Devastating disproof of homo economicus

Line jumping. This is the reason economics — objective maximizing, incentive following rational agent-based analysis — is terrible at explaining human behavior. Some guy gets pissed off because some ass-clown cut in line and suddenly homo economicus can be thrown out the window?

I’m generally receptive to the other social sciences’ concern with norms and such, but this is just ridiculous. Economics, and its h.e. fiction, isn’t meant to explain particular cases of human behavior; economists attempt to explain whole patterns of behavior. Start with the assumption that people respond to incentives and you can get a long ways in explain those patterns.

But its not just patterns being explained. I suppose the sociologist’s observation that there’s a “don’t jump lines in particular ways in particular circumstances” norm and that norm is enforced even when its not in agents’ immediate best interests to do so constitutes a pattern. I’m tempted to say economists only look at significant patterns of behavior, but who are we to say what is significant. That said, there’s a certain scope to economic patterns that seems to be larger, in some sense, than those patterns of behavior studied in anthropology or sociology. Perhaps I’m being a little self-serving in this belief, though.

I’m also tempted to say economists, in contrast to the other social sciences, study patterns that are context independent. To do economics all you have to do is assume people follow incentives, show incentives exist and then verify the expected behavior matches that of h.e. This doesn’t seem true in the other disciplines where frame (psychology), culture (anthropology) or group context (sociology) matter a lot.

Of course, there exist norms that underpin the economy. The propensity to trade, to trust, etc allow for the existence of markets in the first place. But studying the foundations of markets doesn’t preclude the study of the markets themselves.

Chemistry is physics yet physicists don’t do chemistry. Chemist persist in their fiction of discreet atoms and they’ve done pretty good science doing so. Economists might be able to hack together some good science with their fiction too.