NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Ancient Origins of the Global Variation in Economic Preferences

Anke Becker, Benjamin Enke, Armin Falk

NBER Working Paper No. 24291
Issued in February 2018
NBER Program(s):The Development Economics Program, The Political Economy Program

Variation in economic preferences is systematically related to both individual and aggregate economic outcomes, yet little is known about the origins of the worldwide preference variation. This paper uses globally representative data on risk aversion, time preference, altruism, positive reciprocity, negative reciprocity, and trust to uncover that contemporary preference heterogeneity has its roots in the structure of the temporally distant migration patterns of our very early ancestors: In dyadic regressions, differences in preferences between populations are significantly increasing in the length of time elapsed since the ancestors of the respective groups broke apart from each other. To document this pattern, we link genetic and linguistic distance measures to population-level preference differences (i) in a wide range of cross-country regressions, (ii) in within-country analyses across groups of migrants, and (iii) in analyses that leverage variation across linguistic groups. While temporal distance drives differences in all preferences, the patterns are strongest for risk aversion and prosocial traits.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w24291

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