How Economic Development Changed Human Psychology in History

Nicolas Baumard ( CNRS;Institut Jean Nicod)

February 2, 2021, 14:00–15:00


Room Zoom


At the beginning of our era, the citizens of the Roman Empire progressively left the old pagan gods and embraced a new kind of religion, based on an ascetic and a moralizing doctrine. In the twelfth century, romantic love became more and more important in European literature, invading poetry, romances and eventually becoming a core value of Western culture. During the 17th and 18th century, people's trust in others, as well as the belief that democracy is a viable alternative to monarchy, increased in Northwestern Europe and eventually led to a wave of revolutions in England, France and Holland. How do such changes happen? What explains these massive changes in people’s preferences and beliefs? In this talk, I will argue that the answer to these questions can be found in psychology. First, recent developments in economic history challenge the standard Malthusian view according to which living standards were stagnant until the Industrial Revolution. Second, behavioral sciences have demonstrated that the human brain is designed to respond adaptively to variations in resources in the local environment. In particular, a more favorable environment (high resources, low mortality) have been shown to trigger the expression of future-oriented preferences (a lower level of time discounting, a higher level of romantic investment, a higher level of trust in others). Using cultural productions such as novels, plays and portraits, I show that, in line with this idea, psychological changes are associated with higher levels of resources and tend to precede cultural changes.


Nicolas Baumard ( CNRS;Institut Jean Nicod), How Economic Development Changed Human Psychology in History, IAST Lunch Seminar, Toulouse: IAST, February 2, 2021, 14:00–15:00, room Zoom.