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Marginal to the Revolution: The Curious Relationship between Economics and the Behavioral Sciences Movement in Mid-Twentieth-Century America


  • Jefferson Pooley
  • Mark Solovey


American economics largely ignored the behavioral sciences movement in the decade after World War II. The social scientists who adopted the “behavioral sciences” moniker were self-consciously nomothetic, fond of mathematics and statistical analysis, and eager to stand close to the natural sciences. The same was true of leading postwar economists, and yet they alone opted out, with only a few exceptions. We explore this divide as it emerged in the early development of the Ford Foundation's Behavioral Sciences Program (BSP). We describe early efforts to incorporate economics into the BSP in a substantial manner, premised on the belief that economic analysis could be greatly strengthened by the behavioral science orientation, with its emphasis on rigorous empirical study of actual human behavior. Yet these efforts failed, in large part because economists, especially those commonly labeled “neoclassical,” were uninterested, skeptical, and even dismissive of what they took to be an immature and faddish initiative. Gaps in postwar prestige and clashing models of social science contributed to the Ford Foundation's decision to fund economics on a separate track from the other social sciences. In our account, the adoption of the “behavioral sciences” terminology in tandem with the movement's institutional anchoring at the Ford Foundation thus reflected and widened the split between economists and their counterparts in the other social sciences.

Suggested Citation

  • Jefferson Pooley & Mark Solovey, 2010. "Marginal to the Revolution: The Curious Relationship between Economics and the Behavioral Sciences Movement in Mid-Twentieth-Century America," History of Political Economy, Duke University Press, vol. 42(5), pages 199-233, Supplemen.
  • Handle: RePEc:hop:hopeec:v:42:y:2010:i:5:p:199-233

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