The vast majority of us are not “Homo economicus”.

Often, when I write about moral instincts, people respond with assertions that we’re essentially selfish creatures and that nothing about morality is natural.  There’s a name for this concept of the solely self serving  human being, “Homo economicus.”  The Neuroskeptic discusses a study that looked for them:  Spotted at last: “Homo economicus”? – Neuroskeptic |

Are we selfish?

Economists like to say that, to a first approximation, we are. In other words, that we tend to seek to maximize our own rewards, in a more or less rational manner.

The trouble is that this theory (at least, a straightforward interpretation of it) doesn’t describe how people behave in many situations. For example, given a sum of money and asked to decide how to split it between themselves and an anonymous stranger, most people choose to give some of it away. This scenario is called the Dictator Game, and along with a handful of similar tasks, it’s a problem for the selfish theory.

The Neuroskeptic looks at the problems with the study, mostly in its over interpretive conclusions, but the point that stands out to me is that, yes, some portion of the population might have matched the description of homo economicus, but it was a pretty small minority.

Yamagishi et al tested 564 adults who lived in “a relatively wealthy Tokyo suburb”. The headline result was that 7% of the participants displayed “Homo economicus” behaviour both in the Dictator Game, and in the more complex Sequential Prisoner’s Dilemma. That is, 7% of people always chose to maximize their own expected payoff, regardless of how this disadvantaged anyone else.

In other words, 93% of the adults surveyed did not match the homo economicus concept.  Of course, it was in a relatively wealthy population, so the result might be skewed.  But even if the general population figure was half or double the findings here, it still shows the proportion of people who are purely self serving is a minority.

This fits if you think about it.  Humans are social creatures.  If we were all purely self serving, it would be hard to see how societies, or even small hunter-gatherer groups, could work.  Sure, we can all rationalize ways that being good social citizens is in our own self interest, but that strategic calculus is much more Machiavellian than the average person’s thought processes.  It’s much more likely that most of us have strong instincts to be, and expect others to be, good citizens.

None of this is to say that we have an instinct for each moral rule in our society.  As I’ve written about before, the relationship is much more complicated than that.  But the idea that we are all purely self serving creatures is false.

To make the point, in his book, ‘The Righteous Mind’, Jonathan Haidt asks if you knew that there would never be any repercussions, that no one would ever know, would you inflict pain to a small child for money?  No doubt there are psychopaths who would, but the majority of us either couldn’t do it, or would find it extremely hard, no matter how much we might benefit from it.

24 thoughts on “The vast majority of us are not “Homo economicus”.

    1. No arguments from me that we make choices (for any pragmatic definition of “choice”). But I’d caution that common sense isn’t always right, and while scientific studies often confirm it, sometimes they contradict it.


    2. I think the problem is that such common sense intuitions on free will at least appear to be incoherent when examined closely. Some thought needs to be put into either resolving the contradictions (leading to something like Daniel Dennett’s compatibilism) or deciding abandoning it altogether.


  1. As a human being, I like to think that on the whole, humans strive to be good and to do good things for others. Even when actions we take appear to be self serving on top, perhaps the under layers reveal something completely different. Interesting post and thank you again.


    1. Thanks Kimberly. I’ve found that people are rarely self serving to the extent that they’re indifferent to the suffering of others (assuming they comprehend that suffering). Often when they appear to be, it’s because we can’t see the powerful provocation that’s driving them.


  2. I’m of two minds on this one.

    I think that equating being self-serving with being selfish is a mistake – often we don’t serve ourselves by choosing ourselves over others, because the sadness and pain that brings takes away from our own happiness – does anyone watch Bridezilla and think that the brides are truly happy or acting in their own best interests? They try really hard to put themselves first (as presented on the show, at least) and the result is always drama and tears. You get much more out of life if you’re kind and generous.

