Prevention science has made considerable progress in recent years in delineating how we can significantly improve human wellbeing by providing evidence based programs, policies, and practices. These interventions help to ensure that families and schools nurture the development of the prosocial behaviors and values young people need to develop successfully and contribute to the wellbeing of those around them.
However, the dominant paradigm in economics states that each individual’s selfish pursuit of their own interests will necessarily provide benefits to the society because it will contribute to economic growth and the innovation that is spurred by the prospect of economic gain. There are certainly good examples of this working. But an evolutionary perspective suggests that there may be limiting conditions such that selfish pursuit is only beneficial to others in some circumstances.
This paper reviews recent evidence on human development that shows that both individual development and societal wellbeing benefit when we create the environmental conditions that nurture pro-social behaviors and attitudes. These nurturing environments also prevent the development of most of the psychological and behavioral problems that plague society, including antisocial behavior, drug abuse, depression, and academic failure.
Unfortunately the economics theory that emphasizes the societal benefits of each person pursuing their own economic self-interest has had a far bigger influence on policymaking than the recent empirical evidence that shows both the value of pro-social behavior and the efficacy of programs, policies, and practices that can produce pro-social behavior.
This paper describes the evolution of public policymaking in the U.S. over the past thirty years, focusing on the way that advocacy for free markets policies has been selected by its benefit to those who have advocated such an analysis. It then describes an approach to cultural change that is inspired by the success of the tobacco control movement. If principles that guided the tobacco control movement were applied to advocating for policies, programs, and practices that increase the prevalence of nurturing families and schools, it could significantly influence the trajectory of recent cultural evolution. It would reverse many of the policies that the dominant economic paradigm has promoted—policies which increased economic inequality, undermined the development of many young people, and contributed to the high rates of psychological and behavioral problems in American society.