving into deep recession after the collapse of the oil price, does not seem to have given the SNP pause for thought at all. Indeed, Mr Putin and Ms Sturgeon apparently share the gift of clairvoyance. They both assure us that the fall in the oil price is merely a temporary dip and it will soon return to a level above $100 a barrel.

Tempting though it is to wish Syriza and the SNP in power to test their theories, this does not seem the most likely outcome. The Greek leftists currently lead the conservatives by only 3 per cent in the polls, and there is all to play for in the British general election.

But there is much more to it than this. The financial crisis has simply not brought fantasy parties into power. Despite the banker bashing rhetoric and the cries from academic economists to abandon austerity, the electorates still seem, stubbornly, to prefer middle of the road governments. In the Netherlands in 2012, for example, the Socialists at one point led in the polls during their election campaign, but were defeated. In Scotland itself, the Yes campaign lost decisively. France is a possible exception, but Hollande is now exceptionally unpopular.

Prospect theory, developed by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, helps understand why this has been the case. This theory in behavioural economics describes how people choose between alternatives that involve risk. Hilaire Belloc anticipated it a century ago in his poem ‘Jim’, a boy who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion: “Always keep a hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse”. A key element in prospect theory is precisely that losses hurt more than gains feel good. Maybe Syriza is right and the Greeks can have it all. But if it goes wrong, the consequences could be very unpleasant indeed.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on 7th January 2015

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

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Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.