Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Can neuroeconomics help economics become a real science?

Posted 06 Oct 2012 / 0

The Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Marketplace in Your Brain

I think that this article suggests that much of economics is not much of a science. Faced with new information, mainstream economics has failed to update its models of how the world works. Doing so would make economics akin to physics or medicine or evolutionary biology, all of which regularly update their models. But what do we call a field that clings to a particular model of the world, in spite of what light new information might shed on that model? I think that the most obvious term is “religion”. I do not use this label pejoratively, but I do mean to differentiate science from religion in terms of how each updates its models (skeptics of a clean distinction between the two will be right on technicalities, as religions sometimes update their models and scientific disciplines sometimes cling irrationally to sacred models).

The possibility that different brain regions compete to make decisions is fascinating, and might help us to understand when prosociality first evolved. If we can figure out what brain regions ‘lobby for’ particular behavioral decisions, we might be able to see the evolutionary age of different behavioral capacities. Some parts of our decision-making brain are more ancient than others, and we can assume that the behaviors they ‘lobby for’ are more ancient. Interestingly the insula, a “deeper” region of the brain (not sure if deeper means more ancient), is responsible for spiteful punishment. Does that mean that we evolved spite earlier than rational self-interest?

The brain scanning work described in this article is fascinating and more than just a little bit scary. As I have often discussed, I am skeptical about the ability of genomics to genetically ‘type’ people who may have different behavioral tendencies. In part this skepticism is borne by the really poor understanding we have of emergence, specifically how genes contribute to emergent characters like behavioral prosociality or selfishness. But these fMRI brain scans are different because they have the potential to actually differentiate between people based on the structure of their brains. This kind of scanning could eventually lead to a predictive typology because the scans are actually getting at the emergent brain structures that result from the complex interaction of genes and environment. We may have no idea how genes and life experience lead a person to have ‘more prosocial’ or ‘more selfish’ brain structures, but we might be able to differentiate those structures.

If this is where this work goes, some important ethical questions immediately emerge. We will need to decide what to do with this information. For instance, what if we could scan the brain of a person up for parole… could we eventually use these scans to see if a person was ‘rehabilitated’? In part the answer to this question is beyond science (in the world of what we do and do not value), but science might aid this decision by telling us how plastic the structure of different brain regions are, particularly in adults. The entire idea of ‘rehabilitation’ might be thrown into question if we learn that these structures are fixed in adulthood. What do we do if there are discernable types of brains out there?

Hang tight and wait to see where this field goes before you get too wrapped up in ethical concerns, but pay attention to what neuroeconomics learns.

A Minor Post, Belief, Economics, Emotion, Evolutionary Psychology, Game Theory, Neuroscience, Psychological Adaptation, Psychology, Religion, Social Networks, Social Norms

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