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An Economic Approach to the Psychology of Change: Amnesia, Inertia, and Impulsiveness


  • David Hirshleifer
  • Ivo Welch


This paper models how imperfect memory affects the optimal continuity of policies. We examine the choices of a player (individual or firm) who observes previous actions but cannot remember the rationale for these actions. In a stable environment, the player optimally responds to memory loss with excess inertia, defined as a higher probability of following old policies than would occur under full recall. In a volatile environment, the player can exhibit excess impulsiveness (i.e., be more prone to follow new information signals). The model provides a memory-loss explanation for some documented psychological biases, implies that inertia and organizational routines should be more important instable environments than in volatile ones, and provides other empirical implications relating memory and environmental variables to the continuity of decisions.

Suggested Citation

  • David Hirshleifer & Ivo Welch, 2001. "An Economic Approach to the Psychology of Change: Amnesia, Inertia, and Impulsiveness," Yale School of Management Working Papers ysm185, Yale School of Management, revised 01 Aug 2009.
  • Handle: RePEc:ysm:somwrk:ysm185

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Levent Kutlu, 2015. "Limited Memory Consumers and Price Dispersion," Review of Industrial Organization, Springer;The Industrial Organization Society, vol. 46(4), pages 349-357, June.
    2. Frédéric, DALSACE & Erin, ANDERSON & William T., ROSS, Jr., 2003. "Path Dependence in Personal Selling : A Meso-Analysis of Vertical Integration," Les Cahiers de Recherche 787, HEC Paris.
    3. Yuxin Chen & Ganesh Iyer & Amit Pazgal, 2010. "Limited Memory, Categorization, and Competition," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 29(4), pages 650-670, 07-08.
    4. Koster, Paul & Peer, Stefanie & Dekker, Thijs, 2015. "Memory, expectation formation and scheduling choices," Economics of Transportation, Elsevier, vol. 4(4), pages 256-265.
    5. Anja Lambrecht & Katja Seim & Catherine Tucker, 2007. "Stuck in the Adoption Funnel: The Effect of Delays in the Adoption Process on Ultimate Adoption," Working Papers 07-40, NET Institute, revised Oct 2007.
    6. Fabbri, Giorgio, 2017. "International borrowing without commitment and informational lags: Choice under uncertainty," Journal of Mathematical Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(C), pages 103-114.
    7. Ivo Welch, 2004. "Capital Structure and Stock Returns," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 112(1), pages 106-131, February.
    8. Sgroi, D., 2002. "Modelling Experience as Signal Accumulation," Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 0205, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge.
    9. Carlos Alós-Ferrer & Fei Shi, 2012. "Imitation with asymmetric memory," Economic Theory, Springer;Society for the Advancement of Economic Theory (SAET), vol. 49(1), pages 193-215, January.
    10. John Smith, 2009. "Imperfect Memory and the Preference for Increasing Payments," Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics (JITE), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, vol. 165(4), pages 684-700, December.
    11. David A. Miller & Kareen Rozen, 2009. "Need I remind you? Monitoring with collective memory," Levine's Working Paper Archive 814577000000000236, David K. Levine.
    12. Olivier Gossner & Jakub Steiner, 2016. "Optimal Illusion of Control and Related Perception Biases," CERGE-EI Working Papers wp571, The Center for Economic Research and Graduate Education - Economics Institute, Prague.
    13. Andrey Mikhailitchenko & Anna Sadovnikova, 2015. "SYMBIOTIC VS COMMENSAL NETWORKING: THE CASE OF TEXTILE SMEs IN CHINA AND RUSSIA," Organizations and Markets in Emerging Economies, Faculty of Economics, Vilnius University, vol. 6(1).
    14. Hirshleifer, David & Teoh, Siew Hong, 2008. "Thought and Behavior Contagion in Capital Markets," MPRA Paper 9164, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    15. Gottlieb, Daniel, 2014. "Imperfect memory and choice under risk," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 85(C), pages 127-158.
    16. David Hirshleife, 2015. "Behavioral Finance," Annual Review of Financial Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 7(1), pages 133-159, December.
    17. John Smith, 2007. "Cognitive Dissonance, Imperfect Memory and the Preference for Increasing Payments," Departmental Working Papers 200705, Rutgers University, Department of Economics.
    18. Elie Ofek & Muhamet Yildiz & Ernan Haruvy, 2007. "The Impact of Prior Decisions on Subsequent Valuations in a Costly Contemplation Model," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 53(8), pages 1217-1233, August.
    19. Ivo Welch, 2002. "Columbus' Egg: The Real Determinant of Capital Structure," NBER Working Papers 8782, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item


    Memory; Inertia; Amnesia; Behavioral Economics;

    JEL classification:

    • D7 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making
    • L2 - Industrial Organization - - Firm Objectives, Organization, and Behavior
    • D8 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty


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