Tuesday, June 8, 2010

An economic model of God

To publish in Economics, marketing your paper is unfortunately very important. And it all starts with a catchy title. Some subjects can inspire you to absolutely great titles, like this one: "An Economist's Guide to Heaven." Dan Hamermesh could have penned that, but it is a paper by Nick Muller, Jo Anna Gray and Joe Stone.

The paper is not about how you can make sure the Pearly Gates are open to you, but rather it "offers an economic model of God and humanity as optimizing agents in the context of concrete belief archetypes (religious ‘contracts’) in Judeo-Christian theology." In plainer words, they study how belief about God influences the behavior of optimizing agents. In this paper, God optimizes, too, and believers know that. People care about private consumption, public goods and what God does to them, if they are believers. God benevolent, as He cares about public goods and likes to reward people instead of punishing them. Believers have a contract with God that entices them to provide public goods in exchange of godly rewards or punishments. Contracts can take four different forms, depending on the archetype within the Judeo-Christian belief system, which lead to different outcomes that can be tested using the General Social Science Survey.

Results are consistent with the model: strength of faith is irrelevant if there is no penalty in the contract, believers renege if there is no penalty, and contracts with penalty work, even if penalties are never exercised. What remains to be understood, though, is why there are believers in the first place.


Kevin Denny said...

Several biologists & philosophers have argued that there are good evolutionary reasons for belief in God, Lewis Wolpert & Daniel Dennett I think. I guess its a way of internalizing externalities.

Vilfredo said...

There is also the recent post on this blog about how superstitions emerge, and not only and humans.

Unknown said...

So, that could be also superstitions about the absence of a God also? I love how the discussion on faith is framed entirely that believing in a God is faith and hence totally irrational, but believing there isn't one is somehow not a faith decision but evidence based, sound and rational. How exactly is that?

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

There has been a very large literature on this topic for a long time in econ. One theme that economists and evolutionists might agree on is precisely related to the model in this paper, that a belief in some sort of divine authority that rewards and punishes behavior that either helps the survival of the group or does not do so, can assist in overcoming the numerous problems of organizing cooperation in groups to attain group ends that might otherwise be undermined by prisoners' dilemma problems.