The bulk of human activity is win-win activity. We trade, we share and we cooperate with friends and strangers throughout our lives. Acting in win-win ways is normal.

Economists typically communicate human behavior as selfish though. In textbooks, they state that we do what is best for ourselves. This is an assumption of course, and it gets slammed by critics of economics again and again. Many people think that the way behaviour is communicated to the public is at odds with reality, and may be making all of us worse off.

Here’s the thing. The idea that people are selfish is actually half-true. People who trade in markets do generally look for deals which maximise their gain. However, as traders, they are also acting in win-win ways. A more accurate way to communicate this behaviour is to communicate the concept of a selfish win-win person.

I believe that if we communicate this concept well, the world will change. The reputation of economics should improve, profit-driven businesses should be more respected, and we would get better at helping each other in general.

A selfish person will act in win-win ways for at least four reasons. Their context shapes their decisions. At least one of the following things must be true:

  • The scope of their decisions is limited (i.e. they don’t see all options)
  • They are thinking long-term (i.e. what is win-win also maximises their gain)
  • They factor external or internal costs into their decisions (e.g. the guilt factor)
  • They miscalculate the costs and benefits of their actions

These four categories can be more widely applied to the study of human behaviour and to behavioural economics.

To drive this concept home, here is a set of words which I believe will help the cause:

  • ‘symbish’ means ‘win-win’
  • ‘symbishly’ means ‘in a win-win way’
  • ‘symbishness’ means ‘win-win activity’

These words are not perfect, but they allow us to talk about the selfish win-win person, and what this person does, in a more holistic way.

The selfish win-win person does not have to be kind. Kindness is not symbishness. What’s more, private symbishness is not the same as the public good. Leaving markets to coordinate symbish actions may not optimise the gains to society on the whole. That said, promoting symbishness can boost economic growth…

to be continued..