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Is it rational to be a sociopath?

Asad Zaman

Microeconomics textbooks present the infamous “homo economicus” as an ideal of rational behaviour. Those who study actual human behaviour in many different disciplines have come up with overwhelming empirical evidence that we, homo sapiens, fail to live up to this ideal in many different ways. Unlike the homo economicus, we are not

Cold: we let our emotions influence our behaviour.

Callous: concern for others causes us to share our good fortune with others, instead of keeping everything for ourselves.

Cruel: We feel pain for the suffering of others, and sorrow for the extinction of species, or destruction of their habitat, instead of joy at the resulting profits. Calculating: We are not concerned with maximizing our monetary gains, down to the last penny.

My paper “The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Review of the Literature” shows how each of these human failings causes us to deviate from the lofty standards of ideal rational behaviour. The fact that all four of these characteristics are pejoratives in common parlance suggests that economists’ view of “rationality” does not agree with ordinary language usage of this word. Since the meaning of the word is contested, let us use E-rationality to denote what economists mean by rationality. In ordinary language, we would say that E-rational behaviour is sociopathic.

This is the framework for the question of the title: is it rational to be a sociopath, as economists claim?

Before we can discuss this question coherently and cogently, it is necessary to recognize and to knock down some barriers created by the “Newspeak” which has been invented by Economists to prevent us from the bad-think represented by the question under discussion. One barrier is the idea that there is no difference between E-rationality and ordinary language rationality, which prevents us from recognizing the dramatic conflict between the two. The second barrier is the claim that microeconomic theory is positive: it merely describes human behaviour, and does not posit normative ideals of rationality which all of us should try to achieve.

Once we recognize that E-rationality describes sociopathic behaviour, it is easy to see that this cannot be descriptively accurate. According to DSM-V, ASPD Antisocial Personality Disorder afflicts only around 2% of the population. The older economics textbooks would assert the descriptive accuracy of utility maximization without any discussion or empirical evidence. The overwhelming empirical evidence produced against this claim has forced modern textbooks to acknowledge that utility maximization is a normative ideal for rational behaviour. For example, in Microeconomics, Krugman and Wells write that: “Of course, people

are not always rational in the sense that they always make the best possible decisions given the information they have. But we assume that they try to be rational and that their attempts to do so provide a good approximation of their behaviour.” This is the general stance of nearly all microeconomics textbooks – even though people fail at being rational, the assumption of rationality is sufficiently good as an approximation of their actual behaviour.

“Images from Meme Wars: The Creative Destruction of Neoclassical Economics” by Adbusters is licenced by CC BY-NC 2.0

Within our framework, economics textbooks make the claim that assuming all human beings are sociopaths provides a good approximation to actual human behaviour for practical purposes. If this claim was made in plain language, it would be immediately rejected by students everywhere. It is therefore of interest to understand the powerful and subtle rhetorical techniques deployed by economists to convince unsuspecting students around the globe of the validity of E-rationality as an approximation to actual human behaviour. The key technique is switching the definition of rationality between the context of justification and the context of application. When textbooks are trying to justify the assumption of rational behaviour, they talk in broad

terms like “people make the best possible decisions”. But when it comes to applying the model to specific economic decisions, economists assume, without discussion or argument, that the best possible decision involves maximizing utility. In the context of justification, economic theory textbooks identify E-rationality with rationality, which makes it easy to persuade us that we should be rational. But

when it comes to applications, they switch without comment from common sense rationality to E-rationality. This bait-and-switch convinces unsuspecting students that sociopathic behaviour is rational. Also, by conflating the opposites E-rationality and ordinary language rationality economists have created a “newspeak” in which it is impossible to see the truth. In the paper “Rational Fools” Amartya Sen makes the arguments that what economists call rational behaviour would actually be very foolish in many situations. But this idea cannot even be expressed in

the newspeak of Economists, because it involves saying that rational behaviour is irrational.

Introducing the term E-rationality for how economists use the term in applications, and distinguishing between the context of justification and that of application, creates the language needed to see through the obfuscations of economic theory. Modern economics textbooks assert that E-ration-

ality is a descriptively accurate approximation of human behaviour. This is obviously false: sociopathic behaviour is not descriptively accurate for most humans. Given that E-rationality fails as a descriptive theory, can it be defended as a normative theory?

Without distinguishing between rationality and E-rationality, the question of the title would be nonsensical: is it rational to be rational? But when we ask “is it rational to be E-rational” this is equivalent to asking is “it rational to be a sociopath?” The answer is: obviously not. While a host of arguments can be given, the Prisoner’s dilemma is most useful in the context of economic theory. In most families, children are trained that we should cooperate, and not cause harm to others for our personal gain. So, in ordinary circumstances, playing in a Prisoners Dilemma, both parties should be able to see that the win-win solution is to cooperate with each other. Causing harm to others for our private benefit is sociopathic. Massive numbers of behavioural experiments confirm this basic intuition: People cooperate with each other on a scale far greater than economic theory predicts. It may be amusing to note the enormous amounts of efforts spent over the decades by economists to try to figure out why sociopaths co-

operate – a puzzle which they still have not been able to resolve. Despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, it has never occurred to them to question the axiom that rational behaviour is sociopathic. What is not amusing is the damaging effect of this toxic theory of rational behaviour on the minds of students of economics. This has been described by Julie Nelson in “Poisoning the Well: How Economic Theory Damages Moral Imagination”. The idea that rational behaviour is sociopathic – “greed is good”, in common parlance – justifies and normalizes corporate exploitation and destruction

step towards building a moral economy so desperately needed today.


  1. is-it-rational-to-be-a-sociopath/
  2. 2023/04/12/is-it-rational-to-be-a-sociopath/
  3. cfm?abstract_id=2033641

Dr Asad Zaman is an economist, social scientist and Vice Chancellor Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, and Member Monetary

of the planet for private profits. Seeing through this deception may be the first

Image source: Google Scholar

Policy Committee of the

State Bank of Pakistan.

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