Beyond Homo Economicus

LEIPZIG – Humanity currently faces numerous global challenges, including climate change, resource depletion, financial crisis, deficient education, widespread poverty, and food insecurity. But, despite the devastating consequences implied by a failure to address these issues, we have not risen to the occasion.

Economies, both crisis-stricken and thriving, are failing to eliminate poverty, improve the provision of public services like education, and maintain and allocate collective goods, such as fish stocks and rain forests, effectively and equitably. At the same time, societies are increasingly fragmented, with perceived loneliness and stress-related illnesses on the rise. And existing governance structures are inadequate to improve the situation.

Clearly, a new approach is needed. But developing effective mechanisms for addressing large-scale shared challenges must begin with a fundamental shift in the way human motivation and cognition are understood.

The concept of homo economicus, which asserts that humans are rational actors who make decisions based on narrow self-interest, has dominated political and economic thinking since the 1970’s. But, while the pursuit of self-interest may be advantageous in certain contexts, it is not the only, or even the principal, driver of human behavior – and it is not conducive to overcoming today’s most pressing global issues.