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Farewell to Homo Oeconomicus

by Annika Reich and Marc Batko Monday, Aug. 31, 2015 at 6:39 AM

The model of homo oeconomicus is antiquated and over-simplified. Dominant economic models are not based on a realistic picture of humans... The model does not know different human human motives that could be differently activated depending on the context.


Capitalism is not running so well. Is this because people are judged wrongly with misguided models? We must listen to our social side, says researcher Tania Singer

by Annika Reich

[This article published on August 12, 2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.zeit.de.]

Life in late capitalism is not the happiest life imaginable as we see everywhere in the world. Could our economic system be based on a fundamentally false assumption about humans? Does this so-called homo oeconomicus not exist? Tania Singer, psychologist and professor for social neuro-sciences, directs the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neuro-Sciences in Leipzig and was the first to hold a chair for neuro-economy in Zurich. She is above all one of the most important secular ethicists of our time. Her whole work is directed to the goal that we humans activate our sympathy so our daily routine, the world economy and international politics can be marked more strongly by pro-social conduct.

To approach this goal, she founded the ReSource Project, the largest worldwide research project of its kind that works out scientific foundations for meditation- and other mental training methods by means of plasticity research of the brain with which we can exercise our different mental and emotional abilities as well as sympathy and altruistic conduct.

This is by no means softened esotericism. Tania Singer shuttles between meditation cushions and the World Economic Forum in Davos, between meetings with the Dalai Lama and top investment bankers of this world. This enormous activity is necessary because she seeks to change existing structures and does not only emphasize prevention. With her research, she confronts high finance and puts in question theories dominant in the economy for many decades. “The model of homo oeconomicus is antiquated and over-simplified,” Tania Singer says. “Dominant economic models are not based on a realistic picture of humans.”


In the economic model, we act as egoistic beings who are only interested in optimizing our own advantages. We act and decide rationally and have stable preferences independent of context (summer over winter, rump steaks over broccoli). “The model does not know different human motives that could be differently activated depending on the context. The model assumes we are motivated by the profit maximization of money,” Singer says.

Since time immemorial, psychologists have known that we humans are neither stable in our preferences nor free from contradictions (investment bankers who speculate on food can be loving fathers). In her training studies with adults, Singer shows how we can change our preferences and how an altruistic person can emerge out of an egoistic person. We can be brought to altruistic conduct through bonds, membership, reciprocity and love because we are all outfitted with a “care system” anchored in our biology.

We are more complex, more contradictory and more changeable than the homo oeconomicus. The schools of the economy that still rely on an antiquated view of the person cannot get past this fact if they want to be seen as a science and not as a faith system.

Most economists obviously know this view of the person is a reduction of truth, Singer says. Formulating simple functions that could be tracked mathematically was first necessary since economists at a certain time in their history pre3scribed modeling markets in a mathematical way. This simplified model then appeared in textbooks and gradually in our consciousness until it spread in all branches of society. Up to today, this simplified model was not questioned and improved. What a blatant failure! Therefore homo oeconomicus continues to set the tone.

To advance a more realistic economic view of the person, Tania Singer met with the president of the Kiel Institute for World Economy, Dennis Snower. Together they drafted a new generation of economic models that underlined cooperative pro-social and sustainable economic behavior patterns.

The debate over what view of the person underlies today’s economic mainstream is crucial for the future of our world community and is more than an internal academic quarrel. The picture of homo oeconomicus could prevail in politics as common sense and influence political decisions since the guild of the economy and not psychology or social neuro-science advise our governments.

Politics deals with voters who can be induced to act through self-interest and extrinsic rewards like money. However a more social economic form and a more social politics could develop with a different starting point where sympathy, public spirit and solidarity could succeed. No decision maker need have any fear that national economies would collapse and the next election would go down the drain. Stressing pro-social conduct in the economy and politics follows the state of science and is essential for survival in view of global problems like climate change, distribution justice and the refugee catastrophe and would in no way be a naïve ideal.

“The old narrative must be replaced with a more realistic view of the person based on psychological and neuro-scientific findings which could encourage more pro-sociality and global cooperation,” Singer says. The question is only how these values can be strengthened in our present economic systems and a politics that moves economic and financial interests in the limelight.

Tania Singer trusts prevention and the individual. In her ReSource Project, she analyzes how different secular forms of meditation and other mental training affect the spirit, body, well-being and health. She investigates the regular practice of attention, sympathy, pro-social motivation and seeks greater awareness of motives for action and thought patterns.


“The ReSource Project is a life work and a work of the heart,” says Singer, a project seven years in preparation. 300 persons meditated for nine months in three different modules… In the study, three overarching modules were developed in which presence (attention and body perception), emotion (sympathy and dealing with difficult feelings) and adopting perspectives (birds-eye- view in one’s thought patterns and foreign patterns] are practiced. Although the evaluation of all data of this study will take years, social abilities can be practiced, according to Singer, and different forms of mental training can affect the brain, health, conscious experience and conduct very differently.