    On the other hand, consumptive nations all say “yes” to the question “if you knew that there would never be any repercussions, that no one would ever know, would you inflict pain to a small child for money?” all the time, even if we don’t know it. We buy shoes that are made by children and support companies that exploit families and more. There are no repercussions (except you get your goods for lower prices), and even if people know about it, they don’t think about it. And further, we’re not really set up /not/ to support this – it’s takes a lot more effort and money to support sustainable farming practices and ethical manufacturing than it does to go to the grocery store and get whatever’s cheapest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. Our instincts are honed for small local groups. (Similar to our ancestral hunter-gatherer bands.) Suffering in front of us motivates most of us to help, or at least not to cause or exacerbate it. Suffering on the other side of the world, or that is just out of sight or our immediate experience, doesn’t seem to trigger those instincts, at least not to the same degree.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. You said, “Sure, we can all rationalize ways that being good social citizens is in our own self interest, but that strategic calculus is much more Machiavellian than the average person’s thought processes.”

    I think yours is an important insight. It seems evident that we have dispositions to do good things for others, and frequently act on such dispositions without any thought as to how such “golden rule” abiding acts benefit us, as you say. It is in hindsight that we rationalize that action as being consistent with an tacit social contract, as we crave some sort of explanation for what we did, some sort of narrative that makes sense of our actions as a whole as being rational. We want a naturalistic explanation at that, the most economical of which is some sort of egoistic view that allows us to point to psychological cause and effect. Perhaps, though, the truth is not so complex as that, and there aren’t profound reasons behind all of our actions.

    A thought-provoking post, thanks for being you.


    1. Thanks ausomeawestin! Actually, I find your comment thought provoking.

      Of course, all of our dispositions aren’t what we would consider morally good. It seems like our minds are battlegrounds of competing impulses, which each of us feel in varying degrees. How we resolve those tensions speaks to who we are. When people disagree about which of those impulses should win, reason becomes a crucial tool.


      1. “When people disagree about which of those impulses should win, reason becomes a crucial tool.”


        Kind of, but only by appeal to some other impulse which is felt more strongly.

        As I’m sure you agree, there is no basis in pure reason to do anything. If all you have is too competing impulses, the only reason to choose one over the other is how strongly they are felt. By appealing to long term goals such as health or social standing, you’re just appealing to another impulse.

        I think you already realise this, but I just wanted to clarify.


        1. Thanks for the clarification. I agree completely. As you know, I see reason as being a tool of emotion. We can both have excellent logic, but if we start with different emotional commitments (say one to truth and the other to loyalty), we can still disagree.


  4. In an experiment like the Dictator Game, the number of extraneous influences on the results are so many that no direct insights can really be gained, the operative word being ‘direct’. Just like the Stanford prison experiment ‘proves’ that all human beings can be cruel at heart. That is the main problem with psychological experiments, it is possible to design experiments to get pretty much any answer. The truth is usually much more nuanced.
    The recent results from Facebook’s mass experimentation (notwithstanding its own ethical ground) on its users shows that more than anything, humans are highly susceptible to suggestion. In a good atmosphere, they behave positively, and in a bad environment, they behave starkly negative. I wonder if that is simply a self preservationist tendency of humans to best fit their society and surroundings.


    1. I think that’s why psychology experiments try to have a large sample size, in the hope that those extraneous influences will end up cancelling each other out. Incidentally, even in natural sciences this is a concern. It’s why the LHC strives to have trillions of data points, to insure that what they appear to be detecting isn’t a statistical fluke from random noise.

      I agree that we are strongly influenced by the ques we receive. In the case of experiments like the Stanford one, our impulse to obey authority was probably involved, and in tension with the care impulse, among others.


  5. “…This fits if you think about it. Humans are social creatures. If we were all purely self serving, it would be hard to see how societies, or even small hunter-gatherer groups, could work….”

    The concept of ‘self serving’ is too simplistic.

