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Biology and the Arguments of Utility

Author

Listed:
  • Luis Rayo

    (London School of Economics)

  • Arthur Robson

    (Simon Fraser University)

Abstract

Why did evolution not give us a utility function that is offspring alone? Why do we care intrinsically about other outcomes, food, for example, and what determines the intensity of such preferences? A common view is that such other outcomes enhance fitness and the intensity of our preference for a given outcome is proportional to its contribution to fitness. We argue that this view is inaccurate. Specifically, we show that in the presence of informational imperfections, the evolved preference for a given outcome is determined by the individual's degree of ignorance regarding its significance. Our model sheds light on imitation and prepared learning, whereby some peer attitudes are more influential than others. Testable implications of the model include systematically biased choices in modern times. Most notably, we apply the model to help explain the demographic transition.

Suggested Citation

  • Luis Rayo & Arthur Robson, 2013. "Biology and the Arguments of Utility," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1893R, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University, revised Apr 2014.
  • Handle: RePEc:cwl:cwldpp:1893r
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Chesnais, Jean-Claude, 1992. "The Demographic Transition: Stages, Patterns, and Economic Implications," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198286592.
    2. Aghion, Philippe & Tirole, Jean, 1997. "Formal and Real Authority in Organizations," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 105(1), pages 1-29, February.
    3. Arthur J. Robson & Balazs Szentes, 2008. "Evolution of Time Preference by Natural Selection: Comment," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 98(3), pages 1178-1188, June.
    4. Holmstrom, Bengt & Milgrom, Paul, 1991. "Multitask Principal-Agent Analyses: Incentive Contracts, Asset Ownership, and Job Design," Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, Oxford University Press, vol. 7(0), pages 24-52, Special I.
    5. Nick Netzer, 2009. "Evolution of Time Preferences and Attitudes toward Risk," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 99(3), pages 937-955, June.
    6. Frank, Robert H, 1987. "If Homo Economicus Could Choose His Own Utility Function, Would He Want One with a Conscience?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(4), pages 593-604, September.
    7. Wouter Dessein, 2002. "Authority and Communication in Organizations," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 69(4), pages 811-838.
    8. Arthur J. Robson, 2001. "Why Would Nature Give Individuals Utility Functions?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 109(4), pages 900-929, August.
    9. Becker, Gary S, 1976. "Altruism, Egoism, and Genetic Fitness: Economics and Sociobiology," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 817-826, September.
    10. Arthur J. Robson & Balazs Szentes & Emil Iantchev, 2012. "The Evolutionary Basis of Time Preference: Intergenerational Transfers and Sex," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 4(4), pages 172-201, November.
    11. Florian Herold & Nick Netzer, 2010. "Probability Weighting as Evolutionary Second-best," SOI - Working Papers 1005, Socioeconomic Institute - University of Zurich, revised Jan 2011.
    12. Ken Binmore, 1994. "Game Theory and the Social Contract, Volume 1: Playing Fair," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262023636, March.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Utility; Biological evolution;

    JEL classification:

    • D01 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Microeconomic Behavior: Underlying Principles
    • D80 - Microeconomics - - Information, Knowledge, and Uncertainty - - - General

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