Gary Saul Morson, the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, and Morton Schapiro, a professor of economics and the president of Northwestern University have put forward an interesting question: could reading Tolstoy and Austen improve economic forecasting?
In their book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanities, they argue that, while taking literature seriously will not completely transform the field of economics it will provide a real boost to accuracy and general understanding of why seemingly unlikely events are more likely than first assumed (recessions being a prime example). They believe that learning from literature, philosophy and the other humanities, along with history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, religion and the like, may lead economists to develop more realistic models of human behavior, increase the accuracy of their predictions, and come up with policies that are more effective and more just.
They particularly recommend reading some of the classic literary greats:
There is no better source of ethical insight than the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Henry James, and the other great realists. Their stories distill the complexity of ethical questions that are too important to be entrusted to an overarching theory – questions that call for good judgment.
We wonder what Jane would make of this!
An essay going into more depth on the importance of literature and the humanities in economics can be read here.