What determines misbehavior?

Let’s start this module with Robert Sapolsky, professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University and author of the book “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.” In his fascinating talk (Stanford, October 24th, 2017) Robert Sapolsky takes us on an epic journey backwards through time.

Why do we do what we do?

Seconds before our action, it is Neuroscience that analyzes what is going on in our brain; minutes to days before it is Endocrinology that provides insights about our hormonal fluctuations. Days to months before, it is our brain’s ability to learn and rewire itself that matters. Then, we need to go back through adolescence, childhood and gestation to better understand the drivers of our behavior. And, even beyond our birth, we need to investigate to more distant causes and combine the most recent evidence from different disciplines: sociology, evolutionary psychology, game theory and comparative zoology, between others.

=> Watch this lecture by Robert Sapolsky (min 5:00-1:00:05).


Assignement: Reflect and answer the following questions:
  • Why is it important to have an interdisciplinary approach to human (mis)behavior? What is the risk to think in buckets?
  • We have seen that our (mis)behavior is influenced by a multitude of factors. What are the implications for Economics?
  • Can we have model the complexity of human behavior in a precise way? If not, what is the purpose of our models? (hints: ‘As if’ theorizing) 
  • Is free will an illusion or are we responsible for our (mis)behavior?


Now. let’s watch another talk with Robert Sapolsky, Gabor Mate, James Gilligan and Richard Wilkinson (this is part of a longer 2011 documentary film, Zeitgeist). These scientists discuss the role of genetics as the explanation for behaviors and illness. They say that genes contribute to how we respond to our environment, but that many other social and environmental factors contribute to who we are and how we experience life.

=> Human Nature

Assignement: Discuss in pairs and answer the following questions:
  • Does it make sense to talk about Nature vs. Nurture? Why?
  • Can we separete environment and genes or are they intrinsically linked? What is ‘epigenetics’?


  • Behavior is complex.
  • We need an interdisciplinary approach to human behavior.
  • Models are a false representation of reality.  
  • Models can guide our analysis and provide testable hypotheses.