Benjamin Ho
Benjamin Ho

Benjamin Ho
PhD (Stanford University, Graduate School of Business)

Download my curriculum vitae (CV) in pdf.

  • Fields of interest: Applied Microeconomics, Behavioral and Experimental Economics, Environmental and Energy Economics, Political Economy, Labor Economics (Education and Personnel)
  • Phone: 650-867-8270
  • Email:




Stanford University Graduate School of Business 2001-2006

PhD Economics 2006,
MA Education 2004,
MA Political Science 2004

Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1996-2000

M.Eng Electrical Engineering and Computer Science 2000,
BS Economics 1999,
BS Mathematics 1999,
BS Computer Science 2000


Vassar College

Assistant Professor of Economics 2011-

Columbia University

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Economics 2014

Cornell University - Johnson School of Management

Assistant Professor of Economics 2006-2011

White House - Council of Economic Advisers

Lead Economist for Energy/Transportation 2006-2007

Morgan Stanley

Fixed Income Analyst 2000-2001


Ben Ho is a behavioral economist who uses economic tools like game theory and experiments to understand social systems such as apologies, identity signaling, and climate concerns. Before Vassar, he was an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. Professor Ho was also lead energy economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and has worked and consulted for Morgan Stanley and several tech startups.


Peer Reviewed Papers:

Focal points in coordinated divergence

with Chip Heath and Jonah Berger
Journal of Economic Psychology 27 (2006) 635-647

Abstract: We explore situations of coordinated divergence, wherein some people coordinate on a shared cultural practice that diverges from the practice of others. Previous literature on individual drives for uniqueness or difference cannot explain coordinated divergence because it leads to a prediction of idiosyncratic differentiation. Using Schelling's original coordination games as a starting point, we provide experimental evidence that people can effectively solve problems of coordinated divergence. We also discuss why coordinated divergence often takes the form of choosing opposites (long hair/short hair, red/blue, etc.).

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Apologies as Signals: With Evidence from a Trust Game

Management Science (2012) (Special Issue for Behavioral Economics) 58 (1), pp. 141–158

Online appendix

Abstract: Apologies are a previously understudied social institution integral in the maintenance of social relationships. Their application ranges from corporate culture to political systems to legal settings. This paper formulates a game theoretic signaling model using rational agents with two-dimensional type that serves as a framework for understanding apologies and their use. An existence result that extends single-crossing is established. The theory is then tested using a novel variant of the trust game experiment, and used to assess the impact of apologies in medical malpractice litigation.

Download Paper Here

It was suggested that I post my apology poster made from Powerpoint as an example for others who have to prepare a conference poster.

Does Sorry Work? The Impact of Apology Laws on Medical Malpractice

with Elaine Liu
Journal of Risk and Uncertainty (2011) Volume 43, Number 2, 141-167

Abstract: Legal scholars identify a "vicious cycle" where doctors are trained never to apologize to patients for fear of getting sued, but patients often report that they sued their doctors only because they never received an apology. Legislation in 35 states have made apologies inadmissible in court for civil litigation. Differences in differences estimates find that this potentially policy reduces litigation by over 30% and that the reductions occur in precisely the areas predicted by theory.

Download Working Paper version Here

What’s an Apology Worth? Decomposing the effect of apologies on medical malpractice payments

with Elaine Liu
Journal of Empirical Legal Studies December 2011 Vol 8, s1, pp179-199.

Abstract: Past studies find that apologies affect the outcomes of medical malpractice litigation, but such studies have largely been limited to laboratory surveys or case studies. Using Following Ho and Liu (2010) we use the passage of state-level apology laws that exclude apologies from being used as evidence in medical malpractice cases, we and estimate that apologizing to a patient in cases of medical malpractice litigation would reduces the average payout by $31,000. We consider the economic. This paper focuses on the mechanisms by which the apologies operates and by looking at sub-samples;, we find that the effect is concentrated on cases involving obstetrics and anesthesia, for cases involving infants, and for cases involving improper performance by the physician rather than on neglect.

Download Working Paper version here

An Alternative Perspective on Inequality and Health

with Sita Slavov
Economics Bulletin, Vol. 32 No. 4 pp. 3182-3196

Abstract: While much attention has focused on health disparities between socio-economic groups, most health inequality actually occurs within socio-economic groups. We examine trends in overall health inequality – measured by realized length-of-life inequality – through the lens of social justice, similar to traditional analysis of income inequality. We find that throughout most of the length-of-life distribution, inequality has declined dramatically over the past century. It has continued to decline even in the past 40 years, a period over which it is generally thought that income inequality has risen considerably. Most of the decline in length-of-life inequality appears to be driven by reductions in inequality within socio-economic groups.

