Economic man – or straw man?

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28 (6):817-818 (2005)
Abstract
This commentary on the paper “Economic Man” in Cross-Cultural Perspective [20] is fiercely critical, but the criticism is not directed at the anthropological field work reported in the paper, which seems to me entirely admirable. The criticism is directed at the editorial rhetoric that accompanies the scientific reports of the experiments carried out in the fifteen small-scale societies studied. The rhetoric is markedly more subdued than in the book Foundations of Human Sociality [19] from which the current paper is extracted. (See Samuelson [27] for a review.) However, the claim remains that “economic man” is an experimental failure, and that we must seek an alternative paradigm. This paper argues that the editors’ enthusiasm for this perennially popular claim has led them into two mistakes. Philosophers call the first mistake the ignoratio elenchi—the refuting of propositions that your opponent does not maintain. In particular, it is not axiomatic in orthodox economic theory that human beings are selfish. Even if such a proposition were axiomatic, the backward induction principle the authors use when analyzing the Ultimatum Game would not follow. The second mistake is that of neglecting to report data that does not support their claims about “economic man”. In particular, although it is not axiomatic in mainstream economics that human beings maximize their own income, there is a huge experimental literature whose results are consistent with the hypothesis that most people behave in this way after gaining sufficient experience of most tasks they are set in the laboratory. As a result of these mistakes, the editors contrive to treat conclusions of their study that are broadly supportive of the game-theoretic approach to social norms as though they were inconsistent with the principles on which game theory is based
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