Mentalism Versus Behaviourism in Economics: A Philosophy-of-Science Perspective

24 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2012

See all articles by Franz Dietrich

Franz Dietrich

Paris School of Economics & CNRS

Christian List

LMU Munich; London School of Economics

Date Written: April 1, 2012


Behaviourism is the view that preferences, beliefs, and other mental states in social-scientific theories are auxiliary constructs re-describing people's behavioural dispositions. Mentalism is the view that they capture real phenomena, no less existent than the unobservable entities and properties in the natural sciences, such as electrons and electromagnetic fields. While behaviourism has long gone out of fashion in psychology and linguistics, it remains the dominant orthodoxy in economics, especially in the form of 'revealed preference' theory. We aim to (i) clear up some common conceptual confusions about the two views in economics, (ii) situate the debate in a broader historical and philosophical context, and (iii) defend a mentalist approach to economics. Setting aside normative concerns about behaviourism, we show that mentalism is in line with best scientific practice even if economics is treated as a purely positive science of human social behaviour. We distinguish mentalism from, and reject, the radical neuroeconomic view that social behaviour should be explained in terms of people's brain processes, as distinct from their mental states.

Keywords: Behaviourism, mentalism, revealed preferences, beliefs, desires, preferences, mental states, representation, ontological commitments

JEL Classification: A10, B41, C00, C70, D00, D11, D80, D81

Suggested Citation

Dietrich, Franz and List, Christian, Mentalism Versus Behaviourism in Economics: A Philosophy-of-Science Perspective (April 1, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Franz Dietrich

Paris School of Economics & CNRS ( email )

48 Boulevard Jourdan
Paris, 75014 75014


Christian List (Contact Author)

LMU Munich ( email )


London School of Economics ( email )

United Kingdom

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