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The Moral Identity of Homo Economicus

Two recent books indicate that a quiet revolution is challenging the foundations of the dismal science, promising radical changes in how we view many aspects of organizations, public policy, and even social life. As with the rise of behavioral economics, this revolution emanates from psychology.

CAMBRIDGE – Why do people vote, if doing so is costly and highly unlikely to affect the outcome? Why do people go above and beyond the call of duty at their jobs?

Two recent books – Identity Economics by Nobel laureate George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton and The Moral Economy by Sam Bowles – indicate that a quiet revolution is challenging the foundations of the dismal science, promising radical changes in how we view many aspects of organizations, public policy, and even social life. As with the rise of behavioral economics (which already includes six Nobel laureates among its leaders), this revolution emanates from psychology. But while behavioral economics relies on cognitive psychology, this one is rooted in moral psychology.

As with most revolutions, this one is not happening because, as Thomas Huxley surmised, a beautiful old theory has been killed by ugly new facts. The ugly facts have been apparent for a while, but people cannot abandon one mental framework unless another one can take its place: in the end, beautiful old theories are killed only by newer, more powerful theories.

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