Behavior, choice, and well-being: economics and Buddhism

December 6, 2023

Psychologists, economists, neuroscientists, and philosophers try to explain and model human behavior. So do Buddhists. Why do we do what we do rather than something else? And for what purpose: to increase happiness or well-being, to decrease suffering, or to fulfill cravings and desires? Or to enhance gene transmission?

Scientists start with the individual. Traditional economists, for example, assume each individual chooses their most-preferred available path, and psychologists assume we choose our most-desired available path. Both take for granted an enduring self, less so for philosophers. The philosopher Derek Parfit spent decades defining the self. Buddhists reject an enduring self, and neuroscientists can't find it. So, what does maximizing my happiness mean if there is no me in me?

And which behaviors are morally preferred? There is a plethora of ethics (ways of determining right from wrong): utilitarianism, Kantian, virtue, Mill's liberalism, God's word, and Buddhism, to name a few. Many economists subscribe to an ethic called welfare economics: acts and policies that increase societal well-being are right (morally), and those that decrease it are wrong (morally). Welfare economics is a type of welfare consequentialism: only consequences matter, and the only ones that matter are the welfare consequences. Regular people and most ethicists reject this. I'm not sure about Buddhists.

Buddhism, welfare ethics, and behavior

In my new book, Behavior, Choice, and Well-being (Springer, 2023), I explore the relationships between behavior, choice, and ethics. I compare and contrast the traditional economic theory of behavior with other behavioral theories, including what Buddhists assume. There is significant overlap between welfare economics and Buddhist ethics. Welfare economists emphasize increasing the welfare (well-faring) of society's members; Buddhists emphasize decreasing suffering (ill-faring). From a mathematical perspective, increasing well-being and decreasing ill-being (suffering) are the same problem.

Differing, welfare economists limit society to current and future humans and often exclude foreigners, whereas Buddhists include all sentient creatures. (Nothing in welfare economics requires the exclusion of non-humans, but that is what we do.) Economists also assume societal well-being is an aggregation of each individual's well-being. Buddhists don't recognize the 'individual' in this sense but, like welfare economists, also want to increase the individual well-being and the well-being of society.

The Buddhist Path

The Buddhist Path stresses reducing personal suffering by accepting the reality of impermanence and cultivating the skills to overcome one's craving. Further along the Path, the egoic self dissolves or becomes 'looser', softening the boundary between 'I' and others and blurring the line between personal and societal well-being. For Buddhists, the individual is a convenient fiction whose behavior is dictated by the web of 'causes and conditions' and where a person is on the Path. Those who haven't yet engaged in the Path strive to fulfill their desires. Psychologists assume we all do this. Psychologists and neuroscientists find that while what we want and will is often in sync, sometimes they don't, and we end up doing what we won't like (behaving in ways that decrease our well-being). Behavioral economists agree.

Those engaged in the Buddhist Path are improving their ability to align their desires with their likes, or at least not act on all of them.

Wants, likes, and desires

While psychologists use the terms 'wants' and 'desires', Buddhists tend toward the more pejorative 'cravings'. On the spectrum, traditional economists imagine desire and likes (what is conducive to one's welfare) line up, psychologists and behavioral economists less so, and Buddhists take as faith that they mostly don't. This has been a premise of Buddhism for thousands of years, leading Buddhists to conclude that chasing cravings does not lead to happiness, only more cravings.

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have discovered that you have a liking neural-pathway that is separate from your desiring pathway, a dopamine pathway. While not versed in neuron-speak, the distinction has always been a Buddhist tenet.

Psychologists and behavioral economists have identified duration bias and endowment effects. We overestimate the duration of well-being bumps and dips: the pay raise will not have a lasting effect on your well-being, nor a disability. And once we acquire a good, we value it more than we were willing to pay for—it becomes part of our perceived identity, our self. So, we suffer when we lose it.

We lack empathy and perspective and do not understand that our desires are emotion-specific. All these behavioral quirks cause us to act contrary to our well-being. What we want depends on our emotional state (angry, aroused, scared), and our wants affect our actions. But we don't consider that when our emotion shifts, and they will, we might regret our choice. (You cut me off. I'm filled with rage and shoot up your car with the Glock I keep under the driver's seat. I did not account for my rage diminishing.) I lack empathy for myself in other emotional states. I also lack empathy for my future self. (I can't relate to the geezer I will become, so don't save, and the geezer will eat cat food). We make mistakes if our goal is to increase our well-being. Duration bias, for example, is ignorance of impertinence.

Progress on the Buddhist Path increases our ability to recognize our emotions, desires, and wants and thus respond wisely and skillfully to our experiences rather than react to them. This reduces our mistakes.

Behavior is affected by cues, both obvious and subliminal. Dozens of psychological experiments demonstrate this. (I chose a Pepsi over a Coke because I passed a pretty young woman drinking a Pepsi, even though Pepsi tastes funny, and I did not consciously register her presence.) Enhancing well-being requires discriminating between helpful cues and those that distract and recognizing that we are continuously cued.   

Distinguish between a behavior and a choice, a choice being a chosen behavior. But what is a choice? Do you have free will? Does it depend on where you are on the Buddhist Path? There is a continuum of free-will definitions, so a continuum of what it means to make a choice.   

Recent neurological research highlights the illusion-of-choice: your unconscious determines your actions, and your conscious coughs up a reason before you do it. This raises the question, did the Buddha choose his path? Do you?

I discuss hundreds of scientific findings on these topics, allowing one to investigate the science and philosophy of behavior to one's heart's content, choosing which topics to delve into and what to believe. Don't worry; the book won't turn you into an economist.

My contact information is and 



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