Build­ing a car­ing econ­omy

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

To­day’s main­stream eco­nomic mod­els are based on two fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tions: first, hu­mans are es­sen­tially self­ish ac­tors who act ra­tio­nally to ad­vance their own util­ity – so-called homo eco­nomi­cus; but, sec­ond, as Adam Smith’s metaphor of an “in­vis­i­ble hand” was in­tended to sug­gest, self-re­gard­ing be­hav­iour can in­ad­ver­tently ad­vance the com­mon good. Both as­sump­tions are patently false.

In or­der to ad­dress press­ing global prob­lems like cli­mate change and in­equal­ity, the pre­dom­i­nant eco­nomic mod­els must be rethought, in­cor­po­rat­ing other mo­ti­va­tional sys­tems that can in­duce dif­fer­ent hu­man be­hav­iours. Such re­al­is­tic mod­els, based on em­pir­i­cal re­search in psy­chol­ogy and the neu­ro­sciences, would al­low so­ci­eties to cul­ti­vate their sense of com­pas­sion and build a new kind of “car­ing eco­nomics” that re­flects more fully what it is to be hu­man.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tific stud­ies have shown that hu­mans can be mo­ti­vated by care and sys­tems of af­fil­i­a­tion just as eas­ily as they can be by power and achieve­ment or con­sump­tion and de­sire. Af­ter all, we have evolved to be able to form sta­ble re­la­tion­ships, build trust, and care for chil­dren, all of which re­quires a ca­pac­ity for com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy. Once we recog­nise that th­ese car­ing mo­ti­va­tional sys­tems are com­mon to all hu­mans – in­deed, most are shared with other an­i­mals – the world be­gins to look very dif­fer­ent.

Com­pas­sion, by con­trast, is con­cern for an­other per­son that is linked to a strong mo­ti­va­tion to al­le­vi­ate their suf­fer­ing. If, say, a mother sees her child cry­ing af­ter a fall, she may first em­pathise with the child, feel­ing its pain and sad­ness. But, rather than suc­cumb­ing to feel­ings of dis­tress, she will take the child in her arms to soothe and com­fort it.

Both em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion seem to come nat­u­rally to hu­mans. But both re­sponses are frag­ile, and can be quelled or reversed by a large num­ber of fac­tors – in­clud­ing the de­gree to which we iden­tify with the per­son who is suf­fer­ing.

Hu­mans tend to find it easy to em­pathise with and care about mem­bers of their “in-group” – peo­ple with whom they share fea­tures, whether real or so­cially con­structed, like race, gen­der, age, or re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tion. Em­pa­thy and care to­ward out-group mem­bers does not come quite as eas­ily. Such uni­ver­sal or global com­pas­sion – car­ing about peo­ple who are very dif­fer­ent from us – prob­a­bly re­quires the in­volve­ment of higher cog­ni­tive func­tions, and thus may be unique to hu­mans.

It may also re­quire some train­ing. Af­ter all, living in a world that as­sumes we are homo eco­nomi­cus can en­cour­age self­ish habits. For­tu­nately, re­search sug­gests that such habits can be bro­ken.

The largest such study is the re­cently com­pleted Re­Source project, in which my col­leagues and I sub­jected al­most 300 peo­ple, over 11 months, to an in­tense men­tal-train­ing pro­gramme, de­vel­oped by a team of ex­pe­ri­enced me­di­a­tion teach­ers, sci­en­tists, and psy­chother­a­pists. The goal was to cul­ti­vate a broad range of men­tal ca­pac­i­ties and so­cial skills, in­clud­ing at­ten­tion, mind­ful­ness, self-aware­ness, per­spec­tive-tak­ing on oth­ers, em­pa­thy, com­pas­sion, and the abil­ity to cope with dif­fi­cult emo­tions like anger or stress. Progress was as­sessed by mea­sur­ing changes in par­tic­i­pants’ brains, hor­mones, health, be­hav­ior, and sub­jec­tive sense of well­be­ing.

The project’s pre­lim­i­nary re­sults re­in­force a key find­ing of pre­vi­ous, smaller stud­ies: just as we can strengthen and trans­form a mus­cle through phys­i­cal ex­er­cise, we can de­velop our brain and be­hav­ioral ca­pac­i­ties – from at­ten­tion and emo­tional reg­u­la­tion to trust and do­na­tion be­hav­ior – through regular men­tal train­ing.

Of course, men­tal ex­er­cises must be honed to de­velop par­tic­u­lar skills and be­hav­iors; mind­ful­ness prac­tice alone is not ad­e­quate to im­prove, say, so­cio-cog­ni­tive skills. And last­ing changes oc­cur only af­ter a pro­longed pe­riod of regular train­ing. But, with the right ap­proach, it may well be pos­si­ble to foster the kind of al­tru­is­tic and pro-so­cial be­hav­iors that are needed to im­prove global co­op­er­a­tion.

On the ba­sis of th­ese find­ings and those from other psy­cho­log­i­cal, neu­ro­sci­en­tific, and eco­nomic stud­ies, my col­leagues and I are now work­ing with the pres­i­dent of the Kiel In­sti­tute for the World Econ­omy, Den­nis Snower, to for­mu­late new mo­ti­va­tion-based com­pu­ta­tional mod­els of eco­nomic de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Th­ese mod­els will en­able us to make clear, testable pre­dic­tions about ex­pected mon­e­taryex­change be­hav­ior in an eco­nomic con­text, in­clud­ing in ad­dress­ing com­mon-good prob­lems. In fact, sev­eral of th­ese ex­per­i­ments are al­ready un­der­way.

The secular, eth­i­cal men­tal-train­ing ex­er­cises used in the Re­Source project could be ap­plied in busi­nesses, po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions, schools (for both teach­ers and stu­dents), and health-care set­tings – in short, in all ar­eas where peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence high lev­els of stress and re­lated phe­nom­ena. Young chil­dren, in par­tic­u­lar, could ben­e­fit con­sid­er­ably from such train­ing pro­grams, which could en­abled them to use men­tal skills and com­pas­sion to reg­u­late stress and emo­tions. A lack of com­pas­sion is ar­guably the cause of many of hu­mankind’s most dev­as­tat­ing fail­ures. Our suc­cess in tack­ling the enor­mous chal­lenges we face will de­pend not only on our will­ing­ness to work ac­tively and co­op­er­a­tively to ad­vance the com­mon good, but also on our abil­ity to foster the at­tributes needed to do so.

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