Paper available here.

Culpability and Willingness to Pay to Reduce Negative Externalities: a Contingent Valuation and Lab Experiment

with John Taber, Greg Poe, Antonio Bento
(forthcoming Environmental and Resource Economics)

Abstract: Recent large-scale field experiments have shown that peer information nudges can have significant effects on behavior, inducing people to reduce their production of negative externalities. Related work in psychology demonstrates that inducing feelings of personal culpability by showing people information about their peers can induce pro-social behavior. This study uses a contingent valuation experiment and a parallel lab experiment to further explore patterns of responses that have been suggested in the emerging literature on norm-based environmental interventions The field–level finding of asymmetric responses between those whose environmental or group impacts are above or below the norm is found to be robust across decision settings. However, substantial heterogeneity in responses to peer information is observed across a number of demographic and other respondent–specific dimensions not able to be explored in large scale field experiments, raising questions about the universality of peer-information effects and the design of such programs.

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Optimal Price Instruments in Voluntary Emission Markets

with Antonio Bento and Mario Ramirez Basora
(revised and resubmitted Resource and Energy Economics)

Abstract: We study the problem of an uninformed regulator who wishes to use a voluntary price instrument under varying degrees of uncertainty, specifically in the context of a carbon offset market. In this scenario, a regulator wishes to offer firms a contract that compensates private agents for producing carbon offsets while at the same time minimize minimizing adverse selection and welfare losses. Our main findings show that the first best is achievable under perfect information or free monitoring. We find that for positive costs of monitoring, we can identify the inefficiencies generated from the additionality problem created by problems of adverse selection, but the net social benefit of an offsets program is always positive.

Paper available upon request.

Heterogeneous Effects of Peer Informational Nudges on Pro-Social Behavior

with Jiayi Bao
(revised and resubmitted BE Press Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy)

Abstract: Numerous experimental studies of informational nudges both in the lab and the field have demonstrated not just that informational nudges are effective policy tools for influencing behavior, but also that nudges have heterogeneous impacts that differ depending on the characteristics of the person involved and the situation. We adapt Andreoni’s theory of warm glow impure altruism to account for how altruism motives responds differently depending on the disposition of the person and the situation. The model explains both positive spillovers (moral consistency) and negative spillovers (moral licensing) for behavioral interventions, and we derive implications not just for behavioral policy interventions but also for tax policy.

Paper available upon request.

Ethnic Minority Disadvantages in China’s Labor Market?

with Reza Hasmath
University of Oxford China Growth Centre Discussion Paper 16: 1-35. (2012)
(revision requested Eurasian Geography and Economics)

Abstract: This article estimates wage differentials between ethnic minorities and the Han majority in China from 1989 to 2006. Interviews with minority actors and observations with various enterprises are included. While Han-minority wage differentials estimated with regression analysis show little evidence for minority disadvantages, both quantitative and qualitative evidence looking at the process of minority labor acquisition and retention finds that minorities are disadvantaged in the job search process. The article assesses potential factors for disadvantages in China’s labor market such as discrimination, social network capital and working culture.

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Book Chapters and Discussion Papers:

The Transportation Sector: Energy and Infrastructure Use

with Ann Wolverton
Economic Report of the President 2007

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Trust and the Law

with David Huffman
forthcoming for the Handbook of Behavioral Economics and the Law

Abstract: Macro studies show that generalized trust in a society is a key component of economic growth, while micro studies show that trust which maintains relational contracts serves as a crucial complement and substitute to formal laws and enforcement when contracts are incomplete. We survey the literature on how trust maintains informal contracts, and turn to the experimental literature to uncover the mechanisms through which trust operates.

Paper available upon request.

Signaling Identity in Social Networks: A Model of Symbolic Consumption

with Jonah Berger and Yogesh Joshi
MSI Working Paper 11-104

Abstract: Motivated by experimental evidence, we construct a model of how identity shapes preferences. People consume not only physical goods but also social interaction. Consumers therefore have both intrinsic motivations (preferences for consumption) and extrinsic motivations (how choices impact social interaction) for their choices. Theory demonstrates how the distribution of knowledge in a network, the structure of the social network, the visibility of a good, and the distribution of intrinsic preferences all influence the supply and demand of symbolic goods even when such goods are cheap.

