Gary Becker and toothbrushing economics

8 May, 2014 at 10:10 | Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

The ever-growing literature on human capital has long recognized that the scope of the theory extends well beyond the traditional analysis of schooling and on-the-job training … Yet economists have ignored the analysis of an important class of activities which can and should be brought within the purview of the theory. A prime example of this class is brushing teeth.

BeckerGaryCartoon2009_07_10The conventional analysis of toothbrushing has centered around two basic models. The “bad taste in mouth” model is based on the notion that each person has a “taste for brushing,” and the fact that brushing frequencies differ is “explained” by differences in tastes. Since any pattern of human behavior can be rationalized by such implicit theorizing, this model is devoid of empirically testable predictions, and hence uninteresting.

The “mother told me so” theory is based on differences in cultural upbringing. Here it is argued, for example, that thrice-a-day brushers brush three times daily because their mothers forced them to do so as children. Of course, this is hardly a complete explanation. Like most psychological theories, it leaves open the question of why mothers should want their children to brush after every meal …

In a survey of professors in a leading Eastern university it was found that assistant professors brushed 2.14 times daily on average, while associate professors brushed only 1.89 times and full professors only 1.47 times daily. The author, a sociologist, mistakenly attributed this finding to the fact that the higher-ranking professors were older and that hygiene standards in America had advanced steadily over time. To a human capital theorist, of course, this pattern is exactly what would be expected from the higher wages received in the higher professorial ranks, and from the fact that younger professors, looking for promotions, cannot afford to have bad breath.

Alan Blinder


  1. Or, one could hypothesize that along with other tasteless habits like cigarette smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and infrequent showering, bad breath serves as a weapon in face-to-face interactions.

  2. “his progenitor – Freakonomics”

    Progeny, his progeny.You mean that Becker was the progenitor of Freakonomics.

  3. Touché: illustrates much of the triviality of Becker’s theorizing and his progenitor – Freakonomics

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Blog at
Entries and Comments feeds.