Monday, March 23, 2009

Adam Smith, Behavioral Economist

From the Journal of Economic Perspectives – Summer 2005

In The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Adam Smith famously argued that economic behavior was motivated by self-interest. But 17 years earlier in 1759, Smith had proposed a theory of human behavior that looks anything but self-interested. In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith argued that behavior was determined by the struggle between what Smith termed the “passions” and the “impartial spectator.” The passions included drives such as hunger and sex, emotions such as fear and anger, and motivational feeling states such as pain. Smith viewed behavior as under the direct control of the passions, but believed that people could override passion-driven behavior by viewing their own behavior from the perspective of an outsider—the impartial spectator—a “moral hector who, looking over the shoulder of the economic man, scrutinizes every move he makes” (Grampp, 1948, p. 317)

The “impartial spectator” plays many roles in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. When it comes to choices that involve short-term gratification but long-term costs, the impartial spectator serves as the source of “self-denial, of self-government, of that command of the passions which subjects all the movements of our nature to what our own dignity and honour, and the propriety of our own conduct, require” (Smith, 1759 [1981], I, i, v, 26), much like a farsighted “planner” entering into conflict with short-sighted “doers” (Shefrin and Thaler, 1981). In social situations, the impartial spectator plays the role of a conscience, dispassionately weighing the conflicting needs of different persons. Smith (I, i, v, 29) recognized, however, that the impartial spectator could be led astray or rendered impotent by sufficiently intense passions: “There are some situations which bear so hard upon human nature that the greatest degree of self-government . . . is not able to stifle, altogether, the voice of human weakness, or reduce the violence of the passions to that pitch of moderation, in which the impartial spectator can entirely enter into them.”

Adam Smith’s psychological perspective in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is remarkably similar to “dual-process” frameworks advanced by psychologists (for example, Kirkpatrick and Epstein, 1992; Sloman, 1996; Metcalfe and Mischel, 1999), neuroscientists (Damasio, 1994; LeDoux, 1996; Panksepp, 1998) and more recently by behavioral economists, based on behavioral data and detailed observations of brain functioning (Bernheim and Rangel, 2004; Benhabib and Bisin, 2004; Fudenberg and Levine, 2004; Loewenstein and O’Donoghue, 2004). It also anticipates a wide range of insights regarding phenomena such as loss aversion, willpower and fairness (V. Smith, 1998) that have been the focus of modern behavioral economics (see Camerer and Loewenstein, 2004, for a recent review). The purpose of this essay is to draw attention to some of these connections. Indeed, as we propose at the end of the paper, The Theory of Moral Sentiments suggests promising directions for economic research that have not yet been exploited.


Related books:

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

The Wealth of Nations

The Authentic Adam Smith: His Life and Ideas