Review

When Does "Economic Man" Dominate Social Behavior?

Science  06 Jan 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5757, pp. 47-52
DOI: 10.1126/science.1110600

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Abstract

The canonical model in economics considers people to be rational and self-regarding. However, much evidence challenges this view, raising the question of when “Economic Man” dominates the outcome of social interactions, and when bounded rationality or other-regarding preferences dominate. Here we show that strategic incentives are the key to answering this question. A minority of self-regarding individuals can trigger a “noncooperative” aggregate outcome if their behavior generates incentives for the majority of other-regarding individuals to mimic the minority's behavior. Likewise, a minority of other-regarding individuals can generate a “cooperative” aggregate outcome if their behavior generates incentives for a majority of self-regarding people to behave cooperatively. Similarly, in strategic games, aggregate outcomes can be either far from or close to Nash equilibrium if players with high degrees of strategic thinking mimic or erase the effects of others who do very little strategic thinking. Recently developed theories of other-regarding preferences and bounded rationality explain these findings and provide better predictions of actual aggregate behavior than does traditional economic theory.

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