Stranger and friend: Numbers as a common frontier among anthropologists and behavioral economists?

30th November 2023

Mario Schmidt – Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Saale)


Based upon two years of fieldwork and participant observation among behavioral economists, this talk takes as a starting point the claim that behavioral economics and anthropology start from a similar diagnosis – both assume that the world is complex – but prescribe opposing remedies. While anthropology embraces this complexity by indulging itself in ever-more complex language games, behavioral economics tames reality by implementing experiments and RCTs that copy reality, minus the mess. While this difference necessarily results in a division of labor where anthropology makes sure behavioral economists in the Global South do not make mistakes, I suggest an alternative possibility. By discussing my own fieldwork among behavioral economists and two behavioral economic experiments I designed and interpreted together with behavioral economists, I suggest that this awkward stranger-friend relation can be resolved by opening up the black box of numbers whose multiplicity is obviated by incorrectly identifying numbers with money.