Many theoretical approaches in evolutionary biology, economics and psychology predict that people draw inferences about others according to the consequences of their actions. However, work by philosophers and social scientists suggests that our judgment of others is not solely influenced by their actions. For example, when judging a charitable donation, we evaluate the character of the donor, but pay scant attention to the efficacy of the donation. We are interested in whether the donor was humble or boastful, but we rarely assess whether the donation was given to an efficient charity. Similarly, when judging an acquaintance’s support for a cause, we pay keen attention to her motives. Does she support the cause in order to gain favor amongst her peers, or does she truly believe in the cause? Our social norms similarly incorporate more than just consequences.

We aim to identify the origins of such considerations via rigorous analysis of mathematical models of evolutionary games. We will investigate the following questions: why is modesty a virtue, why do we admire principled people, why does our moral intuition distinguish so strongly between acts of commission and ones of omission, why are social norms discrete and not continuous, and why do we give ineffectively. Our work will fill gaps in a largely consequentialist economics theory literature, and provide a rigorous framework for existing psychological findings. We will test our theories' novel predictions using psychology and economic laboratory experiments, and demonstrate their practical prescriptions for influencing public policy and private action for the betterment of mankind using field experiments.

We will disseminate the results of the project to researchers and the general public via academic publications in high impact journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS, presentations at conferences, op-eds in popular media outlets, an undergraduate class, and two books.