Standard economic theory states that people are interested only in their own material gain. But new insights from behavioral economics show that altruism rather than avarice is our primary motivation.Interesting corollary from Fantasia's work on unions and strikes showing that people go in strike much more because one of their brethren has been insulted than about wages.
Our old friend Herbert Gintes (of Bowles and Gintes fame) is in the thick of it:
With this wealth of new findings, the challenge is to build new economic models that will eventually translate into viable policies. Among the vanguard on this quest is the University of Massachusetts’ Gintis, who, as the lead author of Moral Sentiments and Material Interests, has literally written the book on altruism and economics. . . . Forty years of research has led him to a blunt conclusion: “Altruism isn’t irrational,” he says, “because if it were, the only rational people would be sociopaths.” Of course, there will always be unscrupulous individuals who are devoid of altruism, but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule.
Gintis proposes a theory called “strong reciprocity,” arguing that bonds of trust and cooperation within a community often serve as greater motivation than material reward. The theory is based on the premise that humans evolved in small groups with strong social contracts and plenty of contact with strangers. Cooperation within the tribe was advantageous so long as free riders were punished. It was also the best gambit on encountering strangers. Cooperation, particularly in times of famine, was the only means of survival, so altruism became a favored evolutionary trait.
Want to stop cheating?
Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University in North Carolina, explored how society can foster honesty in his book Predictably Irrational. He conducted experiments that showed cheating could virtually be eliminated by prompting students with the Ten Commandments or asking them to sign an honor code before taking tests. “When faced with the opportunity for material gain, people will bend the situation so it aligns with their moral values,” says Ariely. “Setting ethical benchmarks, so long as they are repeated at the right moments, keeps people from straying into dishonesty.”