New Economy Journal

From Rational Economic Man to Social, Adaptable Human

Volume 4, Issue May 2023

May 2, 2023

By - Brandon Gordon

Piece length: 1,056 words

Article Theme : Regenerative Economics

Cover image by Helena Lopes from Unsplash
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This piece was originally published on Medium here:

Economic models are created around the idea of a Rational Economic Man; however, this is not who we are nor how we interact with the economy. Humans are social and adaptable beings, whose decision making is fluid. I propose a new economic model which reflects these realities.

During the early part of the Industrial Revolution — a time of massive economic growth and turmoil — economists and prominent thinkers developed simple models to understand the boom-and-bust nature of the economy. At the centre of these models was us, characterised  as an individual who later became known as Rational Economic Man or Homo Economicus. This everyman is portrayed as self-interested, isolated, calculating, fixed in tastes, and dominant over nature.

"[Political economy] is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.” — John Stuart Mill, 1836[1].

“By the end of the nineteenth century, the caricature clearly depicted a solitary man, ever calculating his utility, and insatiable in his wants,” says Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics[2]. Rational Economic Man can calculate the utility of every purchase and integrate this over his lifetime. He is a person who expresses himself only in the market. This caricature is what we now call a consumer. The current economic system is a consumer society, based on the idea that there are no limits to our so-called needs.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” [3] When acting in the economy he has “his own advantage, indeed, and not that of society which he has in view.” [4]He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention.” [5] - Adam Smith, 1776.

The problem is Rational Economic Man does not represent us. Do we only express ourselves in the market? Are any — let alone all — of our decisions entirely rational? No, of course not.

If we are going to have a sustainable economy, we need to redraw the self-portrait at the heart of economic theory. We thrive by connecting with each other and with the living planet we call home. We are anything but wholly rational and ever-calculating. Our values are fluid and ever-changing.

This calls for a new representation of humankind, which Kate Raworth calls Social, Adaptable Human. I keep the name Raworth offers, but propose my own version. Rational Economic Man must undergo two changes to become a Social, Adaptable Human. We are not self-serving, material people, interested only in maximising the payoff from every action. Our interactions in everyday life shape our economic decisions.

Figure 1. From Rational Economic Man (AKA Homo Economicus) to Social Adaptable Human

The first change is incorporating Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line to include interaction with society and the environment.Rational Economic Man is isolated, dominant over nature, and expresses himself only in the market. Social, Adaptable Human is sociable, interdependent with nature, and expresses themselves in society, the environment, and the market.

The second change is incorporating Schwartz’s Value Circumplex[6] into the decision-making process. Our decision-making is governed by fluid values, not by rationality and calculated utility. Emeritus Professor of Psychology Shalom Schwartz describes ten universal aspects of values that are present between people and across the 20 countries he studied, depicted below. Schwartz concludes that the dynamic relationship between these aspects determines the content and structure of our values.

Figure 2. Schwartz’s Value Circumplex

The Rational Economic Man is portrayed as ever-calculating and fixed in tastes,  shown by dollar and percent symbols in the head. As is depicted above in Figure 1, the Social, Adaptable Human has fluid values and is an approximating person, shown by the adaptation of Schwartz’s Value Circumplex in the head.

Shifting from Rational Economic Man to Social Adaptable Humans can lead to a significant paradigm shift. The new economic system requires a shift away from the ‘growth will fix it’ paradigm. Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznets warned, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”[7] While there are correlations between economic performance and quality of life, the tunnel-vision focus on it has led us astray from what the economy should be.

An economy centred around Social, Adaptable Humans will lead to a shift away from consumerism. In our consumer-driven culture, wealthy people spend money for no reason but to display their wealth and status. Conspicuous consumption has been an issue for more than the last two centuries.[8] Consumer-driven culture urges us to keep spending to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ to the point that it isn't rational anymore. Was it ever rational?  In this new model, with Social, Adaptable Humans at the centre, consumers will still act in the market. But, when they do, their decisions will be influenced by their interdependence and reliance on society and the environment.

Economic activity should operate within the environmental limits; be inclusive and benefit everyone equitably; centre transparent and participatory decision-making; build strong and place-based economies; and work in solidarity with First Nations Peoples’. Moving to an economic model with Social, Adaptable Humans at the centre can help us, as consumers, policy-makers, and business people, and in everything we do, make sustainable decisions that benefit us, our society and the environment. This paradigm shift will help us realise our economy's true purpose and potential.


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