What We Lose When We Assume People Are Bad In the months since the spread of the coronavirus, stories of selfishness and exploitation have become all too familiar: people ignoring social distancing guidelines, or even selling medical equipment at inflated prices. Most of our public and economic policies take aim at these sorts of people — the wrongdoers and the profiteers. But is there a hidden cost to the rest of us when we put bad actors at the center of our thinking? Do the measures we put in place to curtail the selfish inadvertently hurt our capacity to do right by others?

Our Better Angels

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From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When crisis hits, people go into survival mode. Some go further, putting self-interest and self-preservation over the well-being of others. We're seeing this with the COVID-19 pandemic.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At the end of the day, I'm not going to let it stop me from partying. You know, I've been waiting - we've been waiting for Miami spring break for a while.

VEDANTAM: Some people have refused to wear masks in stores.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's become an all-too-familiar scene across the country - people getting physical over wearing masks inside stores. It is required but unfortunately...

VEDANTAM: And there are even those who have bought up medical equipment to sell at a profit.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The agents were investigating 43-year-old Baruch Feldheim for allegedly hoarding medical supplies, including masks and gowns and selling them to doctors and nurses at a markup.


VEDANTAM: At the same time, though, we also see another kind of response - people looking for ways to help each other. Erika Strauss-Chavarria is a high school Spanish teacher in Columbia, Md.

ERIKA STRAUSS-CHAVARRIA: My students call me Chav.

VEDANTAM: In March, she launched a grassroots network called Columbia Community Care to provide food and other essential products to people in need.

STRAUSS-CHAVARRIA: We typically serve around 100 people per site per day. We also have our home grocery delivery service. And we have served at this point over 1,500 families in that capacity.

VEDANTAM: There are many others like Erika. Someone in Texas tipped more than $9,000 on a dinner bill in order to help restaurant staff.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: One message was written on the receipt only. It says, hold to pay your guys over the next few weeks. The tipster is a regular...

VEDANTAM: And a retired farmer in Kansas sent an N95 mask to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.


ANDREW CUOMO: He sent one mask - one mask - to New York to help a nurse or a doctor. How beautiful is that? I mean, how selfless is that?

VEDANTAM: Think about this man who donated a mask and the one who hoarded masks. If you were a legislator, you might want to pass a law that takes aim at the profiteer. That makes sense. Most public and economic policy focuses on lawbreakers and wrongdoers. But what would happen if we were to care less about the man who hoards masks and put the man who donated his mask at the center of our thinking. This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, do the measures we put in place to curtail the selfish have perverse consequences on the rest of us?


VEDANTAM: Both in times of crisis and in normal times, public policy is focused on keeping bad people from doing bad things. Behavioral economist Sam Bowles thinks this is a mistake. He worries that such policies not only underestimate the capacity of most people to do the right thing but can inadvertently hurt our ability to do right by others. He explores this idea in his book, "The Moral Economy." Sam Bowles, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

SAM BOWLES: Thanks very much, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: A central assumption in economics, Sam, is that humans are motivated by rational self-interest. The price of something goes up; I buy less of it. The price of something goes down; I buy more of it. Like many behavioral economists, you say this assumption turns our species of Homo sapiens into a new one - Homo economicus. What are the traits of this other species?

BOWLES: Well, this being, Homo economicus or economic man, cares only about himself or herself and therefore evaluates actions that may be taken simply in terms of what's in it for me. That's the basic idea of homo economicus. So that's the self-interest part. Now, there's another part, which is that we're - not only are we self-interested, we're pretty good at doing it. So we're very able to think about the consequences of our actions. And that's the part that usually is associated with the word rational.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering how this idea has percolated beyond the boundaries of just economics because I feel like when I watch television or read books, this idea that people are out for themselves, you see this everywhere. I'm thinking about the the TV show "Succession," for example.


BRIAN COX: (As Logan Roy) I'm concerned you might be soft.

KIERAN CULKIN: (As Roman Roy) The only way he'll respect you is if you try to destroy him.

