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Brain Physiology, Egoistic and Empathic Motivation, and Brain Plasticity: Toward a More Human Economics

John F Tomer

Abstract

The brain physiology research of leading evolutionary neuroscientist, Paul MacLean, has important implications for human economic motivation. Gerald Cory in his research has admirably utilized MacLean’s findings and has persuasively explained that humans have two dominant motivations: 1) ego or self-interest and 2) empathy or other-interest, which our brains attempt to balance. This view is clearly important and at odds with mainstream economics in which self-interest is the dominant motivation. The MacLean-Cory view, also known as Dual Motive Theory (DMT), represents a serious challenge to mainstream economics. However, the DMT leaves something to be desired. While understanding the promise of the perspective deriving from brain physiology, some scholars have expressed dissatisfaction with it. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to revise DMT utilizing the concept of brain plasticity and argue that the mainstream economic image of the brain is not supported by current knowledge of brain science. Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change structurally and functionally as a result of input from the environment. Some of this plasticity is no doubt genetically determined but some brain change is a product of individual effort and represents the individual’s investment in intangible capital (standard human capital, social capital, personal capital, and so on). In this revised view, the balance that individuals, groups, and societies strike between ego and empathy orientation is to a great extent determined by these intangible investments, not simply by brain physiology.

Published on 6 Sep 2012 in World Social and Economic Review No 1, 2012