Of This & That...

Homo Economicus Vs Homo Sociolus

Defining Economic & Sociological Man properly and with depth, delineating the border between the two and knowing which role one is playing, will make for happier, more complete human beings

Biology has a name for our specie, Homo Sapiens. Mostly, this definition captures certain physical characteristics (the size of the brain, mammals, etc) by which we, the human race, is clubbed into a single basket of 'similar' living beings.

As I explained in an earlier column, we have similar physical characteristics and conditioned responses under certain conditions. For example, we all have a well-defined 'survival instinct' embedded in our spines. In other words, we are likely to have the same instinctive response to certain threats or stimuli. The airline industry rests on the hypothesis that nobody will take a bomb in his own briefcase...i.e., he will not kill himself in trying to blow up the plane.

But suicide bombers taught us (and them) that some Homo Sapiens don't behave like most Homo Sapiens. They either don't have a well-developed survival instinct, or they have trained themselves to get over their anthropological impulses. It sets them apart and gives them disproportionate power over the remaining populace (as we are seeing in world geopolitics just now).

Which brings us to Homo Economicus and Homo Sociolus, i.e., Economic Man and Sociological Man. We have mostly two lives, the Life that pursues money/ power/ ego/ sex and the life that pursues relationships. These two lives are not entirely distinct, they overlap significantly. For example, I have put the pursuit of ego and sex under Economics, while some would argue that it really falls under our sociological life.

A child starts out in life with just his Sociological Life. There is no money exchanged for the milk he gets, or his food, or the protection he gets from his parents. As he grows up, he offers no services in return for the Pocket Allowance he gets.

His Economic Life really starts only after he grows into an independent adult and 'goes out into life'. In other words, family life does not do anything to prepare a child for the economic environment he is to face in his future. In fact, most middle-class parents go out of their way to protect their children from any exposure to the rules of economics, leaving them to be late starters in their Economic lives.

As a result, the 'money value' of goods and services, and most importantly, of good (economic) behaviour, is not understood by our children till very late in life. The Savings habit, the need to 'negotiate', to invest, to provide for Risk, the relationship between labour, risk and return...all these concepts are denied to children because of existing social rules about what constitutes good parenting.

Later in life, the excessive emphasis on relationships, (i.e., our Sociological lives) encroach on our Economic lives. The relative preponderance of either Economic or Sociological Man, decides the level of well-being and economic development of communities, cities, societies and nations.

Let me make this point in detail. We often say that life in the old days was slower, more pleasant, etc. What we are referring to, is the preponderance of relationships in our lives. In laid-back Kolkata back in the old days, friends were all over the place. Economics took a back-seat, the city was in interminable decline, but 'life was happy'. Social relationships were strong, the adda-culture ensured that nobody was lonely...and a 'pada' (locality) was a family. Cricket, football, maagi-dekha (i.e., bird-watching…a colloquial term for looking at girls from a respectful distance) and 'adda' (a term for political debate and discourse)...all of them were non-economic activities that actually ate into the time for 'useful' economic activity.

From the view-point of a huffing-puffing Delhiite, with his money-sodden behaviour, he looked down upon the average jholawala (a disparaging term for the average Kolkatan) while the Kolkatan sneered at the garish, in-your-face Delhiite. Delhi was seen as an unfriendly, money-and-power-obsessed city with no respect for any social norms, where females were significantly at risk. Hardly the place to be 'happy', but what to do, that is where the money was/ is.

Economic Man is a hunter, and hunters are not nice people. They have a better survival instinct, a better sense of anticipation, of risk...all these things make us evolve into 'superior human beings'.

Sociological man is gentler, more giving, unselfish, nurturing...in fact, Sociological Man sounds suspiciously like women ('the gatherers'). Happiness, I think, resides in our sociological beings, not at all in our economic beings.

How do I know? You look at Kolkata now, and you look at Delhi...from pig to man and man to pig, unable to distinguish between the two (with apologies to George Orwell). What has changed? The adda has shifted to Barista, the pada is at the Saturday Club...and happiness has dropped. Friends don't have time to call back, but house prices are going up. Is Kolkata the better Delhi now?

I have rambled enough. Now what is the point I am trying to make?

Mostly, I have seen singular trends going from one kind of Man to another, i.e, from Sociological Man to Economic Man. It has led to the blind pursuit of economic welfare, perhaps at the expense of relationships. In this journey, we notice ourselves becoming better hunters, with good prey...more money, power, ego, sex (now you see why I put sex under Economic Man).

But happiness levels drop and we yearn for the society of old. Why has everybody become like me? Where have all the friends gone? Why has Kolkata become like Delhi, for God's sake?

Economic Man resides in our fore lobes, the 'rational' part of the brain. The 'happiness' chips must be lying somewhere else. We are really social beings, not economic beings.

To seek happiness, therefore, we need to balance our economic beings with our sociological beings. At the same time, in order to become better economic beings, we need to fight off our sociological impulses. Defining Economic & Sociological Man properly and with depth, delineating the border between the two and knowing which role one is playing, will make for happier, more complete human beings.

Too much of either one or the other is going to be detrimental to the happiness of individuals, communities and societies. Developing a fine sense of balance is key to the 'pursuit of happiness'.

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