ALAN RUCK: (As Connor Roy) I'm not saying I would make a better CEO. That's unsaid.

JEREMY STRONG: (As Kendall Roy) It's not unsaid when you say it.

VEDANTAM: You know, all the members of this family are fighting tooth and nail to take over their father's media company. No one trusts each other. Everyone is out for only one thing, which is personal gain. So this idea that rational behavior is selfish behavior is more than just economics right now. It's in pop culture. It's in books. It's in movies - not just in textbooks.

BOWLES: I think that's exactly right. There is the economics of the classroom, the seminar room and the think tank. And that's presented in a certain way, usually fairly mathematically and so on. But then there's what I call the economics vernacular. That's the way ordinary people express economic truths. And what you'll hear a lot is you get what you pay for. Or you'll hear former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saying there's no such thing as society. All we are is an individual. And these then become common sayings.

VEDANTAM: So I want to talk about one last domain before we switch to some of the problems with the model that you and others have identified. It's not just in pop culture and it's not just in business and in commerce. If you think that human beings are fundamentally motivated by self-interest, by narrow self-interest, by selfishness, then if you're a government, your job as the government is to try and restrict how people behave, that you want to sort of put brakes on people's selfishness. In other words, you want to think of government as the bad cop, a force that cracks down on all the knaves and villains out there because that's all, the people who are out there. They're all knaves and villains.

BOWLES: Well, that's exactly what some governments have done. And I think one of the really remarkable things is that in policymaking circles, you are regarded as highly intelligent and realistic if you say, listen, everybody is selfish. We have to treat the citizen, the taxpayer, the employee and so on as if he or she was entirely selfish because, otherwise, maybe we're a chump or maybe we'll be taken advantage of and so on. So people who don't really believe it think that you should go on with this assumption of Homo economicus because it's prudent. There might be some people who are really like that. And if so, we'd better watch out. And therefore we're going to design policies and so on as if everyone was that way. David Hume, a philosopher economist of the 18th century, just before Adam Smith, he said that in designing a government, you should assume that everyone is a knave - he used that ancient word, a knave - and has nothing in his mind but pursuing his own interest.

VEDANTAM: So given the predominance of the standard economic model, Homo economicus, not just in economics but in politics and popular culture and other domains, it's interesting that the models have trouble explaining why people do lots of things. And the classic example that's often given is that you're on a trip to a foreign country. You go to a restaurant. You sit down at the restaurant. You have a nice meal. And at the end of the meal, you have to decide whether to tip the waiter. And you're never going to see the waiter again because you're probably not going to go back to that restaurant ever again in your life. The rational, self-interested thing to do is to save some of your money. But many of us don't. We decide to tip that waiter anyway. And maybe some of it is habit or maybe it's guilt. Maybe it just makes you feel good. Whatever the reason, there's all this messy human stuff that seems to live outside the model of Homo economicus.

BOWLES: Yes, it does. It's outside the model. And because of that, when you try to actually predict behavior, you get it wrong. The model has been systematically wrong, for example, in why do you tip people who you're never going to see again? And it happens over and over again. People pay taxes far more than they should if all they cared about was enforcement. That is, people have calculated whether or not the expected gain to trying to cheat is actually worth it. And it is. But people cheat remarkably little on their taxes. Or think about this - people often say - political scientists do and we often think that - well, when you go to the ballot box, you vote your pocketbook or your wallet. They'd ever bother to ask, well, if that's the case, why did you go to the ballot box in the first place? Why bother to go? It took you a little bit of time to get down to the polling place. And you're sure that your vote won't settle the election. So if you vote selfishly, why vote at all?

Now, these are pretty basic contradictions in a theory, and it's surprising it's survived as long as it did because it does such a bad job in explaining what people do. And it also contradicts very much our own introspection, not only about ourselves, but we see others doing acts of great generosity, often self-sacrifice. And it's surprising to me that economists didn't wonder sooner than now. I wonder if this model's really OK because it's not doing so well in predicting a lot of behaviors which are not controversial. Everybody knows they exist.


