Tania Singer is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, where she leads the department of social neuroscience and investigates social emotions and cognition, the mind, and social decision-making.
She, along with a growing number of thought leaders, is asking the provocative question of whether caring and compassion at individual and community levels can shape areas as expansive and complex as global economic markets.
Her short answer: Absolutely.
What can economics learn from being more caring and compassionate?
Tania Singer: Traditional economic theory still believes that you have specific, stable preferences that are independent of context and aim at optimizing your own outcomes and returns. Psychology and social neuroscience suggest, however, that humans are equally capable of altruism in addition to being self-centered and that we are driven by different motivations depending on the context we are in. For example, you can be motivated by power or achievement or you could also be motivated by care or affiliation. Context shapes what motivates you.
For example, if you’re a broker at a bank where the whole institutional design centers around competition, the primary motivator will be power or achievement. However, if the same broker comes home and his young child welcomes him with the words “Papa,” then his care- and affiliation-based system will be most active and he will probably act in the benefit of his child even at high costs to himself. We all experience that, but depending on the context, we behave differently. This view, however, requires that classical economic models be revised accordingly to incorporate context-dependent and motivation-based considerations that also include care and affiliation. We call this framework “Caring Economics.”
How did you tease these factors apart in the lab?
In the lab, we look at decision making in monetary social exchange games among many different people, which can simulate complex human interactions like trust, social cooperation, giving or punishments. This line of research resulted from collaborations among economists, psychologists and neuroscientists who work together to understand what the conditions are for cooperation to arise or to break down.
In the context of our Caring Economics project with Dennis Snower, president of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, we started testing our ideas by implementing different game scenarios while reinforcing specific motivations in participants beforehand. For example, we induced caring motivation in the lab and then observed that these participants were much more generous, trusting and prosocial than when we, for example, induced power motivation in participants before engaging in social exchange with others. Power, in contrast, increased their punishment-related behaviors.
Care can also be activated through compassion meditation and other socio-emotional mental practices. Research already suggests that short-term daily mental training can increase altruism in humans.
"If daily trainings can change people’s basic social preferences and lead to more prosocial, compassionate, altruistic behaviors, then that would question all existing neoclassical economic models."
How do we take the leap from the effects of our individual behaviors to their larger effects in society?
They could potentially have a big impact. I was showing these data to some economists at the World Economic Forum, and one of them said that if daily trainings can change people’s basic social preferences and lead to more prosocial, compassionate, altruistic behaviors, then that would question all existing neoclassical economic models, as it would mean that social preferences are far from being stable, context-insensitive traits. In their view, it was rather revolutionary to show how mental training can change the brain’s structure and in turn impact decision-making.
We shared data from our large-scale longitudinal contemplative mental training study, the ReSource project, which is based on years of dialogue between Western clinical psychology and Eastern contemplative traditions. The data show that already after three months of mental training where people focused on cultivating either present-moment attention or socio-emotional qualities like compassion and cognitive perspective taking of others, you can induce structural changes in brain networks associated with these specific skills. This is compelling because people in the study are on average about 40 years old and face significant stress at work and are often balancing the demands of raising children. In addition to brain changes, we also found that such training can reduce social stress and increase prosocial behavior and altruism. What our findings suggest is that instead of being born as an egoist and being stuck as an egoist, these mental exercises can change your outlook on the world – and you can change from an egoist to someone more compassionate and in touch with the realities and possibilities of his or her life in very quickly.
"If we use the Caring Economics model in schools instead, we could teach valuing relationships, trust, fairness, and so on as much as being the best and achieving higher and higher goals."
If caring were to become more of a currency, what kind of outcome would you like to see?
For me, I don’t really care about changing the mathematics of microeconomics models as I would lack the mathematical skills for it. I have, however, realized how the view on human nature formulated in traditional economics influences our world economy and everyday life, sometimes without us really being aware of it. What those models believe about human nature – that humans are inherently egoistic and are always trying to maximize their own outcomes – influences our governments, education systems, consumer behaviors – everything.
For instance, children’s education is very competitive and achievement-oriented which reflects our “survival of the fittest” view. If we use the Caring Economics model in schools instead, we could teach valuing relationships, trust, fairness, and so on as much as being the best and achieving higher and higher goals. New economic models and associated views on human nature could not only have huge implications for governance systems but also for how we design institutions like banks, our health system and schools. Rather than solely maximizing individual gains and optimizing monetary outcomes, we would replace that with an approach that achieves optimal gains for the common good that also includes trust, kinship and care.
-Marianne Spoon & Brita Larson