Acton Institute Powerblog

The Myth of Homo Economicus

“As a social psychologist, I have long been amused by economists and their curiously delusional notion of the ‘rational man.’” writes Carol Tavris. “Rational? Where do these folks live?”

In a review of behavioral economist Richard Thaler’s new book, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, Tavris notes how economists are slowly beginning to see — or, one could argue, finally returning to the notion — that the discipline ought treat man as more than a mere robot or calculator.

“Researchers in this field are making up for lost time,” Tavris continues, “or perhaps realizing that they are social psychologists after all.”

As human beings who arrogantly and often wrongly consider ourselves “sapiens,” we simply don’t match the model of human behavior favored by economists, one that “replaces homo sapiens” (whom Mr. Thaler calls Humans) with “a fictional creature called homo economicus” (whom he calls Econ). “Econs do not have passions; they are cold-blooded optimizers,” he says. “Compared to this fictional world of Econs, Humans do a lot of misbehaving”—thus the book’s title.

The problem, Mr. Thaler argues, is that although economists “hold a virtual monopoly” on giving policy advice, the very premises on which that advice rests are deeply flawed. That is why “economic models make a lot of bad predictions”: some small and trivial, some monumental and devastating. “It is time to stop making excuses,” he admonishes his colleagues. Mr. Thaler calls for an “enriched approach to doing economic research, one that acknowledges the existence and relevance of Humans.” By injecting economics with “good psychology and other social sciences” and by including real people in economic theory, economists will improve predictions of human behavior, make better financial and marketing decisions, and create a field that is “more interesting and more fun than regular economics.” In that way, Mr. Thaler believes, economists will finally produce an “un-dismal science.”

Of course, our understanding of the human person impacts the economic sphere well beyond the prospects of economic models and policy. Further, there’s more to this than recognizing “irrational” decisionmaking or a propensity for “miscalculations.”

As Father Sirico writes in the concluding chapter of his book, Defending the Free Market:

In real life, people are motivated by much more than what economists describe as “maximizing utility” – especially where “utility” is understood in narrowly materialistic terms. The economic truth of economic man is true enough (you ignore human self-interest and the laws of supply and demand at your peril), but it is not the whole truth about who human beings are.

Any man who was only economic man would be a lost soul. And any civilization that produced only homines economici to fill its markets, courts, legislative bodies, and other institutions would soon enough be a lost civilization. Familial love, voluntary dedication to philanthropy and faith, the creation of art and music would be at their most minimal level, and whole sectors of life would completely vanish…

The good news is that by rolling up our sleeves and digging for the truth, by retrieving a right understanding of the human person, we can turn things around. The tradition that gave birth to a morally animated liberty—not merely the power to do what one wants but the right to do what one ought (as Lord Acton observed)—is not a tradition of mere utility, selfishness, pleasure-seeking, or determinism. Freedom rightly understood is not a license to behave like spoiled adolescents but rather the noble birthright of creators made in the image of God. As long as we refuse to sell this birthright for a mess of materialist pottage, hope remains.

For humans created in the image of God and destined to glorify him in all that they do, our actions will often depart from the tidy boxes and categories of modern academia, even from Thaler’s newfound path to “predictability.” Psychology matters, but how do we account for the role of Word and Spirit, for example?

In short, although Thaler and those in his pioneering discipline are doing a great service, understanding the fuller picture of all this — including when and where our models and policy might adjust — still demands a bit more than “good psychology and other social sciences.”

Unless, that is, good theology counts?

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.