VEDANTAM: These acts of generosity and self-sacrifice can be seen in many workplaces. Think of two teachers. Both teach fourth grade and both cover the syllabus. As far as the principal and the parents are concerned, both teachers have fulfilled their contracts. But one of the teachers is really inspiring. She leaves kids with the feeling they want to do more. That kind of enthusiasm and love cannot be written into a contract. Well, think about what's happening with COVID-19. Millions of people are working from home, often in jobs where the quality of their work may be difficult to assess in the short term. What prompts them to go above and beyond?

BOWLES: There's so many jobs today. It's not that they're done remotely. It's that you can't really tell if the person is doing a good job or not until much later. A lot of those jobs are, for example, in scientific research and teaching and so on, jobs with which I'm familiar personally. But a lot of them are also not well-paid jobs. I mean, think about being a waiter or a waitress in a restaurant. How does the manager know if the person is doing a good job? They're not at the table. They don't know the nuance of how the person spoke to the other one. Or think about caring for the elderly or caring for kids. Those are very difficult jobs. And they're very difficult to do well, but most of all, they're virtually impossible for a supervisor to know is the job being well done. In those jobs, we're going to have to rely on people wanting to do a good job.

VEDANTAM: We're going to talk a lot about how values and norms and beliefs shape our economic, professional and civic lives. But I do want to lay down a caveat. It's one thing to say that feelings and values and preferences matter. It's another thing to imagine that feelings and values can explain everything. So I am regularly motivated by self-interest. There are two gas stations across the street from one another in my neighborhood, and one is consistently more expensive than the other. Why, I don't know. When I first moved to the neighborhood, Sam, I stopped by the more expensive station. But once I noticed the price difference, I never went back. So you can take the model of Homo economicus too far, but presumably you can also take its mirror image too far as well, right?

BOWLES: Absolutely. And the task that has to be done is to find ways of organizing our economy and our public policy not so that we rely solely on self-interest and surely not so that we rely solely on our regard for others but that we can rely on both. And we should design policies so that those two aspects of our human being are working together in a synergistic or complementary way. That is what Adam Smith was talking about. His two great books were "The Wealth Of Nations," as is well-known, but also "The Theory Of Moral Sentiments." But what economists took over from Smith was the affluence through competition part. And they set aside the idea that there is a culture which is required in order for that system to work. He thought that we should combine the material interests with the moral sentiments. And he thought that there was a way of doing that. So I think, yes, the idea that you can replace the self-interested system of competition on markets for profits and so on with an entirely different system based on essentially regard for others. I mean, it's obviously false. I mean, the whole world cannot be organized as if we're just on a little camping trip.


VEDANTAM: When we come back - the consequences of imagining a world that is filled only with freeloaders, delinquents and selfishness. You're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. This is NPR.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Sam Bowles is a behavioral economist at the Santa Fe Institute. He argues that economic models often reduce people to one dimension - their narrow self-interest. These models fail to acknowledge the many motivators that drive human behavior. Such thinking has become a staple not just in boardrooms and in commerce but in government. If you think the world is filled with selfish knaves, you think you need a world of rules to constrain those knaves. Sam, about two decades ago, the Boston Fire Department was having a problem. Administrators were worried that workers were abusing the sick leave policy. And at that time, workers could take an unlimited amount of sick time. So administrators changed the policy. What did they do?

BOWLES: Well, they noticed that the call-ins for sick days happened to come on Fridays and Mondays, and it didn't seem kind of reasonable to them, so they told the firemen that they'd have a limited number of sick days, and if they called in more often than that, their pay would be docked. And the firemen felt that they were being distrusted. Most of them surely were not actually calling in sick when they were not. They were quite angry at the fire commissioner. And this happened just before Christmas. And what happened on Christmas Day was masses of them called in. The same thing happened on New Year's Day. In the meantime, the ones who were calling in sick in large numbers on Christmas and New Year's had their bonuses canceled. And the conflict went on for over a year. The amount of sick call-ins doubled in the year following this until the commissioner finally realized that he'd made a big mistake, and he canceled the policy.