    Peaceful, voluntary, collaborative, specialised societies and marketplaces ARE self serving…… assuming your selfish desires are orientated towards things like good health, long life, comfort, high quality arts, entertainments, education, technology and enjoyable, stimulating relationships.

    Even tyrants, ruling classes and other social parasites need the general population to be moral and civilised because only moral and civilised populations can be functional and productive enough to create the wealth necessary to support the parasitic ruling classes.

    If *everyone* was self serving (in the way it is typically meant) then society would collapse in a week and most people would die.

    The origin of moral, civilised societies is the concept of win-win transactions. You stick to growing crops, and I’ll still to making spears. This specialisation (efficiency) will result in more spears and more food being produced than if we did not specialise. Then at the end of the summer we trade crops for spears and everyone is a winner 🙂

    Specialisation IS self serving (because we end up with more stuff!) and specialisation requires a respect for property rights, free trade, contracts, trust and so on. In short, it requires moral behaviour. Therefore moral behaviour IS self serving.

    Who does it benefit to portray human beings as immoral and ‘barbaric’ by nature?

    It benefits the parasitic ruling classes who maintain – via governments – a violent monopoly on the legal right to behave immorally (assault, theft, coercion, kidnapping, murder, extortion etc). And they maintain this monopoly on immoral behaviour under the pretence of ‘enforcing moral rules on an inherently immoral population’.

    This is the only way immoral (AKA ‘self serving’) behaviour can be profitable long term…. ie by ensuring the general population behaves morally (and thus productively) while then violently and cunningly maintaining a monopoly on immoral behaviour (theft, coercion, assault, murder etc).

    Apparently, we need ‘governments’ to maintain order and civilised society ………. and yet if everyone behaved like governments it would be a bloodbath of war, theft, coercion, extortion, kidnapping and torture.

    The true nature of humans is to have a fluid and adaptable nature. Science is clear that if you traumatise, neglect and abuse human beings in early childhood you will damage the development of their brain and risk creating a psychopath – especially if there is a genetic propensity there already.

    Hitting infants and children has *physiological* effects that last throughout adulthood. You’re basically putting them into a constant state of ‘flight or fight’. A state they will keep entering throughout adulthood whenever they are in stressful situations. And when they do they will be prone to committing violence – to themselves or others.

    The effects of genital mutilation are so traumatic babies will often disassociate. The psychological/ physiological legacy of this trauma (due essentially to an act of medieval torture) affects the person for the rest of their lives.

    Look at all the tyrants of history and you’ll find they endured unbelievable abuse, trauma and often humiliation as a child. I believe Hitler was beaten into a coma at one point during his childhood.

    Lack of a father figure during early childhood is known to damage the development of empathy. Fatherless upbringing is the number one predictor for most childhood/ teen problems. Boys without fathers are far more likely to join gangs. Girls are far more likely to become narcissistic, bratty, over-sexed divas. Neither will make good parents (especially if one of them is in jail) and so the effects are amplified for the next generation causing a destructive downward spiral of increasing social dysfunction……..again, this is all good news for government which always grows in size and power as a result of social dysfunction (until the whole system collapses).

    Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its local environment. ‘Pour’ human beings into abusive households and they will take the shape of (self) destructive criminals and psychos. Pour an entire population into the Prussian Schooling system (a system now adopted by all western nations) and they will take the shape of Nazi Germany.

    If we want a truly moral and civilised society we just need to raise one generation peacefully, lovingly and rationally. All wars, tyrants, parasites, gangs, rapists and abusers are the echos of early childhood abuse and trauma. Even in the 21st century 90% of mothers admit to still hitting their infants and children on a regular basis – and this is in the west.

    There is no point discussing the ‘nature’ of humans when the capacity for reason, empathy, rationality and healthy, peaceful (win-win) relationships is still being literally being beaten out of us before we can even speak.


    1. I appreciate your detailed thoughts on this. I agree with some of what you wrote. Morality is definitely influenced by the environment. The rule that you must euthanize a parent that can no longer walk could be considered moral in a hunter-gather society, but would be immoral in a sedentary society, although it could be said that well being of the parent exists in both environments.

