From Homo Economicus towards a Caring Economics

Start of Project 06/2013
End of Project 12/2017

The aim of the research program was to study how psychological and neuroscientific knowledge about human motivation, emotion and social cognition can inform models of economic decision making in addressing global economic problems. The program sought to generate a new generation of economic models that explore the opportunities for more cooperative, pro-social and sustainable economic behaviors. These behaviors are to provide a vision of a “caring economics.”

The collaborative project was a Research Program of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and is founded on a cooperation between the Kiel institute for the World Economy (under the guidance of Dennis Snower) and the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (under the guidance of Tania Singer). The research agenda of the project recognized that all behavior is motivated and explored how external and internal stimuli can activate different, discrete motivational systems that can prime different sets of behavior patterns. In this context, the research studied how preferences change in response to environmental and internal conditions as well as the interdependence and sociality of humans. The analysis was based on findings that humans cannot survive outside social communities and, on the proximal level, are linked through empathy, compassion, emotional contagion and theory of mind.
The interdependence of people and their potential for motivated pro-sociality has important implications for generating the human cooperation required to address global problems and is therefore highly policy relevant. Most global problems – such as climate change, over-fishing, financial crises, and extreme poverty and inequality – arise due to the existence of public goods, common-pool resources and poverty in the midst of plenty.

The project studied the following questions: How does differential activation of different human motivational systems such as the threat-, the seeking/achievement- or the care system predict cooperative or egoist behavior in the provision of public goods? Which environments help prime one or the other of these motivational systems and consequently promote more or less prosocial behavior? How can we change in-group and out-group identities to widen our circle of compassion necessary to encourage people to take responsibility for addressing major global problems? And how can we move from models of simple kinship selection and reciprocity towards models of cooperation that also include novel insights from cultural evolution and epigenetic research in biology?

These questions were studied by a group of researchers in psychology, neuroscience and economics using a variety of conceptual, mathematical as well as experimental approaches. Empirical investigations will use methodological approaches from psychology and social and affective neuroscience (e.g., emotion primes, mood induction, stress research and elicitation of biological markers) as well as behavioral economics (e.g., game-theoretical social exchange paradigms performed in the laboratory).