The coronavirus pandemic will inevitably strike a blow to U.S. economic growth. However, it is important to remember that over the last 150 years, the U.S. economy has suffered a long series of recessions and depressions of greater and lesser magnitude; but the economy has always bounced back, and remarkably, it always has returned to the same long-term average of just under 2% growth per capita per year. Roser (2019) puts the average at 1.83%. This consistent average is one of the most striking characteristics of a nation in which so much else has changed so dramatically. The pandemic might lead to reshaping many aspects of the modern high-tech American economy, but the 2% average is most likely to mount a comeback. Economists have used a host of different economic variables in analyzing engines of growth and constraints on growth in America (Fernald and Jones 2014; Jones 2016); but these factors do not deal directly with the question: Why a return to the same 2% average? Why not something more or something less? What is there in the 2% sauce that seems to be irresistible in the long run?

From the point of view of evolutionary sociology, one way to approach this 2% dominance is to use a model of reward patterns in the body that were forged in the evolutionary origin of our species and that impacted different social structures in different historical circumstances (Hammond 2018a). Turner and Maryanski (2008) have demonstrated clearly that along with the evolutionary expansion of our cognitive capacities, there were equally significant changes in our neurochemical and emotion reward wiring that in part could be used to help create and maintain social structures. The focus here is on evolved novelty rewards and the American economy repeatedly offering a wide variety of novelty on a long-term basis. A small but important reward erosion potential emerges when our ancient reward wiring faces this modern serial novelty. A 2% growth rate just happens to be the average that seems to offer enough additional novelty to counter this erosion (Hammond 2018b).

The Evolution of Novelty Rewards

There are many selective advantages to having reward responses to a wide variety of novelty; but in our context of origin, novelty rewards were only triggered on an occasional and irregular basis. Metaphorically speaking, this is just what natural selection had in mind. Novelty reward totals had to be normally limited so that the pursuit of novelty did not interfere too much with the more familiar and even mundane aspects of day-to-day survival. This was done through the evolution of a low repetition allowance for novelty responses.

A repetition allowance is an indicator of how much repetitive stimulation is likely to be rewarded over the long term by the preconscious reward wiring evolved for an interest. In regard to novelty, our reward wiring only temporarily provides rewards in responding to the repeated presentation of a specific novelty stimulus before these rewards permanently fade away in the face of additional repetitions. This is a low repetition allowance in comparison to the higher evolved allowances for other interests that offer more long-term rewards for repetition, such as our attachment interest for a small number of strong ties (Hammond 2018a, pp.146-147). The low allowance limits reward totals for any novelty arouser, and thereby limits the costs in terms of time, effort, and risk that individuals will ordinarily take on in order to access that novelty.

In our context of origin, accessing attractive novelty was normally more costly than pursuing rewarding repetition; and except in some special short-term circumstances, serial novelty was even more costly to seek out. In the face of a low repetition allowance and a generally unappealing cost-benefit trade-off, the use of our reward wiring for novelty was occasional and irregular. This resulted in low reward totals in comparison to other parts of life, and there was no apparent long-term reward erosion with these low reward totals.

The decline of one set of novelty rewards can set the stage for another. Even with a low repetition allowance for any one novelty arouser, string a number of these together for a number of interests, and potentially this serial novelty could have a very attractive pile of rewards. However, in our context of origin, serial novelty was too costly to have a long-term appeal across a population. Providing serial novelty on a mass basis requires special social structures regularly offering such novelty to individuals while controlling the costs to access these distinctive novelty packages. Only the economic productivity in high-tech mass production can provide this serial novelty in a cost-effective manner across a population for the production and consumption of new goods and services for arts and entertainment, science and medicine, body and home decoration, transportation and travel, food and drink, or whatever (Hammond 2018a, pp.154-155).

Serial Novelty in a High-Tech Economy

Serial novelty on a mass scale means that for many individuals, novelty responses in the body occur again and again on a regular basis. Unlike the case in our context of origin, this modern serial novelty has a more repetitive pattern in the use of novelty. For instance, the very consistency in the presentation of novel goods and services is repetitive in itself. The low repetition allowance in our ancient evolved novelty wiring is preconsciously primed to begin to erode rewards in the face of any such repetitive elements in modern serial novelty packages. However, there are also many pleasing aspects in the regularity and predictability of attractive novelty in a high-tech economy. The most likely outcome of these countervailing dynamics is that the reward erosion is going to be comparatively small year to year (Hammond 2018b).

If the impact of this reward erosion was large, or even moderate, the serial novelty world would have already collapsed sometime over the last centuries. However, even if the decay rate is small in the short run, it would still be cumulatively costly over the long term, leading to a gradual decline of widespread interest in serial novelty over these centuries. This does not appear to be the case. Therefore, there must be a way to counter this small but important reward attrition. One good candidate for this countermeasure is to increase the size of novelty packages. That is, having more novelty in hand to use or simply to choose from would be a novelty in itself, and could challenge this potential reward decay.

