The predawn sky is not very clear this morning, so maybe its time to explore murky topics such as the relationship of happiness, greed, individualism, and selfishness to resilience.
Classic evolution theory can’t explain altruism and tries to explain it away. Altruism lowers an individual’s chances of passing its own genetic material on to the next generation, yet persists in organisms from slime molds to wolves to humans. Classic evolution theorists (such as Richard Dawkins and his Selfish Gene) contend that selection occurs at the level of the individual. Selfishness, individualism and greed are therefore enshrined as necessary and sufficient for explaining human behavior. Classic economic theory follows the same assumptions. People know what they want and will try to amass as much of it as they can.
One economist who criticizes classic economics, Amartya Sen, illustrates the failure of such thinking with the question: “What should you do if you see a person trying to cut his fingers off with a pair of dull scissors?”
The response of most people: stop him from cutting off his fingers, call the police for help, etc.
“Offer him sharper scissors,” was Professor Sen’s answer. Classic economics assumes that people know what they want and that the economic system should help them get what they want.
Counter to classic theory, behavioral economics makes three related claims. First, people do not know what makes them happy. Second, fewer options are sometimes better than more options. Third, more may not make you happier.
The origin of behavioral economics was catalyzed by guests at a party one of it’s founders hosted. Richard Thaler served cashews as an appetizer. His guests were voraciously eating the nuts; so much so that Thaler worried their appetites would be satisfied before dinner. He removed the remaining cashews. The result? His guests thanked him.
What do cashews have to do with economics? Classical economics argues that people should always be happier with the option to eat cashews. Thus, Thaler’s guests should have been unhappy when he reduced their choices.
Perhaps, Thaler realized, standard economics is wrong in assuming people are rational maximizers. If this is true, perhaps the person in Harvard square attempting to self mutilate with blunt scissors would be happier with fingers than without.
We don’t always do what is best for ourselves. Often we do what was good for our ancestors. Up until fairly recently, humans were often hungry and extremely physically active. Our ancestors would have benefited from a day on the couch eating high-caloric foods. Compared to us, they had very high activity levels, lower caloric intake, and fewer possessions.
While our world has changed incredibly rapidly, our genes and brains have not. Thus, our tastes still reflect the world of our ancestors. So we think more money will make us happier, because more resources would have led our ancestors to greater success. Similarly, we are built to be energetically thrifty because because our ancestors were on a tight caloric budget. In short, we love to eat and sleep because eating and sleeping were good for our ancestors.
We tend to love money because resources were good for our ancestors, and many of us hate useless exercise because it was bad for our ancestors.
Classic economics and evolution are also increasingly being shown to be wrong about social behavior. It’s now clear that it’s not the strong who survive, it’s the strongest group which survives. Individualism, selfishness and resulting isolation is the result of classic economics and evolution theory. We want and need to be around people and help people because it leads to us to survive and thrive–that is, it increases our resilience.
In the last few years the concept of the selfish gene has been replaced by the idea that natural selection occurs at multiple levels: acting not only on genes and individuals, but also on entire groups. Groups with high prosociality — a suite of cooperative behaviors that includes altruism — often outcompete those that have little social cohesion, so natural selection applies to group behaviors just as it does to individual adaptations1. The process of group-level selection has made humans a profoundly social species, the bees of the primate order.
Morality and religion, according to this view, are biologically and culturally evolved adaptations that enable human groups to function as single units rather than mere collections of individuals. Religions have enabled people to achieve by collective action what they never could do alone.
Religious believers often compare their communities to single organisms and even to insect colonies. They may be literally correct.
We need to be in communities which limit our options and provide opportunities for us to help the community. Happiness comes not from selfishness and greed but from helping your family and your community succeed. Then, when you realize your community also includes some woods and fields and animals, you can know joy.