30 October 2012

Neuroscience and Economics

"The Marketplace in Your Brain" by Josh Fischman over at The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept 24, 2012) has an interesting look at how economics may want/need to start using neuroscience findings to help explain and model decision-making.  On the economics side, there is some feeling that brain findings do not necessarily add anything to simply observing behavior, and I have to say I tend to agree.

One experiment explores the finding that people will often reject what are perceived to be 'stingy' sharing offers (even though it means they will get nothing rather than something).
Jonathan D. Cohen, a neuroscientist at Princeton, went looking for the seat of that impulse. He asked 19 people to play ultimatum games with stingy offers. Two areas of the brain were active when people considered what to do. One, near the front of the brain, is called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and is linked to deliberative thought and calculation. The other, deeper in the brain, is tied to emotions like disgust. It's called the insula. The stingier the offer, the more insula activity Cohen's team saw. When people actually rejected the offer, this activity peaked higher than did activity in the deliberative-thought area. It appears, Cohen says, that two areas are competing in some way, and that negative emotions—or the desire for justice—can trump people's rational desire to get more.
While the brain findings here perhaps are interesting, and shed light on brain function, I'm not sure it really explains the behavior at any deeper level than we can observe without them.

The article also discusses the funding angle.
Much of the NIH money comes from its institutes for drug addiction, mental health, and aging. "Most of us, to get funding, have to sell our ideas along disease lines," says Phelps. "Drug addiction is an obvious area where understanding reward-seeking behavior is important, and our work is clearly related to that."
The NIH wants to know more about choices because it's clear that many people understand what's needed to stay healthy but choose not to do it, says Lisbeth Nielsen, chief of the branch of individual and behavioral processes at the National Institute on Aging. "We're very interested in decision-making and aging," she says. "And that's not just health decisions but choices about insurance plans or how to manage your retirement savings. Are changes in choices related to the underlying neurophysiology? Or is it the environment? You won't know unless you get input from different sciences, and that's what neuroeconomics brings to us."
Again we see that often the neuroscience is driven by perceived disease rather than study of 'normal' behavior.  But it does seem worthwhile to get to a better model of human decision-making, in particular around areas where it seems like the decision-making is generally poor.

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