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Measuring Inequality: One Size Does Not Fit All

with Sita Slavov
AEI Perspectives April 28, 2014

Abstract: Statistics focusing on annual household-level income indicate that inequality has increased in the United States in recent decades. Are these measures accurate? Inequality has traditionally been calculated in the United States in terms of annual cash income alone, but other, more comprehensive points of measurement should be considered. For maximum accuracy, income should include the value of in-kind benefits and be measured over a lifetime rather than a year. But even this adjusted number is inadequate to assess fairness, which requires looking at a broader picture of overall well-being that includes income mobility, access to education, consumption, leisure, and health. Additionally, we must develop better measures of opportunity, which is a more accurate indicator of well-being than income distribution. Broadening the definition of and approach to inequality would help build more opportunity and result in more useful policy.

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Working Papers:

Novelty and Popularity in Markets for News: Theory and empirics on innovation and transfer in the provision of news

with Peter Liu (under review)

Abstract: Empirical evidence shows that consumers of news care about both the novelty of the news they read, as well as how popular that news topic is with others. We develop a continuous time dynamic model that predicts how news providers invest in covering stories with either high novelty or high popularity, and how this investment depends on the market structure (monopoly, oligopoly, competition). We then seek to test the predictions of the model by examining which stories magazines select for their cover, and how that depends on the novelty and popularity of the topic, by looking at how those stories are covered in daily newspapers. This work has implications on innovation more broadly, specifically novelty and popularity can be thought of as innovation and technology transfer.

Paper available upon request.

Divergence in Cultural Practices: Tastes as Signals of Identity

with Jonah Berger and Chip Heath

Abstract: Divergence is pervasive in social life: people select different tastes to distinguish themselves from others, and they abandon tastes when others adopt them. We propose an identity-signaling approach to divergence; people diverge to signal their identity to facilitate social interactions. Tastes gain value through association with groups or types of individuals, but become diluted when members of more than one type hold them. Consequently, different types of people will diverge in the tastes they select, and they will abandon tastes adopted by members of other social types.

Paper available upon request.

Contracting for Trust: are Trustworthiness a Substitute or Complement for the Law?

with Evsen Turkay

Abstract: The relationship between trust and the legitimacy of institutions has been analyzed in fields ranging from institutional theory in sociology, political science, psychology and economics. Economic studies (Knack and Keefer, 1997; La Porta et al., 1997, 1998, 2008; Zack and Knack, 2001; Algan and Cahuc, 2010; Ho and Hoffman, 2013) have shown that understanding the relationship between trust and the rule of law has important implications for understanding development, investment decisions, and the distribution of wealth. Trust between investors and entrepreneurs is an important facilitator of investment and production. Campos-Ortiz et al (2012) found that experimental subjects coming from countries with higher levels of trust devote more resources to production and are more likely to refrain from theft. Despite the importance of the subject, there has been little study on how institutional trust affects contracts are written. Our paper analyzes the effect of institutional trust on contract structures, specifically on the way gains are shared, by developing an investment game in which subjects contract on how to share the surplus. We vary institutional trust by providing a dispute resolution system that can accommodate contract breach by the agent, assigning some of our subjects to a game in which judges can be bribed and others where this is not possible. We analyze the differences in contracts that arise as a result of the different environments, and look at the total investments in the two groups. We compare our experimental findings to the analytical predictions given by a behavioral game theory model that accounts for fairness, reciprocity and social norms.

Paper available upon request.

Energy Consumption and Habit Formation: Evidence from High Frequency Thermostat Usage Data

with Qi Ge

Abstract: Using minute-by-minute data from over 60,000 smart thermostats in households distributed across the United States, we analyze the persistence of energy consumption in response to external shocks. In particular, we consider the impulse response of shocks such as weather events, gasoline and other local energy prices, political action, and news coverage of energy-related stories on how people set their thermostats. This allows us measure the responsiveness of consumer energy-use behavior to external stimuli. The analysis will help develop our understanding of habitual behavior that gives insight into what effects long term change and what triggers the choice to reconsider ones passive choices. The results have direct policy implications on how conservation policies impact energy use--failure to understand the influence of habit on decision making can lead us to over-estimate the impact of short term policy nudges but underestimate the long run impact of small changes--and how changing trends in climate, in energy prices, in news coverage, and political action, impact consumer behavior.

