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Vision: Research Shows People Are Often Selfless -- Government Should Cultivate the Giving Instinct

Much of our policy resides on the faulty assumption that people are more likely to act in selfish ways. That's just not true.

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A campaign to encourage higher tax compliance, for example, might emphasize how many Americans do pay their taxes and why tax proceeds benefit us all. And crafting it would undoubtedly be cheaper than hiring more IRS agents.

“You’re leaving a bunch of tools in your toolkit unused,” Stout said, when we reach only for carrots and sticks. “Why should we focus only on material incentives -- which by the way can be very expensive -- when we have all these ways to encourage people to do a good job, tell the truth, obey the law, work hard and which cost us much less. Economists should be horrified that we’re behaving so inefficiently.”

Stout says she’s not trying to turn everyone into a Mother Theresa. Selfish behavior has its place; you should feel free to play the stock market to the fullest extent for your own personal gain. Government’s role, she says, is to recognize when we should be selfish and when we should not and, in the latter case, to crank up the social cues that encourage pro-social behavior.

If this sounds like sinister behavior modification -- a concern to some any time social science informs public policy -- Stout responds that we don’t really have a choice.

“No matter what government does, it’s sending signals that change behavior,” she said, “it’s making people more selfish or less selfish. Wouldn’t it be smart to recognize that reality, and to encourage [people] to be selfish when that’s efficient, and to encourage them to be pro-social when that’s efficient?”

Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor.

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