VEDANTAM: I understand there were almost 7,000 more sick days taken than were taken in the previous year following the implementation of these harsh policies.

BOWLES: Yes, that's right, up from around six over 13. And the interviews with the firemen were really poignant. I mean, they said, look, you know, we come to work when we're sick. We risk injury and so on. And this person is saying that essentially we are selfishly calling in when we're not sick. Well, surely, some of them were. It's looks like some of them were. But the problem was that applying that policy across the board backfired. Now, why did it backfire? Well, presumably, for the ones who really were being self-interested and calling in sick when they weren't, a policy like that would be necessary. But what about the other 95%? Well, it just had a terrible effect on their morale and their sense of obligation to the fire commissioner and to the fire department. So that's a problem that we now face in society, which is in thinking about trying to motivate people to do things, incentives are often suggested as a way of doing this. That is, if you do this, whatever it is, you get paid more. And we hear about incentives for kids reading books and for losing weight, even incentives for voting. Recently in Germany, somebody has proposed we should have incentives - monetary incentives - having to do with social distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic and so on. So there's almost nothing that hasn't been an example of, well, we can actually design some incentives to fix this. Now, that's a view that has dominated policymaking and also jurisprudence and the whole area of law and economics and public policy is committed to the idea that we can design an incentive to induce the right behavior.


VEDANTAM: I'm also struck by the fact that the policies implemented by the fire department in Boston changed the frame around which people were thinking about what it meant to take a sick day. So when the sick time was unlimited, your thinking was, OK, I will take sick time if I was sick or if I was injured. And I would take as much time as I. Needed when I'm told you can now have only 15 days and if you go beyond that, we're going to punish you, now I start to think, OK, I better use those 15 days if I'm not really sick but the year's nearly up. I'm going to lose that time. I better call in sick. Unintended, of course, but the frame changes the way I'm starting to think about what it means to be sick and what it means to take sick time.

BOWLES: That's exactly what happened or at least that's the best explanation I could have of it. But here's another in which I think the way you put it as a framing problem is exactly right. In Haifa, Israel, there were a bunch of day care centers, about a dozen of them, and the kids came in the morning and the parents picked them up in the evening. And as is the case, some parents came late. And they decided that they were going to impose a fine on the parents coming late. Well, happily for economic science, a couple of behavioral economists knew about it, and so they said, now, wait, wait, wait. Let's just do it on half of the day care centers and not do it on the other half so we have a nice experiment. So, sure enough, one day, the parents came, dropped off their kids and there was a notice. It said, starting tomorrow, anyone who's picking up their kid more than 10 minutes late will be fined 10 Israeli shekels. And then they recorded. They had been recording what was happening in the week before, and then they recorded how many people came late in the day care centers which had the fine and those where there was no fine. It was amazing what happened. In the places where there was no fine, nothing happened. It continued. There was actually a small number. In the ones in which the fine was imposed on the parents coming late, the amount of lateness doubled - doubled.

Now what - how can you possibly explain that? The fine was supposed to get them to come on time to pick up their kids. Now, if you think about it, there are lots of possible interpretations of what happened. But what you just said, Shanker, about framing seems to be the most likely explanation, which is the parents framed coming late or coming early to pick up their kids as essentially a moral question. I mean, perhaps not high morals, but you ought to pick up your kid on time because your kid might be anxious, because the teachers maybe want to go home and be with their kids or there's something like that. OK. Sometimes there is extra traffic, and you're late. But it was a moral question. As soon as you put a price on it, then it's just like a commodity. It's a shirt or a beer. Step right up. You want to get some lateness, here's where you can get it. It'll only cost 10 Israeli shekels. So I think they turned this thing from an ethical problem into more or less a self-interest problem. And, apparently, 10 Israeli shekels wasn't a big enough fine to really cause them to do anything differently.


