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Mentalism versus behaviourism in economics: a philosophy-of-science perspective

  • Dietrich, Franz
  • List, Christian

Behaviourism is the view that preferences, beliefs, and other mental states in social-scienti�c theories are auxiliary constructs re-describing people's behav- ioural dispositions. Mentalism is the view that they capture real phenomena, no less existent than the unobservable entities and properties in the natural sciences, such as electrons and electromagnetic �elds. While behaviourism has long gone out of fashion in psychology and linguistics, it remains the dominant orthodoxy in economics, especially in the form of �revealed preference�theory. We aim to (i) clear up some common conceptual confusions about the two views in economics, (ii) situate the debate in a broader historical and philosophical context, and (iii) defend a mentalist approach to economics. Setting aside normative concerns about behaviourism, we show that mentalism is in line with best scienti�c practice even if economics is treated as a purely positive science of human social behaviour. We distinguish mentalism from, and reject, the radical neuroeconomic view that social behaviour should be explained in terms of people's brain processes, as distinct from their mental states.

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Paper provided by University Library of Munich, Germany in its series MPRA Paper with number 37813.

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Date of creation: 01 Apr 2012
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Handle: RePEc:pra:mprapa:37813
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  1. Bossert, Walter & Suzumura, Kotaro, 2008. "External Norms and Rationality of Choice," PIE/CIS Discussion Paper 382, Center for Intergenerational Studies, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.
  2. Bhattacharyya, Aditi & Pattanaik, Prasanta K. & Xu, Yongsheng, 2011. "Choice, Internal Consistency And Rationality," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 27(02), pages 123-149, July.
  3. Hausman, Daniel M., 1998. "Problems with Realism in Economics," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 14(02), pages 185-213, October.
  4. Kotaro Suzumura & Yongsheng Xu, 1999. "Characterizations of Consenquentialism and Non-consequentialism," Discussion Paper Series a365, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.
  5. Mandler, Michael & Manzini, Paola & Mariotti, Marco, 2008. "A Million Answers to Twenty Questions: Choosing by Checklist," IZA Discussion Papers 3377, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  6. Paola Manzini & Marco Mariotti, 2010. "Moody choice," CRIEFF Discussion Papers 1002, Centre for Research into Industry, Enterprise, Finance and the Firm.
  7. Sen, Amartya K, 1971. "Choice Functions and Revealed Preference," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 38(115), pages 307-17, July.
  8. Matthew Rabin & Botond Kőszegi, 2007. "Mistakes in Choice-Based Welfare Analysis," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(2), pages 477-481, May.
  9. Glenn W Harrison, 2008. "Neuroeconomics: A Critical Reconsideration," Levine's Working Paper Archive 122247000000001915, David K. Levine.
  10. Hausman, Daniel M., 2000. "Revealed preference, belief, and game theory," Economics and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, vol. 16(01), pages 99-115, April.
  11. Paola Manzini & Marco Mariotti, 2007. "Sequentially Rationalizable Choice," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 97(5), pages 1824-1839, December.
  12. Bossert, Walter & Suzumura, Kotaro, 2010. "Consistency, Choice, and Rationality," Economics Books, Harvard University Press, number 9780674052994.
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