The economic agent: Not human, but important

Critics of mainstream economics typically rest important weight on the differences between people and the 'agents' that populate economic theory and economic models. Hollis and Nell (1975) is both representative of and ancestral to many more recent variations on the theme. Lately, the upgraded status of behavioral economics (BE) within the discipline's mainstream has encouraged a number of writers to use revolutionary rhetoric in promotion of a 'paradigm shift' that includes the rejection of 'rational economic man' (Ormerod 1994, Heilbroner and Milburg 1995, Fullbrook 2003). The current leading developers of BE are generally more circumspect, claiming that their approach complements standard theory rather than promising to supplant it (Camerer and Loewenstein 2004, Angner and Loewenstein this volume). However, they generally join the more florid critics in supposing that microeconomics is bound to improve its empirical relevance to the extent that it substitutes the study of people for that of abstract economic agents. Another body of thought that promotes this view stems from Sen's (1977) attack on standard economic agents as 'rational fools', amplified in Davis's (2003) argument that since economic agents lack some essential properties of human individuals, economic theory requires fundamental reform if it is to make progress in explaining human behavior.
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