VEDANTAM: Researchers have found that different parts of the brain might be involved in weighing those problems. Ethical judgments are not processed the same way as cost-benefit equations.


BOWLES: Our brain has obviously regions that do certain things. Processing benefits and costs is something which we're pretty good at. And that's done in one part of the brain. And there are other things having to do with feelings, obligations and so on. But the fact that just putting some money on the table will relocate the activity of the brain to the prefrontal cortex, which is where you process benefits and costs and so on, is really a striking finding. So it suggests that, you know, that's what we're like. And we're probably not going to change, so we'd better accommodate that.


VEDANTAM: One of the sad things you note about the Haifa day care story is what happened when the day care reversed the policy around the fine. So obviously it backfired, and then administrators reversed the policy and said, OK, we're taking away the fines. What happened afterwards, Sam?

BOWLES: That's an amazing thing. When they took away the fine, the lateness persisted in the schools in the day care centers which had had the fine. The control schools, the control centers, didn't - had no effect. But now just to get this - I have to say it again because it's so unusual. When they imposed the fine on being late, the parents came later. And when they took away the fine, they continued coming later. Well, why is that? Well, I think the story about framing is exactly what happened. It used to be an ethical question. You should come on time. They tried to; sometimes they didn't. Once it became just a matter of step right up and purchase a little lateness if you want, that didn't change. After they took the fine away, it still seemed to them that they had already been told, oh, this is something I can buy and only now I can buy it for free because for some reason, they took away the price.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) I'm wondering whether you might have friends in the economics department who might say the problem with Haifa was not that they introduced fines but the fines were not big enough, that in some ways the incentive was not strong enough. If you'd actually made it - instead of 10 shekels, if you'd made it 200, you know, everyone would have come on time because at that point no one thinks 15 minutes is worth 200 shekels.

BOWLES: I think that's right. I think that objection is perfectly sound, that there is some level of monetary incentive which will lead people to conform to the rules. It just means that because you start out by crowding out the ethical motivation, which was the reason why they were coming on time most of them in the first place, so you start basically in the hole by having destroyed what Adam Smith calls moral sentiments. Now, the fact that you can make up for it by a large fine or, you know, severe penalties, of course, you can do that. It's not clear that we want to live in a society which has fines of enormous amounts and so on or other kinds of penalties, particularly when we can find ways of mobilizing people's desire to be a good citizen, to be good to their neighbors, to be considerate of their teachers and so on.

VEDANTAM: Sam, you've actually mentioned a phrase a couple of times in the last questions. And it has to do with this idea of crowding out and crowding in. And I want to spend a moment talking about this idea. It's one of the more important ideas you explore. People do things for lots of reasons. Sometimes they're driven by money, sometimes by pride, sometimes by habit. But when you make them focus on one or the other of these drivers, it can crowd out the other drivers. You tell a wonderful story about your own kids. You wanted to incentivize them to do some household chores, and you turn to mainstream economics for advice. Tell me the story of what happened and what you mean by this phrase crowding in, crowding out.

BOWLES: Well, the story is about me, and it's even worse than you say. My kids were very helpful around the house, and they did a lot. I was a single dad, and they were great. And as they became teenagers, they began to want to buy clothes and a lot of things like that. And I thought, well, you know, a good way to accommodate this is that instead of them just doing stuff around the house, cleaning dishes and helping me in lots of ways, I would issue a price list. And then they could get paid for the stuff that they used to do for free. Of course, I thought it was a brilliant idea, and we agreed on the price list - seemed reasonable. I posted it on the fridge. And what happened? Nothing. They stopped work entirely. They didn't do a thing. And they were not selfish because, as I say, they'd been helping me a lot doing a lot of work. But once it was for pay, it didn't seem to be the same thing. Now, it's true that, you know, when a particular item they wanted to buy, well, then they might do the lawn. But they ended up doing much less than before. And I had to bring the thing to a halt and say, let's go back to just us doing stuff together. Now, I wonder if your listeners are thinking, oh, my God, those poor kids having an economist for a dad.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BOWLES: And I think there probably are - there's a lot wrong with having an economist for a dad. And I talked to the kids about it. They didn't really have a good explanation of what happened. But looking back on it now, I think what happened was this - they actually enjoyed doing stuff together around the house, and they kind of thought they should help me out. They didn't want to see me doing all this stuff by myself. And so it was something that they both enjoyed intrinsically and felt some obligation to do. But when I offered to pay them for it, it made them think differently about it, and it made it a matter of choice. So I think I made the mistake that Adam Smith never made, which is to treat the moral sentiments - that is, the ideas of value contributing to others and so on - to treat them as if they're somehow separate from or just additive to the incentives that come from material interests and money.


