Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Smackdown: Homo Sociologicus v. Homo Economicus

There is an old saying from Ralph Waldo Emerson's diary while he was at Harvard: "Rattle forth the battle of your thoughts . . . " There is a battlefield for the truest portrayal of a great society, one that combines brotherhood, equality, and liberty and how such a society ought to be achieved. My interests have led me to read more psychology and sociology. In particular, the sociologists seem to think quite differently than economists. As I learn more I will come to the larger questions of how groups should make collective decisions. For now, let's look at the individuals as viewed by each of the disciplines. There is an excellent article recently written by Fehr and Gintis that lucidly illustrates the distinction between the fictional homo-economicus and homo-sociologicus:

Decades ago, sociologists criticized the “oversocialized conception of man” (Wrong 1961) that played a prominent role in the work of Durkheim (1938) and Parsons (1937). They rightly questioned Homo Sociologicus, a creature who follows prevailing social norms without regard to self-interest. But they did not develop an alternative, empirically grounded, and widely accepted conception of the basic motivational driving forces of humans. This contrasts sharply with the approach taken by mainstream economics that rests on the notion of Homo Economicus, a creature who is rational and purely self regarding. However, the Homo Economicus approach is also erroneous, as the assumption that humans are exclusively self-regarding has been decisively rejected by the evidence (Camerer 2003, Fehr & Fischbacher 2003, Gintis et al. 2003). Thus, although the lack of a model of human social behavior leaves sociology without an anchor, mainstream economics is hitched to the wrong anchor, i.e., adheres to a biased view of human nature.

This version of humanity from two different social sciences, like Fehr and Gintis say, are a caricature. Humans seek acceptance into groups but they also seek self interest. The reality of how humans behave is somewhere between these two important views of man. This is a very interesting appetizer to the big entree of how society should be structured.

By the way, in my sociology reading I also came across this article from sociology blog orgtheory on Toqueville and how he viewed democracy and (how it needed) religion.

1 comment:

Mark said...

In the 1950s, two classic works in political science appeared: "An Economic Theory of Democracy" by Anthony Downs and "The American Voter" by Campbell et al. The Downs book was an expansive application of economic theory to voting decisions, and was based upon the rational-actor model. "The American Voter" was more an exercise in homo sociologicus -- voters responded less to cost benefit calculation about policies and more to social cues such the party affiliation of other people in similar social conditions.

For over a decade, the sociological view held sway. The American Voter documented that, during the Eisenhower 50s, few people could articulate a position on Nebraska's approach to public power or the island of Quemoy. However, flash forward to the late 1960s, the era of Vietnam and urban riots, and you get a very different picture. Voters were pretty accurate in determining where Humphrey, Wallace, and Nixon stood on the issues of the day. This suggests a form of rational information gathering, where social cues ("Episcopalians are Republicans")can be used when they are relatively efficient, and then abandoned when they no longer serve their purpose.