Towards a caring economy


New findings in social neurosciences show that humans not only have a natural capacity for empathy, compassion and caring, but that such caring behaviour can be acquired through training. Could economics learn to care too?


Humanity is not rising to many of the global challenges we face–from climate change to resource depletion, from banking crises to sovereign debt crises, from deficient education to poverty in the midst of plenty, from energy security to food security, from fragile states to weapons proliferation. Nor are our economies overcoming the scourge of poverty, or the inadequate provision of collective goods (such as public education, environmental services, fish stocks and rain forests). Our societies are increasingly fragmented, perceived loneliness as well as stress-related diseases such as burnout are increasing and our governance structures are inadequate to the problems we face. These problems also prevent many people from adjusting to a new era of rapid technological change that will require radical changes to their ways of working and living.


Much of our political and economic thinking remains based on a conception of human nature in terms of homo economicus. Accordingly, humans are taken to be self-centred, materialistic and rationally operating individualistic agents. Although such traits may be successful for efficiently solving some problems, they are not conducive for overcoming the problems we face. The reason is that in the presence of market failures, such as greenhouse gas emissions and financial crises, free economic markets do not adequately compensate selfish, rational individuals for their contributions to society. Policymakers may be able to create the necessary compensation through taxes, subsidies and regulations. However, if these policymakers behave like homo economicus, they will have no incentives to do so, since voting majorities are generally achieved by appealing to narrow but well-organised interest groups and ignoring the interests of future generations. On this account, many of the world’s most important problems will remain insoluble.  


The time has come to rethink our vision of human nature and to create new models as the basis for our political and economic systems. What is required is a better understanding of the human potential for altruism and prosocial motivation and to explore the resulting opportunities for human co-operation.


A deeper understanding of human nature can be achieved by interdisciplinary dialogue that goes beyond the political and economic sciences. In recent years, the emergence of new fields such as neuro-economics, and social-, affective and contemplative neurosciences in combination with experimental micro-economics and psychology have helped to provide large bodies of empirical evidence suggesting a rather different picture of human nature than traditionally framed in the notion of homo economicus. An abundance of field and laboratory observations reveal that humans are actually often motivated by pro-social preferences such as fairness and care for each other, and they show altruism even when faced with complete strangers in need.


In contrast to the hyped up emphasis on individualism in western societies, new findings in social neurosciences paint a picture of a strong interdependence between human beings that is mediated by our capacity for empathy, compassion and perspective taking. A vast amount of evidence suggests that our brains are wired for affective resonance with each other and we automatically represent the mental and feeling states of others in our own brains and bodies.


However, studies reveal the potential for the trainability of such cognitive and socio-affective faculties as attention, compassion and pro-social behaviour in adults. They show that even short-term training actually increases pro-social behaviour, and to improvements in reported subjective well-being and health.


These promising findings should be translated into new economic models and concrete policy suggestions. For instance, there is a case for starting mental training already early on in schools, to assure forming an early and solid basis for secular ethics necessary to work towards a more caring society. As this mental training has also been shown to be efficient later in life, “mental gymnasiums” could be introduced in the workplace, as well as in political and research institutions. Furthermore, social environments could be adapted to foster co-operation and activate caring motivation, instead of fostering competition as well as achievement, power and status motivation. Fostering the “caring economy” provides a promising avenue to a world of inclusive well-being and mutual trust.



For more on this issue and on the joint research programme on “Caring Economics”, see

For the free downloadable eBook on “Compassion. Bridging Practice and Science”, see

Other related websites are:


See also :

OECD's Better Life Index

OECD Forum 2014 Issues


Tania Singer,
Director, Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences


Dennis J. Snower‌, 
President, Kiel Institute



© OECD Yearbook 2014


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