Social Preferences Aren't Preferences

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Experimental economists robustly observe that people in the laboratory regularly make choices that result in lower payoffs for themselves. When faced with this paradox of preferences, economists posit that there must be two meanings of preferences: preferences for the self and preferences for the social. In this paper I argue that this is an example of economists forcing ordinary human behavior to fit their models. The force of my argument is to confute the notion that an individual's expression of so-called social preferences as an action can be represented as a set of separable and private utilitarian “preferences” within him.


This article was originally published in Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, volume 73, in 2010.

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