There is no way at present to directly measure this reward erosion in the body, but it seems plausible to look for proxy measures of this potential reward attrition. For instance, the per capita growth rate could indirectly represent cumulative gains in the actual amount of novelty in goods and services available on average for a population (Hammond 2018b).  Over the last 150 years in the U.S., the per capita GDP growth rate has had the same long-term average of about 2% per year. This 2% average can be seen as a proxy measure for what might be required to counter potential reward erosion emerging from evolved reward rules responding to modern serial novelty. That is, 2% growth just happens to be the average that seems to checkmate this reward decay across a population. Without this average, there is a reward loss. In the American serial novelty economy, a yearly growth rate of 0% would mean a 2% reward loss, and a negative growth rate would create an even greater loss. All of this is going to help stimulate efforts to return to that magic average.

In a high-tech economy, there will always be periods of “irrational exuberance” (Schiller 2000) claiming that “this time is different” (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009), and that the U.S. economy will finally break free of this 2% boundary on long-term growth rates. However, these surges should not be sustainable because along with other constraints, our evolved reward patterns also help to dampen long-term growth rates greater than 2% in the U.S (Hammond 2018b). Higher growth rates mean increased rates of technological innovation that in turn mean higher social disruption costs. In the long run, these costs are not offset by greater reward benefits from the body, and this is not an appealing cost-benefit trade-off. The overall result is that, across the American population, a balance point in fueling and constraining growth should emerge, such as the 2% per capita average. There can be many fluctuations in this average, with economic surges and recessions or depressions; but this 2%, and not much more or less, should prevail over time. This balance point can be seen in part as a concrete by-product of our evolutionary past at work in the modern world.

The negative economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. reduce the availability of rewarding serial novelty in goods and services. This decline will most likely help to spur mighty efforts to return to an economic growth rate that can counter the potential reward erosion that emerges as our ancient reward wiring responds to a new and very different world. Once again, the 2% per capita growth average should prevail, just as it did in previous American economic crises over the last 150 years.

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
  6. Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
  7. The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
  8. Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
  9. The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
  10. Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
  11. For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
  12. How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different by Rosemary L. Hopcroft
  13. From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society by Lukas Szrot
  14. Evolution Does Not Explain Tyranny: COVID-19 Could Have Led To Many Fewer Deaths If Tyranny Had Been Less Prevalent in Washington, D.C. by Richard Devine

References:

Fernald, John and Charles Jones. (2014). “The Future of U.S. Economic Growth”. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 104(5): 44-9.

Hammond, Michael. (2018a). “Reward Allowances and Contrast Effects in Social Evolution”. In R. Hopcroft, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Evolution, Biology, and Society, (pp.143-161), New York: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, Michael. (2018b). “Bounded Growth: The Evolutionary Sociology of Reward Redirection in the Body and Long-Term Economic Growth in the U.S.” Annual Meetings of the American Sociological Association.

Jones, Charles. (2016). “The Facts of Economic Growth”. In J. Taylor and H. Uhlig, (eds.), Handbook of Macroeconomics, (pp. 3-39), New York: Elsevier.

Reinhart, Carmen and Kenneth Rogoff. (2009). This Time is Different. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roser, Max. (2019). “Economic Growth”. OurWorldInData.org. Oxford: University of Oxford Global Change Data Lab.

Schiller, Robert. (2000). Irrational Exuberance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Turner, Jonathan and Alexandra Maryanski. (2008). On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Published On: August 17, 2020

Michael Hammond

Michael Hammond

Michael Hammond is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Toronto. He is a founding member of the Section on Evolution, Biology, and Society of the American Sociological Association. His publications cover the social history of scientific communities studying evolution in Britain and France, the recasting of classic sociologists such as Emile Durkheim in terms of modern evolutionary theory, and the social evolution of religion and inequality. His most recent work focuses on the impact of our evolutionary heritage on modern high tech economies. E-mail: michael.hammond@utoronto.ca

2 Comments

  • Michael Hammond says:

    I have received a number of e-mails concerning the applicability of this paper to countries other than the U.S. As I have noted elsewhere, the 2% per capita average is not an example of American exceptionalism. Other countries with the same century and a half on the technological frontier of systematic innovation for mass production show the same pattern (Bergeaud, Cette, and Lecat 2015; Carreras and Tafunell, 2006). Countries that embrace this new economy later on can benefit from a massive surge in economic productivity by importing a cornucopia of already developed technologies. This dynamic can produce a different pattern of reward triggering and higher growth rates.

    Bergeaud, Antonin, Gilbert Cette, and Remy Lecat. (2015) “GDP per capita in advanced countries over the 20th century”. Working Papers N. 549, Banque de France.
    Carreras, Albert, and Xavier Tafunell. (2006). “Long Term Growth of the Western European Countries and the United States, 1830-2000: Facts and Issues”. Presented at the International Economic History Association Congress, Helsinki.

  • Michael Hammond says:

    I have also received a number of requests for the longer paper on which my piece in This View of Life is based. The paper is “Bounded Growth: The Sociology of Evolutionary Reward Patterns and Long Term Economic Growth in the U.S.” I have posted it on my google site: sites/google.com/site/michaelhammondsociology/

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