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Introduction: Tastes, Castes and Culture: the Influence of Society on Preferences


  •  Corresponding author: Ernst Fehr, Department of Economics, Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zurich, Blümlisalpstrasse 10, CH-8006 Zurich, Switzerland. Email:

  • Ernst Fehr acknowledges support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant 100014_130127/1 on the ‘The Social Dynamics of Normative Behaviour: Population Fragmentation and Divergent Cultural Evolution’).


Economists have traditionally treated preferences as exogenously given. Preferences are assumed to be influenced by neither beliefs nor the constraints people face. As a consequence, changes in behaviour are explained exclusively in terms of changes in the set of feasible alternatives. Here, we argue that the opposition to explaining behavioural changes in terms of preference changes is ill-founded, that the psychological properties of preferences render them susceptible to direct social influences and that the impact of ‘society’ on preferences is likely to have important economic and social consequences.