Integrating the Human Sciences to Evolve Effective Policies

J Econ Behav Organ. 2013 Jun 1;90(Suppl):S152-S162. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.018.


This paper describes an evolutionary perspective on human development and wellbeing and contrasts it with the model of self-interest that is prominent in economics. The two approaches have considerably different implications for how human wellbeing might be improved. Research in psychology, prevention science, and neuroscience is converging on an evolutionary account of the importance of two contrasting suites of social behavior-prosociality vs. antisocial behaviors (crime, drug abuse, risky sexual behavior) and related problems such as depression. Prosociality of individuals and groups evolves in environments that minimize toxic biological and social conditions, promote and richly reinforce prosocial behavior and attitudes, limit opportunities for antisocial behavior, and nurture the pursuit of prosocial values. Conversely, antisocial behavior and related problems emerge in environments that are high in threat and conflict. Over the past 30 years, randomized trials have shown numerous family, school, and community interventions to prevent most problem behaviors and promote prosociality. Research has also shown that poverty and economic inequality are major risk factors for the development of problem behaviors. The paper describes policies that can reduce poverty and benefit youth development. Although it is clear that the canonical economic model of rational self-interest has made a significant contribution to the science of economics, the evidence reviewed here shows that it must be reconciled with an evolutionary perspective on human development and wellbeing if society is going to evolve public policies that advance the health and wellbeing of the entire population.

Keywords: Antisocial behavior; Evolution; Policy; Poverty; Prevention; Prosociality.