VEDANTAM: Sam's incentives demotivated his daughters, but it didn't have to be this way. You can design incentives to work with the intrinsic pride and satisfaction that people take in doing the right thing. Designed effectively, Sam says incentives can amplify or crowd in such motives. In Ireland in 2002, for example, the government wanted to reduce the number of plastic bags that people were using. They came up with an incentive but first made an appeal to national pride.

BOWLES: It was preceded by a big campaign about how these bags were so ugly, and Ireland is beautiful. And there was an advertising campaign, don't trash the Emerald Isle and things like that. And then this thing was introduced - was a very small additional cost. And within two weeks, the use of plastic bags for shopping was almost completely eliminated. Now, think about it. That case was very much like the parents who, when fined, came later instead of shaping up and coming earlier. In Ireland, when you had to pay for using a plastic grocery bag, they stopped using them. And so we have something to learn from that case. Why is that different from the day care case? Because the results were the opposite. Let's just think about it. If you pick up your kid at the day care late, you're one of the very few people who's late. And the only other people who see their being late are other parents picking up their kids late...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

BOWLES: ...Other than the teacher and your kids. So, OK, no problem there. They didn't explain why they were doing the fine. They didn't provide any explanation for why they actually should try to discourage lateness. In Ireland, it was quite the opposite. You're waiting in line and the person says, do you want some plastic bags? And you have to say yes or no. And there's three or four or five or six other people there are standing there, and they're looking on and presumably, from what happened, with disapproval. So it's a very public thing, and you have to choose to do it. Arriving late at the day care, you didn't even know that it was your choice because, I mean, maybe it really was traffic rather than deciding to have an extra cup of coffee with a friend. But the other thing which I'm sure was important was in Ireland they said, look, this is a serious problem for us. We're trashing our country. And let's stop doing - let us stop doing it. And so I'd like us to learn from the cases where we have crowding in - crowding in meaning where the monetary side of the incentive or the side of the package enforces and increases the salience of the moral part.

VEDANTAM: You know, when we think about the people who make the rules, we think of CEOs. We think of presidents. We think of parents. You know, when these people try to shape the behavior of the people they control with sometimes the incentives that you described, things can sometimes backfire. But I can also see this happening in the other direction. You know, when workers are suspicious that managers are trying to exploit them, they may try to get every single thing written out in a contract about overtime, about sick time, about all kinds of restrictions about who can work when and what what capacity. When citizens are worried that politicians are corrupt, they come up with all kinds of mechanisms to constrain them - term limits and campaign finance limits and various other, you know, oversight mechanisms. You know, when you signal to a manager or an elected representative or even to a parent that you think they're untrustworthy or corrupt, I'm wondering, how do you think that changes the behavior of the people who are in charge?

BOWLES: Well, I think that's exactly right. The signals go in both directions and it's very destructive. Now, in the case of workers who don't trust the management and owners of a company, therefore insisting on a very detailed contract, that's in almost all cases self-defeating because there is no way that the contract can cover every possible eventuality. And so that's this false hope that if we could just make the contracts complete, cover everything, then we wouldn't care about the other guy on the other side. He can be as much of a jerk as we want because if we don't get what we're supposed to get, we just basically call the cops, go to court. Now, that's a false hope, but imagine that you're in a situation of management in which you're finding that the people who are working under you are asking you to put everything down on paper, every single thing. Well, you know it's not going to work, but you also know that they don't trust you. And so obviously then you would - I think an obvious reaction to that would be to adopt at least defensive and possibly also hostile reaction.


