Revisiting Economic Man

Published on STWR, by Alexia Eastwood, April 16, 2010.

Recent empirical studies suggest that people, far from being self-interested ‘rational maximizers’, have an innate tendency to share and cooperate. Could renewed scientific interest in the essence of human nature provide the building blocks for an alternative economic order?

A wealth of literature has recently emerged emphasising humanity’s biological and social propensity for sharing and cooperation, effectively challenging the model of human nature that has underpinned the dominant political and economic structures of recent decades.[1] Empirical evidence from studies of behavioural psychology has suggested that our inclination to share and cooperate is hardwired into our genetic code and may have acted as an evolutionary advantage in human societies throughout the ages.[2]

These new findings confirm what anthropological research has long suggested; that basic human nature does not conform to the narrow model of economic rationality that our society often assumes to be a self-evident truth … //

… The study of anthropology can be a useful tool to examine the human condition as it illuminates the myriad different ways that cultures across the globe have chosen to organise their societies and economies. Even a cursory glance at human history and most other forms of society outside the Western world reveal how culturally specific and temporal Economic Man really is; as the economic historian Karl Polanyi stated, no other society outside of our own has ever raised the pursuit of economic gain to the guiding principle of society or understood it as definitive of the human condition.[5]

Even notions of poverty and wealth, which we tend to accept as universal and undisputable concepts, are culturally constructed and anything but universal. In other cultural contexts, wealth has been demonstrated or represented not by the accumulation of material goods but by their redistribution through practices of gift giving, as in the potlatch practice of indigenous communities in the Pacific North West or the Kula exchange of the Trobriand Islands.[6] Anthropologists have documented a wide variety of economies based on notions of reciprocity and sharing, economic values that not only ensure the material provision of goods but also provide strong social cohesion within a community. In examining different methods of social and economic provision what becomes clear is that humans are not necessarily driven to accumulate material goods, but rather act more consistently based on social motivations, prioritising their social standing within their community.[7]

New findings in behavioural science also support a more cooperative basis of human nature. Recent experiments in behavioural and evolutionary psychology have found that human beings as social animals are generally inclined to share and cooperate, and that it is these principles that have given our species an evolutionary advantage rather than the tendency toward competitive individualism.[8] Children, for example, have been found to be innately helpful and cooperative, whilst scientists using imaging technology have discovered that our brain chemistry shows the same pleasure in helping others as in helping ourselves.[9] Another experiment that combines behavioural science and anthropology has used game theory in cross-cultural settings to test the hypothesis of Economic Man. The study found that self-interested behaviour was not a consistent response.[10]

The ongoing economic crisis has been heralded as a moment for change and reflection, and coupled with the environmental crises of man-made climate change and the loss of biodiversity, it is clear that we are at a crossroads. Perhaps it is time to sit back and take stock, re-examine the truths we have taken for granted and think about the world we want to leave to our children. An inclusive twenty-first century society needs a new vision of and for humanity, and the renewed scientific interest in the essence of human nature may provide the building blocks for an alternative economic order built upon values of sharing and cooperation.

References 1 – 10: … (full text).

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