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Michael F. Martin

Hmmm... I didn't understand the book to be an attack on economists or economics -- seems pretty clear that most economists recognize that preference functions can include other people. I understood this to be a recognition (albeit implicit) that people are maximizing utility along multiple dimensions, within changing time horizons, and with preferences that evolve both independently and in conjunction with others' preferences.

Whether most people or most students misunderstand rational choice to preclude altruism (much less what consequences there are to that), I wouldn't know. But the fact that there are limits to the explanatory value of rational choice is well known, and of considering how preference functions evolve and are optimized subject to other constraints.

Michael F. Martin

A version of Keltner's observations dates back to Aristotle:

If we declare that the function of man is a certain form of life, and define that form of life as the exercise of the soul's faculties and activities in association with rational principle, and say that the function of a good man is to perform these activities well and rightly, and if a function is well performed when it is performed in accordance with its own proper excellence--from these premises it follows, that the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them (Book I, Ch. 7, Nicomachean Ethics)

Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory is a nice update. Haidt has the empirical goods to back it up.

Incidentally, the Dweck "growth mindset" has been found correlated with more intense flow experience.

Bob Sutton


Here is Nobel winner Milton Friedman directly saying that all societies run on greed, and using greed and self-interest interchangeably --in fact DEFINING greed as individual self-interest. This is an argument that greed is inevitable and that the kind greed that goes with capitalism is the best kind. I actually think he is partly right, but by assuming that this is how all humans are wired and acting as such, that is exactly the behavior you will produce, even though when other assumptions are held, different behavior results.

Bob Sutton


You seem so angry. I simply have different point of view. I think that incentives have a powerful effect on human behavior, and while I understand that that economists have very sophisticated understanding of self-interest that goes beyond greedy, I win-you-lose financial incentives, my reading of cases and academic journal articles suggests that most of the examples used in classes that have an economic bent take that perspective. Even when they use different incentives, I have read amazing stuff by Nobel Prize Winners indicating, for example, that the main incentive that men have for getting married is to have their own children, since they can buy housecleaning and sexual services (readers, you may think I am joking... I am not).

Whatever is in the literature or textbooks, there is solid evidence that being exposed to economics education make people less likely to donate to charity, more likely to cheat, and more likely to defect in prisoner's dilemma games. No matter what it says in textbooks, the evidence is pretty consistent. The assumption of self-interest -- and I mean narrow, I win-you lose financial self-interest -- is a basis of many, many economic studies, and one of the most famous economists assumes explicitly that human beings have self-interest with guile -- you seem to think I misunderstand that, but the meaning of guile is pretty clear to me. There is also research that simply priming the economic mindset -- talking about money, showing people words like "wall street," showing them pictures of money, leads to a host of selfish behaviors: again, defecting in prisoner dilemma games, working along, sitting further away from others, not giving help, not asking for help.

So the question for me is not what exactly is in an economics textbook, the question is what are the effects of adopting economic assumptions that -- although many nuances and drawbacks are acknowledged and developed by economists -- are learned and accepted somehow through the process of economic education and the use of economic language.

I realize that simple saying "economics" is over simplified, and perhaps a better way to put it is that people and firms that accept and implement practices based on the worst of received economic assumptions build pretty horrible organizations. And it doesn't need to be that way. So for example, I think that McKinsey and Goldman are good examples of firms that have succeeded with systems that promote cooperation rather destructive competition. And I have learned from criticism from you and others in this regard, and appreciate your pressing me to learn. But I fear it is unidirectional. For me, the question isn't what is in the textbooks, the question is what assumptions behaviors is the discipline promoting -- and greedy self-interest is, at times, a reasonable answer.

In any event, I think it best to end any other communication between us because you seem so personally angry at me, especially in what I have seen elsewhere, and we are talking past each other, two situations that I have learned to avoid in life. I respect and have learned a great deal from colleagues who disagree with me, but I have also learned that when the debate becomes no fun, I stop because life is too short.

Fabrizio, Jeff, and I have yet another little argument coming out in Organization Science , and you can attack that when is appears in a few months. I am going to go back to topics that are more fun.

Peter G. Klein

"[A]lthough many (although far from all) economists will bristle at the notion that greediness isn't the natural human condition. . . ."

Bob, why, why, why do you keep writing stuff like this? No school of thought in economics teaches that "greediness" the "natural human condition." This is a gross caricature based on a total misunderstanding. Can you cite any journal article or textbook that makes this claim?

Economics is a science of means and ends. It explores how people employ scarce means to satisfy competing ends. The idea of "maximizing utility" has absolutely nothing to do with selfishness, "greed," or any other behavioral assumption. Economics is _not_ a branch of applied psychology! "Self-interest" means simply that decision-makers have a ranking of possible ends, and employ their scarce means to achieve the highest-ranked of these ends. These ends can be material (making money) or immaterial (job satisfaction, spending time with family, saving the world). There is nothing the slightest bit "irrational," from an economist's perspective, in, say, an employee deliberately taking a lower-paying or more-demanding job to free up time to spend with the kids or to engage in charitable work or to write the great American novel. Economics studies the trade-offs people face in allocating these means (e.g., perhaps I can increase my earnings only at the expense of time with family, so I must decide which of these is more valuable -- i.e., I decide how to allocate my scarce time and energy to "maximize my utility"). It explores the marginal effects of changes in constraints on behavior (e.g., a change in my salary may affect the amount of income I must give up for each hour I spend at home, and this may affect my choice). It has nothing, nothing, nothing -- did I say nothing? -- to do with "selfishness" or "greed." Once you start using words like "greedy" you're lead to ridiculous statements like "Mother Teresa greedily sought to achieve her highest-valued end of helping India's poorest citizens."

Please, I beg you, read an elementary economics text! It will make your writings much more sensible.

Ron Gentile

I read "Born to be Good" as research for my book on relationships. I found the start of the book interesting, but eventually found that it didn't really prove its premise (and got a bit lost and confusing). Coincidentally the book club I'm a member of also read the book. (Two CEO's, one psychiatrist and myself.) The group was generally disappointed. Am interested in your thoughts once you finish.


Traditional Christian and Jewish thought has tended to say that people are:

1) Created in the image and likeness of God and thus capable of extraordinary beauty, nobility and goodness...


2) ...fallen into sin and thus constantly tempted to venality and self-centered behavior and occasionally capable of acts of stone cold evil

Now, one can regard that as the revealed truth of God, or as the residue of the myths of ancient near eastern sheep herders. But either way, as a diagnosis of the human condition it remains the gold standard. Wake me up when social science has added anything - and I do mean anything - to the traditional understanding of human psychology as it relates to good and evil.


Sadly most of those having the debate don't read the original greats of the field. To wit Alfred Marshall's Principles compares economics to biology and calling for similar natural and evolutionary methods and tools. For those of you who know Marshall as the founding father of the heart of modern microeconomics, comparative statics using graphs this is very ironic. While the profession went to simple assumptions that could be mathematized the idea was not to loose sight of reality. For more on that Michael Shermer has a fantastic summary of morals, markets and socio-biology that's well worth your time; and entirely consistent with Marshall :) !

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