The Myth of the Rational Actor: Emotions, Economics, and History

Friday, January 2, 2015: 2:20 PM
Morgan Suite (New York Hilton)
Susan J. Matt, Weber State University
This presentation examines the relationship between the history of emotions and economics. Economists have long assumed a rational, non-emotional actor as the chief agent in economic life. That construct has various problems—not least of which is the recent research that assails the idea that cognition and emotion are separate. The new interest in behavioral economics offers a welcome corrective, as it brings in “non-rational” motivations to its investigations. However, many in this growing subfield underestimate the importance of cultural difference and historical contingency in emotional life, and therefore assume a universality of emotions across space and time. Nevertheless, the field does offer both interesting theories of behavior and data sets about particular populations. This presentation will explore emotions often implicated in capitalist activity—including envy and happiness—and discuss what historians and economists can learn from each other about them.
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