UMass Amherst Research Seeks New, Interdisciplinary Model for Economic Behavior

AMHERST, Mass. - Herbert Gintis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts, is reshaping traditional models of economic behavior, using research drawn from neuroscience, biology, psychology, anthropology, and political science. Gintis says his goal is to improve and expand current models which are based primarily on rational choice and reward. He is looking for analytic tools to explain why, for example, when people form into groups, they begin with a tendency to cooperate, impulsively strike back if other group members cheat, yet still maintain the ability to forgive. Eventually people return to cooperating if the situation changes, Gintis says.

Answering those kinds of questions could provide economists with insights into current public policy debates over issues such as welfare reform, crime and punishment, and social problems such as addiction or high-risk behavior, Gintis says. Such questions are all but ignored by traditional economic models, he says.

Working with a nationwide network of scholars representing various disciplines called the Preferences Network, and funded by a $2.55 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Gintis and Robert Boyd, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles, are focusing on understanding a few key elements for a new economic model. These are: an individual’s preferences for risky behavior, what leads to deferred gratification or impulsive behavior, reciprocal fairness, trust, and racist and discriminatory attitudes.

Gintis stresses that he has approached this project with an open mind. "We’re very iconoclastic. We don’t use the models that were used in the past - we discard a lot of stuff and add new things to our models," Gintis says.

In trying to explain why people naturally seem to want to cooperate, for instance, the researchers are looking at neuroscience for some answers. It may be that human brains are wired for this behavior; perhaps it evolved over a long period of time as a survival mechanism, Gintis says. Likewise, addiction may be less a matter of free choice than an individual’s nervous system’s ability or inability to control self-destructive acts regardless of what penalties or sanctions they face, he says. Put another way, behavior may be linked more to the architecture of the nervous system than to social forces.

The Preferences Network is part of a larger effort by the MacArthur Foundation to expand understanding of economic issues. The work being done by Gintis and Boyd with their grant, which was awarded last year, is managed through the UMass department of economics. Two other UMass faculty members, Samuel Bowles and Nancy Folbre, are working on other related MacArthur Foundation projects.