A recent Scientific American blog discusses how culture affects our perceptions. It notes that there is a common optical illusion that fools "everyone" - but in reality there are some cultures in which people are not fooled by the trick. We can't attribute it to the way the human brain is wired - there's something about how our cultures teach us how to conceive of and/or interpret things. Our culture can ingrain this so much that even after we explain to a person in our culture how the optical illusion misleads him, the person still perceives it as he did before the explanation.
The blog discusses "illusions" in how mainstream economists in our culture perceive some economic aspects.
Human hardware and software evolved for 10,000 generations to fit team survival strategies. The unchecked and imbalanced individualism that many economists now consider natural and rational, was “a novel expression” in Tocqueville’s time (too recent for a hardware upgrade). That idiotic (idios meant private and overly self-oriented) idealization is unrepresentative, “cognitively unnatural,” and ignores that we evolved to be self-deficient and relationally rational. It’s distorted “rationality” often prioritizes short term transactional self-maximization that can produce self-undermining outcomes (as in Prisoners’ Dilemmas or Tragedy of the Commons situations). No really rational self-interest should fall for illusions of thought that are so foreseeably at odds with ultimate self-preservation.Speaking for myself, this individual-oriented economic approach (especially in the context of a mass-production society in which cooperative activity is essential) makes me think of a Forbes article. It's entitled, "Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs" about the usefulness (from a corporation's short-sighted perspective) that executives have psychopathic characteristics.
The Forbes article interviews Jon Ronson, the author of "The Psychopath Test". Ronson states:
I think my book offers really good evidence that the way that capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy. However, I wouldn’t say every Fortune 500 chief is a psychopath. That would turn me into an ideologue and I abhor ideologues.As the title of the Forbes article suggests, Forbes wasn't really disputing the role of psychopathy - Forbes was more interested in what combination of attributes associated with psychopathy in executives would be most beneficial to a corporation.
There's also the Psychology Today blog which argues that if a corporation was judged by the same standards as a human, it would tend to be diagnosed as psychopathic.
And a Bloomberg news website article "Did Psychopaths Take Over Wall Street Asylum?"
It's not only that a modern economy is impossible without large numbers of people working in coordination toward common goals. A healthy human is not a "lone wolf". People need other people. We play together, entertain each other, hang out with friends, join clubs, and feel lonely if we spend too much time by ourselves. We are "social animals". We evolved that way. In order to have the companionship that we need, we have a sense of fair social interaction. Yes, we also have selfish motives, but a healthy human also follows social rules. As another Scientific American blog discusses, hunter-gatherer societies of the past and present enforce standards to maintain cooperation. Only when a ruthless minority imposes a system of slavery or later systems to leech wealth from the poor to engorge a wealthy few does society stop enforcing those rules for cooperation.
The human spirit for fairness and cooperation still lives inside most individuals. That's how most parents teach their kids how to play. That's what many religions talk about. And so many people would like to see it in our politics, many politicians feel a need to give lib service to the idea, regardless of what they do in practice. We don't expect ruthless individualism in most of our sports. We have feelings of right and wrong in human interactions. Yet, we are taught to perceive an illusion that a dog-eat-dog economy is a healthy human foundation for society.
Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation (Scientific American June 2912)
The Sorriest Animal: Why We Seek Forgiveness (Scientific American June 2009)