      On the parts I disagree, I think the implied assumption is that we are born blank slates and completely molded by culture. Although determining what is innately included in our cognition is extremely challenging, there’s enough science to indicate that we don’t start with a blank slate.


      1. “…Morality is definitely influenced by the environment..”

        Sure, but before we even talk about a person’s morality we must first establish if they actually apply the moral standards which they claim to have consistently in their lives. If they do not then they are lying about their moral stance and we should not pay them any further attention.

        Most people’s behaviour (including their world view, politics etc) is in complete opposition to their alleged moral standards.

        Most discussions of morality are a bit like an analysis of living standards relative to race, age, gender etc where it’s considered OK to lie about your sex, age, income, savings and location. I mean, what’s the point?

        “..On the parts I disagree, I think the implied assumption is that we are born blank slates and completely molded by culture…”

        Not quite. We are not born moral, we are born rational. Morality is just an extension of rationality. Inconsistent moral claims (immoral claims which are not consistently applied or adhered to) are only recognised and accepted as being fraudulent by people who can still think rationally. Unfortunately most people’s rational capacity has been destroyed or seriously compromised in childhood and/ or beaten down by propaganda, peer pressure, fear etc in adult life.

        Our rational nature is much like our skeletal nature. It is undeveloped at birth, but will develop naturally …… as long as it is allowed to (as long as it is not impeded by external factors).

        What destroys or warps rationality – and thus morality – is an upbringing full of abuse, trauma, violence, irrationality and general oppression and abuse of power from ‘authority’ figures (parents, priests, teachers etc).

        The effect on the development of rationality / morality is destructive and permanent…. it is akin to the affect on the bone development of foot binding. Damage done to us in early childhood generally remains fixed for life.

        To have a more moral society we need a more rational society. To have that we need to stop hitting our babies and children.

        But instead of doing that we let the most damaged and irrational people (the most abused as children), impose a monopoly on behaving irrationally/ immorally – all under the guise of enforcing moral rules. This is perhaps the worst possible thing we could do. Just look at the state of the world!


        1. “If they do not then they are lying about their moral stance and we should not pay them any further attention.”
          If your goal is to determine what they do or will do, I agree. But if you’re interested in what they think ought to be, of their cognitive preferences, even if they themselves can’t live up to it, then I think listening to them is definitely worth it.

          On rationality, I agree that we are born with a capacity for rationality, but as far as I can see, and the results of psychological research seem to show, that it exists to (or more accurately it evolved to) serve emotion or instinctual impulses. Consider, what logical reason is there for us to prefer survival over death? Is there any reason that you can give that will not be an appeal to either more logic, which itself must then be justified, or to brute desire, instinct, emotion? In my mind, these desires, instinct, emotion are our natural programming, evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Without that natural programming, rationality has nothing to do. In David Hume’s words, it is impotent.

          And our natural programming doesn’t stop at our own survival. As social creatures, at least for most of us, it includes the survival of our family, friends, tribe, etc. Of course, we can override these desires, but usually not easily and usually in service to some greater desire, often to what we think is a longer term or broader application of that programming.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. “… self serving human being, “Homo economicus.”

    If the ‘self’ here is the ‘individual’, you are correct.

    In the recent discussion about the ‘morality’ at ‘Scientia Salon’, I showed that ‘self’ can be defined in four tiers {individual, kin-group, society and species}. With this broader definition, yes, morality is the result of ‘self-serving’ of the selfness. See, and .


    1. An interesting position. Certainly if you broaden the definition of self, any altruistic act becomes “self” serving. But I wonder how useful that definition of self is for conversation.


  7. Hi ‘SAP’, I wanted to say something more than “I agree and well said” when this post appeared, but nothing really came to mind -10 days later and I still don’t have anything much to add so …

    I agree and well said! 🙂


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