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Economics versus Fiction on Human Nature

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Economics and fiction both seek to describe and explain our behavior. Measured against what makes fiction feel realistic, the tales of mainstream economists aren’t believable. Their mono-motivated cartoon characters don’t ring true, matching neither experience, nor experiment. Fortunately, the reality deficit of economics’ unreliable narrators is being fixed by a more “naturalistic,” less fictionalized approach.

Economic orthodoxy says we are by nature rational, self-interested utility maximizers. Our everyday experiences, and essentially the whole of the arts, as well as a great deal of empirical science, all testify that that is a mischaracterization of most humans. Most cultures are sociocentric. Individualism is a WEIRD sampling error. Even WEIRD cultures have measurable mixed motivations: A Dutch study found that 20% of respondents were “individualists,” (maximizing their absolute payoff) 65% were “cooperators,” (maximize joint payoffs) and 7% “competitors” (maximizing relative payoffs).

A “naturalistic” economics must incorporate our evident behavioral heterogeneity—and address the empirically observable emotions that novelists know drive our actions (including both the logic of “self-regarding” motives, like greed, and of “other-regarding” ones, like sympathy). No realistic account of human behavior can exclude different character types and multiple motives.

“Utility,” supposedly what we all seek at all times to maximize, is a vast oversimplification of our goals. Jerome Kagan says, we want money, status, power, or other goods, for “the feelings that achieving those goals permits.” Reducing what Lord Shaftesbury called the “thousand other springs” of human motivation to “utility” seems a flagrant fictionalization. And as Tom Sedlacek notes, utility has the taint of tautology. It easily becomes a self-fulfilling assumption. Whatever we do, was done to maximize it.

Self-deficient by nature, we only survive socially and cooperatively. Out-cooperating others is what we do. We are the giraffes of non-kin cooperation. Yet economists typically ignore the mechanisms that evolved to solve the central challenges of group survival. Leaving out what matters most in fiction, economists ignore the social emotions (fast thinking) that guide us towards prosocial cooperativeness. No credible fiction would do that.

Fiction’s functions include transmitting a culture’s wisdom, its social coordination rules (its morals), its character types, and conventional scenarios (plots). The self-only single character-type stories of economics risk encouraging excessively individualistic behaviors that work against the logic of group survival (e.g., the misnamed tragedy of the commons. Cultures that don’t impose limits on and police group-damaging individualism, that don’t successfully balance self-interest with group cooperation, don’t thrive.

Robert Frank (of “Darwin’s wedge” fame) has tried to incorporate empirical emotional motivations into his economic thinking, see his book Passions Within Reason, The Strategic Role For The Emotions. He knows what every good storyteller knows: We’re equipped with social emotions that drive the logic of how we resolve life’s complex, conflicting demands. If only the supposedly scientific literature of economics included characters as realistic as those of fictional literature! Then we could escape the “theory-induced blindness” of its dull one-note stories.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

Previously in this series:

It Is in Our Nature to Be Self-Deficient

Inheriting Second Natures

Our Ruly Nature

It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

Tools Are in Our Nature

We Fit Nature To Us: Evolutions two way street

Justice Is In Our Nature

Behavioral Telescope Shows How Cooperation Works

Selfish Genes Also Must Cooperate

Game Theory And The Golden Punishment Rule

Revolutionizing Economics by Evolutionizing it.

Science’s Mobile Army of Metaphors

Greek Myths About Human Origins

Evolutionary Economics And Darwin’s Wedge

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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