VEDANTAM: In recent weeks, we've all seen millions of people do things that are profoundly unselfish. Even if they weren't particularly concerned for their own health, millions of people around the world have followed public health guidelines and maintained physical distance from others. For many people, this has cost them their livelihoods. I'm wondering, do you think the COVID-19 pandemic gives us a way to think afresh about incentives and about the human capacity to do the right thing even when it's difficult to do?

BOWLES: Oh, yes. I think COVID-19 is going to change the way we think about economics and the way we talk about it. I think, for example, individualism and self-interest have definitely gotten a bad name over the past - over the duration of the pandemic. And I think we're going to be rethinking the value of values; that is, the value of ethical values as an important part of how you organize a society. So we need to have governments that are trusted by their people. We need people who trust the scientific advice of governments. And we need people willing to help each other. So I think we're going to learn some good lessons, which is simply relying on self-interest in markets and in relations with government isn't going to be a good way to organize the future. COVID tells us that. We have to rely on other things - communities, neighborhoods, obligations we have to each other which are not self-interested. That's what we're seeing is fundamentally getting people through this.

Now, of course, the market is very important. For example, the market is very important in providing incentives which will be very essential to the distribution of production and distribution of a vaccine and of other treatments, including masks and so on. Governments are essential. I'm not suggesting that the government and the market are irrelevant. What I'm suggesting is that there should be a third dimension of thinking, talking and policymaking. And that's what I would call community or civil society; the things which are not governmental, but they're not markets either. For example, think about social distancing. Is that a market phenomenon? No. Well, is it a government phenomenon? Well, the government requires it in some places, but it could never enforce it.

So what I hope we're going to learn from this is that you have to rely on people's values such as they are, taking a realistic view of that. That's the first point. The second point is, oh, guess what. People aren't entirely selfish. Economists have to learn that lesson, too. People are not entirely selfish. We actually care a lot about others. And the third is a little bit frightening. Yes, we care about others, and sometimes we care negatively. So, for example, there have been reported increases in attacks on people of Asian descent in the course of the pandemic. And the rise of xenophobia in public statements and so on is just another reminder that one of the ways that we care about each other is that we care about their well-being. We love them. And we're willing to sacrifice for them. We also sometimes despise them and are willing to treat them badly.

So then I think we have to face up to the fact that a lot of these values that we have, our susceptibility to kindness and cooperation, comes along in the same package with a susceptibility to zealotry and hatred of outsiders. That's a real challenge for us in terms of thinking about how we can essentially have the better part of that without having the worse. I'm thinking that COVID-19, along with climate change, could be the driver of a new change, a change in both the economics, the content and what we teach our students and also how we talk about the economy and how we talk about our futures. And if I'm right, it'll involve words like community, solidarity and not just self-interest in markets and obedience to governments.


VEDANTAM: Sam Bowles is a behavioral economist at the Santa Fe Institute. He's the author of "The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens." Sam, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

BOWLES: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed the program.


VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Cat Schuknecht and Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel and Lushik Wahba. Our unsung hero this week is Kevin Wait. Kevin is a technology strategist at NPR, but his title should also include the phrase audio genius. Kevin has spent countless hours on calls with NPR hosts and reporters working to make at-home recording setups sound as close as possible to the sound of NPR studios. He even dropped off a microphone and other equipment on my front step the other day to ensure that I had what I needed before this interview. Thank you, Kevin, for making it easier to do our jobs in these extraordinary times.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you have a smart speaker, consider listening to the show while making dinner or doing chores around the house. If you liked today's episode, please share it with someone in your life who represents the positive aspects of human behavior that Sam described today. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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