Evolving utility functions: can evolutionary biology explain why homo is not economicus?

Workshop Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, May 29-30 2018, Balliol College, University of Oxford

Classically, economists have assumed that people act as a homo economicus, carefully calculating benefits and selecting the most profitable course action. However, in reality people often act inconsistently, or in ways that harm their economic interests.

Yet, while behavioural economists have identified a long and ever-increasing list of economic biases, we seem to lack a coherent understanding of when and why they occur. This workshop will explore if evolutionary biology can help in providing a more general understanding of our economic biases and preferences. We will explore if understanding the evolutionary origins of our preferences and behaviours can help us better understand when and why economic biases occur.

This workshop, funded by the Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute, will bring together economists, evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists. Could evolutionary thinking help to provide a unifying framework for some – or even most – of our economic behaviours? What are the main challenges and obstacles? We will try and identify a roadmap for the key theoretical, experimental and observational research required for an evolutionary understanding of economic decision making.

Organisers: Gijsbert Werner (gijsbert.werner@balliol.ox.ac.uk) and Stuart West, Department of Zoology; Rick van der Ploeg and Alex Teytelboym, Department of Economics;  Claire el Mouden, Blavatnik School of Government

Programme, Abstracts and Slides

You can here find the full programme and abstracts and other information. The workshop will take place in Balliol College Oxford (Broad Street, OX1 3BJ) on May 29-30, 2018.

Post-conference update: I have had many requests to get access to the presentation slides. They can be found here, including for my own presentation.


The workshop is open to anybody interested in an evolutionary perspective on economic biases and behaviours, both in humans and other organisms. We welcome participants from a broad range of fields (Economics, Biology, Psychology, Anthropology etc.).

We still have a few places available and participation is free. If you want to attend, please contact Gijsbert Werner (gijsbert.werner@balliol.ox.ac.uk) by May 21 latest, briefly explaining why you want to join.