How important it would be if children in school could cultivate their sympathy and pro-social conduct alongside learning leaping, geography and the xylophone! If children would learn how they could react without pre-judgments to foreign conceptual and faith systems and simultaneously had in hand a method that helped them cope better with difficult emotional situations and daily stress. How important would all this be for persons working in health care systems, schools and war zones or who find themselves in muddled family constellations! How path-breaking it would be for our politics if these abilities were promoted and included in its decisions.

If an investor is found, a social business will arise out of the ReSource Project to bring the developed exercise methods into the world. “A simple meditation app without a teacher and training is impossible,” says Tania Singer, “even if everyone wants this. Our project has nothing in common with the so-called McMindful attitude that can be seen everywhere in Silicon Valley.” A little sympathy training and reducing stress only to be more efficient cannot be the point. Altruistic alternatives must be discovered besides the service motivation. That is one of the goals for which Tania Singer contends.

Hopefully the splits between Davos and meditation space will succeed and Ms. Singer will not be dissuaded from thinking our world can still be saved.

Three Poems for the New World
May these poems help in defending the social logic against the profit logic!
As spirituality means letting go (cf. Richard Rohr, Simplicity and the Joy of Letting Go, 2003), Jesus calls us to a new language and a new mathematics, to an ethic of resistance and solidarity and a future of openness and inclusivity.
Joy comes in the morning, not only Halliburton and Texas Pacific, the casino and the roller-coaster!

Three Poems for a New World
Marc Batko

Burnt Rubber

Instead of radical conversion,
sharing work and assets,
rewarding poets and writers,
not only speculators and con artists,
Burnt rubber became a language,
a leverage and a lifestyle,
a false hope
and a false security
conferred by a false consciousness
in a culture of conformity
and mutual congratulation
where vision and utopia were lost.

Language and community
are in permanent crisis
amid repressing and fading out
everything unpleasant.
Was speed glorified by the media
so present, past and future dissolve
as means are confused with ends
and the part mistaken for the whole?
A world of interdependence
can be envisioned
where stories of liberation
eclipse the stories of office buildings,
where the market isn’t the omnipotent ruler
reducing life to a shopping mall
but a means
fostering human development..

Change of consciousness
from auto-dependence in the car-tastrophe
is still
in its infancy.
Intoxicated with itself,
the triumphalist exceptional culture is threatened with solipsism
as vanity and narcissism
threatened Narcissus gazing at the mirror.

There is power in our question,
our proclamation and our vision!
Are human rights the same as market rights?
Do we ever learn from other cultures?
Do we obliterate the memory of other people?
Is growth endless and undifferentiated?
Can market progress threaten human progress?
Can Wall Street overshadow Main Street?
The rich one can lose all things without sorrow.
Buddhist enlightenment like Jesus’ parables can change reality.
True wealth is receiving and sharing
reconfiguring the plutonium economy of nonstop consumerism
where future generations refuse the celebration of burnt rubber.

The Seven Myths

The great myth
that individual selfishness
becomes public good
the displacement of public ethics
by personal morality.
The myths of the self-healing market,
the ever-larger cake
and lifting oneself by one’s bootstraps
are economic and psychological
like the myths of corporate beneficence,
trickle down prosperity and nature as an external.

Who would have thought
that Reaganomics would be
such an insurmountable virus?
A lie can travel half way around the world
before truth gets her boots on! (Mark Twain)
Myths and prejudices block the way to understanding.
Economism sets profit and property above human life,
degrades labor into a cost factor,
and commodifies all life..
The anthropology of self-interest
has its counterpart
in the anthropology of receptivity.

We are social beings bound to one another
like the waves of the sea.
We are dependent and changed
by our context and environment,
not atomized nomads
without connection, history, passion and hope.
The truth will set us free
but the truth is a process
where life is an unfolding fragment
relational and conditional
calling us to engagement
not self-righteousness or solipsism.

As the end is present in the beginning,
the tree in the seed,
our fragmentary lives ought to be
dialogical and international
where we are questions and answers
to one another exploding the myths.

Historical Consciousness and Utopias

Historical consciousness and utopias
do not become discredited
when little Bart
comes home all muddy and twisted.
America corrupted by wealth
where full employment only occurs through wars
is the pioneer of speculation
and misfortune.

Capitalism and the last superpower are above the law.
Where our footprint is too great and wasted energy is challenged,
we use the Creole trick
and stylize ourselves as victims, not culprits.
Only repression artists could redefine
non-stop consumerism and limitless nature
as economic laws.

People on the fifth floor congratulate people on the fifth floor.
Rightwing propaganda threatens!
Idolizing the nation or the belt-buckle,
the rightwing scapegoat the weak,
the immigrants who enrich the materialist North.

Triumphant America becomes a buffoon
when prosperity is based on weapons exports,
redistribution upwards
and exploitation of the global South.
The future should be anticipated and protected in the present,
not extrapolated from the present.
Let us reclaim life and the future
and not become buffoons of the mega-machine!

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