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Evolution & Human Behavior

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evolutionary approach, endowment effect, cognitive bias


Law | Property Law and Real Estate | Science and Technology Law


From the perspective of other disciplines, evolutionary approaches more often provide explanation and coherence than they help to solve discrete problems. We believe that more examples of the latter sort will help both with disciplinary synthesis and with the advance of knowledge. Here we describe a 20-year arc of research to demonstrate the problem-solving utility of an evolutionary perspective by focusing, as a case study, on a particular cognitive bias – the endowment effect – that has implications for law. Legal systems often assume that humans make decisions that are substantively rational, consistent, and aimed at maximizing their own wellbeing. But prevalent cognitive biases disrupt this, showing that humans consistently make decisions that seem to violate rationality and/or their own best interests. And despite decades of research, there has been little progress in understanding why these biases exist. We are among the scholars who have converged on the idea that many cognitive biases may have evolved as adaptations to pre-modern conditions, the evolutionarily sudden changes from which often leave them mis-matched to current conditions, prompting us to situationally irrational outcomes. Here, we discuss our data testing hypotheses derived from this perspective in both humans and nonhuman primates and consider how it has advanced our understanding of both the endowment effect narrowly and cognitive biases generally – including those relevant to law and policy.



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