Sam Bowles Lecture

This lecture has emerged from a growing concern that the presenter has had for the last few years and after more than two decades of running experiments in the lab and the field: why is it that if humans have the capacity of being prosocial in their behavior, kind to others, and are willing to make costly efforts to preserve the environment or reduce inequality to achieve fairness, we do not see promising trends in terms of the urgent planetary goals of preserving nature and its capacity to sustain society, or goals of reducing the undesirable high levels of inequality and fairness?
Sam Bowles is one of the most important contemporary figures in offering comprehensive explanations of why humans are prosocial, and cooperation can emerge in societies. His vast work draws from biology, archeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and of course economics, giving us a more detailed and structured understanding of the mechanisms that evolved in human societies to make them capable of addressing collective action problems and therefore tackle, among others, the current environmental challenges. But, throughout his entire career, Bowles has also studied inequality and has also offered us important insights into the harms from excessive unfairness and inequality in society. Also, Bowles became a key promoter of the use of economic experiments to understand all these behavioral mechanisms, and on a personal note, he supported the presenter with the strange idea at the time (late 90s) to jump the cliff and conduct experiments in the field instead of a laboratory with college students.
Given the behavioral revolution in economics, recent debates have emerged on how far nudges can go in addressing the greater challenges of society these days. Data from large samples of random controlled trials using nudges in several regions of the world have shown rather small or null net impacts, particularly for non-academic journals samples but from nudge units scaling up results from more controlled experiments. One of these controversies was brought up by Chater & Loewenstein (2022) in what they call the i-frame, where the focus is on individual change, and the s-frame where the focus is the systemic change, with the alert that the excessive attention on the former will distract us from addressing the latter at societal levels. In this lecture the presenter will propose a third option, the c-frame, sitting in between, and where most of collective action societal transformations have probably emerged. Communities, collectives, cooperatives, consortia, often create transformative changes from the bottom up, through social norms, self-governed mechanisms that scale up and sometimes in aggregate reach the s-frame levels structural transformations that have shaped history. And here it is where Sam Bowles has played a key role in offering clues on how understanding the i-frame level mechanisms, through the c-frame, can generate transformative revolutions in the structures that shape us all.