A forward thinker of our economics

Dr. Tania Singer,© 2013 Sven Döring / Agentur Focus

Director, Tania Singer has been voted to be among the top 50 most influential women for the German economy.

Both the top managers at the World Economic Forum in Davos and his Holiness the Dalai Lama listen to her. The Manager magazine has named Tania Singer as one of the 50 most influential women for the German economy. Her credo: Homo economicus does not exist. A more realistic human model based on a neuroscientific and psychologically informed foundation would make our economic system more social and sustainable.
Long before the outbreak of the world economic crisis in 2008, she was among the first who doubted an essential premise of our current economic system: the model of homo economicus. According to this theory, regardless of the situation, every human being is solely focussed on his own maximum benefit and has preferences that remain the same throughout their lives.

The psychologist and professor of social neuroscience argues to the contrary. Based on her research results, Tania Singer explains: “We do not only make decisions based on our own best-interests, but we also make them depending on a number of other psychological factors.” Depending on the circumstances, motives such as power, fear, affiliation, and mutual care determine whether we behave selfishly and competitively or altruistically and cooperatively. “The previous and widespread belief about human behaviour is outdated and simplified, and must be replaced by a more realistic one that is based on psychological and neuroscientific findings”, she says.

Therefore, together with Prof. Snower, president of the Institute for the World Economy, they have developed models based on empirical neuroscientific data, which depict a more cooperative, prosocial, and sustainable economic system. Models such as that of “Caring Economics”. This assumes people are not just triggered to act in pursuit of their own personal and financial profit, but by compassion and community spirit, which can motivate them to global cooperation.

“Of vital importance is that compassion can be learnt”, explained the managing director of the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig. “Comparable with muscles and physical fitness, which can be trained by sports, we could also strengthen our mental capabilities and our brains.” In fact, it is possible to become more empathetic or to enable ourselves to better understand one another, she says. She proposes: “If managers and leading authority figures were trained to be more compassionate, we would achieve a more cooperative and responsible economy.”

Owing to the plasticity of our brains, empathy can be learnt. Depending on external influences and learning processes, neurons and brain areas change, including those responsible for social competences such as compassion. For a better understanding of these processes, Prof. Singer and her team launched the longitudinal ReSource Project – one of the largest projects of its kind. Firstly, they investigated how meditation and other mental training methods can be used to practise attention focus or taking the perspective of others. Secondly, they wanted to find out how these methods affect our brain, body, and health.

These and other approaches may contribute to a new understanding of our economy, and have motivated the prestigious jury of economics professors and chairpersons to vote for her as being among the 50 most influential women for the German economy. “These women have prevailed”, the jurors say in their report. “They are both role models and extraordinaires.”