Is Homo Economicus A Sociopath?
By Bryan Caplan
The other day I was reading Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door. Although it’s engaging, it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. But it did remind me of a question I’ve wondered about before: Is homo economicus a sociopath? Is microeconomic theory founded on the premise that the percentage of sociopaths in the population is not 4%, as Stout claims, but 100%?
Modern psychiatrists prefer to call sociopaths “people suffering from anti-social personality disorder,” though as a Szaszian aside, I’d say that if anyone “suffers” from it, it’s the people who don’t have it! In any case, here are its main official symptoms:
There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
Number seven – lack of remorse – fits homo economicus perfectly. He might not find it profitable to hurt, mistreat, or steal, but if he did it, he wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Several of the others sound like things that homo economicus would do conditions were right. Homo economicus would perform acts that were grounds for arrest, deceive, and disregard the safety of others if it were profitable.
On the other hand, however, several of the symptoms sound like the opposite of homo economicus. “Failure to plan ahead”? Homo economicus is a consummate planner – an idea formalized by game theorists as backwards induction. Irritability? Homo economicus will hurt others for personal gain, but this sounds more like getting into a pointless fight on the spur of the moment. Disregard for own safety? No way. Homo economicus always looks out for number one. Consistent irresponsibility? Negative. Homo economicus might be irresponsible if he were not paid for being responsible, but he shows up for work and pays his bills if the alternative is being fired and unable to get a home loan.
If you take the criteria literally, however, you only need three symptoms, and it doesn’t matter if the others are 180 degrees off. The upshot is that in a society where prices do not discourage predatory behavior, homo economicus qualifies as a sociopath. But if prices do discourage predatory behavior, homo economicus is a model citizen minus remorse.