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Human Cultures through the Scientific Lens

Pascal Boyer

5. How people think about the economy

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Introductory Note

1People have views about the economy, about such things as unemployment, trade, taxation, etc. Where do these opinions come from? Explaining that would certainly count as an example of ‘useful’ anthropology or political science, considering that most political programs are based on some particular vision of the way a modern economy works, and how it could be made better.

2Michael Petersen and I were interested in explaining how people acquire these representations of the economy and, as a result, favor this or that political program.

3Our aim was to explain economic ideologies, something that economists are not terribly interested in. Economists generally stop at pointing out that these ideologies are often based on erroneous assumptions, e.g., that labor is what creates value, that trade benefits one party at the expense of the other, that regulations have the intended effects, etc. But why would people reason on the basis of these misleading notions? We are often told that this happens because people are uneducated, or cognitively limited, or they just accept what is ‘in their culture’, or what fits their interests, or what politicians tell them. But none of these explanations are satisfactory, as we explain in the article.

4We considered the hypothesis that economic ideologies are compelling and persistent in modern societies, because of their ‘fit’ with our evolved dispositions. How is our genetic evolution relevant to our views on international trade and income taxes? Obviously, such issues were unknown in our environment of evolution, when we were (mostly) living in small bands of nomadic foragers. But that, in a way, is just the point. Our evolutionary heritage includes not just cognitive systems for understanding the natural world, but also capacities for managing life in groups—in particular, for cooperation and collective action, in which we pool efforts to obtain mutually beneficial outcomes. Over the last thirty years, evolutionary biologists, psychologists and economists have proposed and tested ever more refined models of the way cooperation occurs between humans, and of the psychological capacities and motivations that underpin the exceptional level of cooperation among humans—see summaries in André & Baumard (2011), Boyd & Richerson (2006), Cosmides & Tooby (2015).

5This evolved cooperation psychology is part of our adaptations. It governs our reactions to information we receive, concerning the allocation of resources between partners, when we interact with others, share or trade with them. And—this was our starting point in this article—it may also explain our reactions to messages (from news organizations, political agents) concerning such mass-level phenomena as inflation, trade or unemployment.

6This should illustrate how evolutionary models and findings are very much relevant to modern, mass-scale societies. A persistent misunderstanding, on the part of those unfamiliar with the field is that such models only apply to technologically simple societies, and that modern patterns of production, consumption, and communication create conditions so special that evolved preferences and capacities become less relevant. But that is just not the case. For instance, Michael Petersen pioneered an evolutionary perspective that promised to account for important features of mass-politics in modern societies (Petersen, 2012a; 2015). Consumption, too, is best understood in terms of evolved motivations (Saad, 2012), and even recent developments of electronic communication, including webpages, social media, etc., illustrate typically human capacities and motivations (Acerbi, 2019).

7So, our evolved psychology influences the way we think of the immensely complex set of interactions that constitute an economy—and our representations of the economy in turn make particular political programs attractive. Our article only considered the first causal link, from evolved psychology to economic ideologies.

8Speculating further, one might wonder which political programs would best fit our evolved psychology. If we followed our Stone Age intuitions and preferences, what would we choose as our economic policy? Others have wondered about that, and addressed the question with a great deal of sophistication, in particular Paul Rubin and Peter Singer. Rubin emphasizes that trade, being a cooperative interaction that benefits both parties, is an outgrowth of our cooperation psychology— and also notices that much cooperation in humans is based on partner-choice, on the possibility of selecting good partners and rejecting others. These dispositions would favor the free exchange of goods or services, away from the diktats of a chief, a king or a state (2002). Singer places much more emphasis on our capacities for sharing and mutual help and on the evolutionary basis for fairness and moral intuitions. These would favor generous welfare policies, when modern conditions create disadvantages or inequalities (2000). Both are right, in the sense that our cooperation psychology does respond to these two distinct sets of motivations, for mutually beneficial voluntary trade and for social support as a palliative to misfortune (Boyer, 2018, pp. 163–202). Indeed, Michael Petersen’s experimental studies show that, regardless of their political affiliation, people can approve or disapprove of particular policy proposals, depending on which of these cognitive systems the material activates (Petersen, 2012b).



Acerbi, A. (2019). Cultural Evolution in the Digital Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

André, J.-B., & Baumard, N. (2011). The evolution of fairness in a biological market. Evolution, 650, 1447–1456.

Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2006). Solving the Puzzle of Human Cooperation. In S. C. Levinson & P. Jaisson (Eds.), Evolution and Culture (pp. 105–132). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Boyer, P. (2018). Minds Make Societies. How Cognition Explains the World Humans Create. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2015). Adaptations for reasoning about social exchange. In D. Buss (Ed.), The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Second edition. (II, pp. 625–668). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Petersen, M.B. (2012a). The evolutionary psychology of mass politics. In S.C. Roberts (Ed.), Applied Evolutionary Psychology. (pp. 115–130). New York: Oxford University Press.

— —. (2012b). Social Welfare as Small-Scale Help: Evolutionary Psychology and the Deservingness Heuristic. American Journal of Political Science, 56, 1–16.

— —. (2015). Evolutionary political psychology: On the origin and structure of heuristics and biases in politics. Political Psychology, 36, 45–78.

Rubin, P. H. (2002). Darwinian politics: the evolutionary origin of freedom. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Saad, G. (2012). The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption. Oxford: Taylor & Francis.

Singer, P. (2000). A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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