Paper available upon request.

Innate Preference for Social Order Inhibits Redistribution across Human Societies

with Xinyue Zhou, Stephan Meier, Wenwen Xie
(under review)

Abstract: Lack of equality in wealth has been ubiquitous and pervasive throughout history, despite well-documented evidence that people are averse to inequality. Historians and economists have long argued political explanations for the persistence of this state of affairs. Here, we provide a psychological mechanism for why people may perpetuate inequality. We designed an economic game called a redistribution game to measure preferences for preserving wealth hierarchies. Across four different cultures, while redistributing resources participants felt reluctant to reduce inequality if doing so would disrupt the existing hierarchy. This preference was strongest among a group of nomadic Tibetan herders living in primitive cultural settings. The preference for maintaining hierarchy accounts for a significant percent of the variance in our data and is comparable with the importance of factors of fairness, inequality and property rights. For example, when a proposed wealth transfer would disrupt existing hierarchies, adults across cultures were 50% more likely to reject the transfer even after controlling for all other features of the choice problem. Moreover, we show how this preference develops in children from 3 to 10 years old. Specifically, inequality aversion developing between 4 and 5 years of age, followed by a preference for hierarchy preservation that develops between 6 and 7 years of age. Our results indicate that human motives to preserve social order are innate and universal, consistent with evolutionary mechanisms to respect pecking orders within animal species to avoid in-group violence.

Paper available upon request.

The Cultural Transmission of Cooperative Norms

with Xinyue Zhou and Yan Liu

Abstract: People's cooperative behavior depends on their cultural environment, but what happens when they move from one culture to the next culture governed by a different norm? How the dynamics of culture-induced cooperation evolve over time has not been well understood. We expose lab subjects to a sequence of different subject pools while playing the canonical Berg et al. Trust Game. We find prior exposure to different subject pools does in fact influence cooperative behavior; first impressions matter—the primacy effect plays a stronger role than the recency effect; and selfish first impressions matter more than cooperative first impressions—selfish norms exert longer-lasting and greater influence on behaviors than cooperative norms. Moreover, three consecutive exposure to cooperative environments are needed to neutralize one exposure to a selfish environment. Our results have implications for managing corporate culture, as well as for optimizing personnel decisions.

Paper available upon request.

The Effect of Financial Status on Political Views

with Sita Slavov

Abstract: While it is taken as conventional wisdom that political beliefs depend on financial circumstance, the identification of this association is fraught with confounds. Taking advantage of a novel identification technique, we use variation in interviewing timing from the Genreal Social Survey, to identify the relationship between weatlh and political attitudes.

Paper available upon request.

Work in Progress:

Fool me Once shame on you...

with David Ong

Abstract: A field experiment on apologies...


with Elaine Liu

Abstract: Experiments and theory on conscientiousness.

A Typology of Apologies

with -your name here-

Abstract: A game theoretic typology of apologies.

Optimal Medical Screening with Behavioral Beliefs

with -your name here-

Abstract: A game theory model of optimal medical screening.

Behavioral Policy

with Sita Slavov

Abstract: We examine the often overlooked costs of behavioral policy interventions.

Legitimacy and Trust

with Reza Hasmath

Abstract: Experiments and Theory on legitimacy and trust.

Notches and Kinks in the Lab

with Jim Sallee and Joel Slemrod

Abstract: We use lab experiments to study the benefits and costs of kinked and notched tax schedules and use the results to estimate a novel model of choice under discontinuous choice sets.

Contact Info



Personal Home Page:

Selected Popular Writings and Mentions: (see my CV for more)
Radio Interview for Science for the People
Vox - Science of Apologies with Experimental Evidence
Economics of Apologies - Cory Doctorow - Boing Boing
US News Column - Bright Side of Higher Tuition
US News Column - End of Manufacturing Jobs
AEI Perspectives : Measuring Inequality
Health Inequality on American Magazine
NerdWallet blog
Online Lectures on Environmental Economics as part of the facultyproject
Guest Post on NY Times Freakonomics Blog
About me in Seed Magazine
Apologies in Wall Street Journal
On Climate Policy Cornell Magazine
Column in Chronicle for Higher Education
Column in Chronicle for Higher Education
Column in Chronicle for Higher Education