Institutional economics and psychoanalysis: how can they collaborate for a better understanding of individual-society dynamics? Arturo hermann* may 2005


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The previous analysis of habits constitutes the theoretical basis of Veblen’s (in particular 1914 and 1919) concept of the functioning of the human mind through habits of thoughts and life.

In Veblen's theory habits assume such great importance because they represent a way of bringing together three basic concepts of his analysis: instincts, evolution and technology. Let us now briefly highlight some aspects of these concepts, beginning, once again, with habits.

The existence of habits of thoughts and life that arise and change slowly and cumulatively implies, in Veblen’s analysis, that people do not behave out of a supposed "rational" decision-making process aimed at maximizing their "hedonism"; thus, they do not react instantly to different economic circumstances as assumed within the utility function framework4. In fact, following norms may constitute a goal in itself since norms reflect the values and criteria through which society classifies and appraises human conduct.

In this sense, norms can suggest to the person the appropriate behaviour, and, as a consequence, the adequacy of individual behaviour is assessed through the criteria indicated in the norms.

Indeed, the internalization of norms forms a part — often very important — of the individual’s personality, and, as a consequence, the decision-making process partly assumes an unconscious nature, in the sense that the person is not fully aware of the inner motivations driving his or her behaviour.

The emergence and consolidation of habits and norms are seen, in Veblen’s analysis, as the result of a complex interaction between the individual’s characteristics — interpreted mainly through his concept of instincts — and the features of economic and social systems. This interaction is considered explicitly in an evolutionary perspective.

Any society, with its distinguishing characteristics, is the unique product of its economic and cultural evolution; in brief, it is embedded in its past, as expressed in this passage,
"Under the discipline of habituation this logic and apparatus of ways and means falls into conventional lines, acquires the consistency of custom and prescription, and so takes an institutional character and force....In human conduct the effects of habit in this respect are particularly far-reaching. In man the instincts appoint less of a determinate sequence of action, and so leave a more open field for adaptation of behaviour to the circumstances of the case....Cumulatively, therefore, habit creates usages, customs, conventions, preconceptions, composite principles of conduct that run back only indirectly to the native predispositions of the race, but that may affect the working-out of any given line of endeavour in much the same way as if these habitual elements were of the nature of an instinctive bias. Along with this body of derivative standards and canons of conduct, and handed on by the same discipline of habituation, goes a cumulative body of knowledge, made up in part of matter-of-fact acquaintance with phenomena and in greater part of conventional wisdom embodying certain acquired predilections and preconceptions current in the community", (Veblen, 1914: 7, 38, 39).

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