Today in class, Lauren mentioned that the researcher she was presenting on, Elizabeth Phelps, also runs a Neuroeconomics lab. I’ve heard the term “neuroeconomics” thrown around before, but I didn’t really know what it meant so I did a little research. Wikipedia defines it as “an interdisciplinary field that seeks to explain human decision making, the ability to process multiple alternatives and choose the optimal course of action.” Neuroeconomics, or as some might say, behavioral economics, attempts to explain things that are not explained by traditional economic principles, for example, heuristics.
Looking further into the subject, I found a 2008 article from the Economist entitled “Do economists need brains?” To my surprise, the first neuroscientist referenced in the article is none other than Joseph LeDoux, whose ideas about the self we have been debating all semester. The article credits the research leading up to LeDoux’s first book, The Emotional Brain, with sparking the idea that we should look inside the human brain to determine how economic decisions are made. However, while some claim that neuroeconomics is the next big thing, others feel that it adds little to the well-established traditions of economics. “Why should it matter how a decision is made, as long as it is made?” some people argue against neuroeconomics. And from a purely economic viewpoint, I understand where they’re coming from. Why change our understanding of economic principles when explanations already exist?
However, from a neuroscience perspective, I say that neuroeconomics should continue on. Not only does the study of neuroeconomics influence our understanding of human behavior in an economic setting, but it can help understand human behavior in a much wider setting. The field of neuroscience has as much, if not more, to benefit from these studies than economics does. Many of our discussions this semester have centered on consciousness, cognition, and the self, and I think that a better understanding of how we make decisions and process information will help answer many of the questions we’ve asked this semester about consciousness and the self.